Artists Recognized James Monroe as a True American Hero

A charcoal sketch of George Washington aide Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison that artist John Trumbull did for his epic painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton sold for $8,962 at a May 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Trumbull (1756-1843) deservedly earned the sobriquet as the “Painter of the Revolution.” He actually started out as an aide to General George Washington, but ended up in London, where he developed into a highly respected artist. One of his paintings, which illustrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, graces the $2 bill that features Thomas Jefferson. The bill was issued in 1976 to observe the bicentennial of that historic event.

Another of his numerous works is the The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. This one naturally features General Washington again, but there is also a depiction of future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, being treated for a near-fatal damaged artery.

An even more famous painting of the times is an 1851 oil on canvas that also features Washington – Washington Crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25-26, 1776. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), a German-American immigrant. Once again, we find James Monroe holding the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – which critics are always quick to remind was a flag not adopted until the following year, 1777. Some nitpickers also harp that the time of day is wrong, the ship is incorrect, and (sigh) even the chunks of ice in the river aren’t right.

But the role of James Monroe as a true hero is beyond any doubt.

Often called the “Last of the Founding Fathers,” he was the fifth president of the United States and like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, the son of a Virginia planter. It is sometimes overlooked that in the first 36 years of the American presidency, the Oval Office was occupied almost exclusively by men from Virginia. Somehow, John Adams (Massachusetts) managed to squeeze in a quick four years as president (1797-1801) before sneaking out of Washington, D.C., when Thomas Jefferson ousted him.

James Monroe entered politics after his service in the Revolutionary War and systemically worked his way up after serving in the Virginia legislature. He was a U.S. senator, a minister to France, and then governor of Virginia. After helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, he served as minister to Britain, followed by another stint as Virginia’s governor. But after only four months, President Madison offered him an appointment as secretary of state to help draft the recommendation to Congress that led to the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

When the war got off to a poor start, Madison wisely appointed him secretary of war and Monroe held both of these critical Cabinet positions until the war ended. After the war, the prosperity of the country improved dramatically and with Madison’s strong support, Monroe easily was elected president in 1816.

Taking office when the country finally had no unusual problems, the 58-year-old Monroe was bold enough to declare during his inaugural address: “Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy … the heart of every citizen must expand with joy … how near our government has approached to perfection…”

It was truly the “Era of Good Feelings!”

Things change … and they will again.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

George Washington and That Unhappy Affair at Trenton

Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

By Jim O’Neal

In the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze that was painted circa 1850. It is one of the most famous pieces of American art and purports to depict the Dec. 25, 1776, event.

It is also infamous for a number of factual errors.

For example, it shows the crossing with a glowing horizon, when it actually happened in the middle of a dark, sleety night. The American flag is also wrong, since the Stars and Stripes did not exist at the time. Even the ice floes are wrong.

Despite these errors – and many more – it is considered memorable because it captures the determination, desperation and dignity of these men as they rowed into the fight of their lives.

The American Revolution started in early 1776 with skirmishing near Boston, followed by full-scale war. The Continental Army was pushed out of New York and into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania.

By December, half of Washington’s army had been killed, wounded or captured, which left 5,000-6,000 (including the injured).

British General William Howe planned to finish the job when the Delaware River froze and he could capture the Capitol and end the war. Instead, Washington started crossing at midnight and at 8 a.m. divided his troops and attacked in Trenton, catching the British by surprise.

Everywhere, groups of Hessians were surrounded by Continental troops with fixed bayonets and they “struck their colors” (surrendered). Of the 1,500, about 900 were captured, 400 escaped and the rest killed or wounded.

Along with the prisoners, Washington captured six artillery pieces, 1,000 muskets and seven wagonloads of powder and ammunition. These supplies were badly needed and helped against counterattacks at Princeton on Jan. 2 and 3.

Though the triumph at Trenton was followed by greater battles, it was pivotal. Later, British Secretary of State Lord George Germain said, “All our hopes were dashed by that unhappy affair at Trenton.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].