Two hundred years ago this month, James Monroe, fifth President of the United States, embarked upon an epic tour of the northern states. From May 31 to November 29 of 1817, the President visited 14 states and districts (including the district of Maine, which was not yet separated from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts).
The bicentennial of this journey is being commemorated by James Monroe’s Highland, the home of the President and his family from 1799-1826 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The museum and historic estate is a part of the College of William and Mary, which is also Monroe’s alma mater.
Highland’s historians tell us that Monroe’s tour was undertaken for two reasons:
Inspection of Military Defenses –
Having served as President Madison’s Secretary of State during the War of 1812 – and simultaneously for several months as Secretary of War – Monroe was keenly aware of the vulnerability of the country’s coastal fortifications. By reviving George Washington’s precedent of national tours, Monroe showed his hands-on management style, as well as cultured public support for strengthening military defenses.
National Unity –
Monroe’s decision to first inspect military defenses in the northern states was intentional. New England was largely Federalist, while Monroe’s political party was Democratic-Republican. The recent Hartford Convention (December 1814-January 1815) had made it plain that Federalists in the region were unhappy with the War of 1812 and even considered secession for New England. Monroe was also sensitive to the fact the northern states had not initially embraced another member of the Virginia Dynasty in the election of 1816.
~James Monroe’s Highland, 1817 Tour of the Northern States – “Interpretation Points: Significance of James Monroe’s 1817 Tour of the Northern States”
Biddeford was an important stop for Monroe, as it was the home of the Honorable George Thacher, then a Judge in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
The library has a great brief exhibit on Judge Thacher, along with images, up in our Movers and Shakers of Biddeford area on the Biddeford History and Heritage Project on Maine Historical Society’s Maine Memory Network. You can also access a detailed record of his public service in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-2005, which was produced by the U.S. Congress.
Born in Massachusetts proper, educated at Harvard College, George Thacher was only the second lawyer to come to Biddeford to practice – after James Sullivan (later governor of Massachusetts). Judge Thacher was well known in the highest political circles, having represented the area in both the Continental Congress as well as the first U.S. Congress in 1789, a post he held until 1801. President Monroe’s northern-most stop on the trip was Portland, Maine, but he stopped in Biddeford on the way up and again on the way back, one of only 2 towns in Maine with multiple planned visits in his itinerary.
So why should we care, other than the interest factor of a sitting U.S. President intentionally coming to town? President Monroe is incredibly important to this area because it was his signing of the Missouri Compromise that led to Maine finally becoming independent of Massachusetts in 1820 – the bicentennial of which we will celebrate in just a couple of years.
Note: Several other Maine organizations are also participating in this very cool commemoration, including: Fort McClary, our friends and neighbors at the Saco Museum, the Scarborough Historical Society, and the Maine Historical Society…be sure to stay tuned for interesting programming from our colleagues along the Post Road!!