IT’S not often that you get two presidents in the same room. Usually, that happens only at the White House, or some national memorial or international summit meeting.
But tonight, that will occur on the University of Mary Washington’s Fredericksburg campus, and you are invited to attend.
The presidents in question were born in vastly different eras, so a bit of imagination and quasi-time travel may be required.
Yet James Monroe, fifth U.S. president, and Troy Paino, UMW’s 10th president, share a spirit of civic engagement in common.
Tonight, they’ll share a stage inside, appropriately, the university’s Monroe Hall as well as their thoughts about education, democracy and responsibility.
Turns out that their views on various pressing issues of their day are remarkably alike.
Scott H. Harris, director of the James Monroe Museum, noticed this straight away when Paino spoke at a reception last February. Paino told his audience that a liberal arts education is essential to shaping students who will be good citizens and servants of society, Harris recalled. “Wow, that sounds really Monroe-ish to me,” the museum chief recalled. “They are saying the same thing, 200 years apart.”
So, thinking ahead to this Presidents Day and the bicentennial of the start of Monroe’s administration, the museum invited Paino to give a presidential press conference with James Monroe, namesake of UMW’s oldest building—not to mention the 19th century’s still-influential Monroe Doctrine on foreign relations. Monroe, wearing a new suit, will be portrayed by historical interpreter James G. Harrison III, who knows the man inside and out.
Monroe, of course, practiced law in Fredericksburg starting in 1786 after serving in the Continental Congress. He was 28, disillusioned with politics, and newly wed to the former Elizabeth Kortright, a New York socialite.
Many decades later, Monroe’s great-granddaughter rescued his Charles Street office’s site from oblivion and founded the museum that still occupies it, beside the Masonic Cemetery. It is administered by UMW, as is artist Gari Melchers’ home in Falmouth.
Back in his time here, Monroe could scarcely have imagined he would one day become president of the United States. But he did, and his presidency mattered. Recently, many U.S. communities and historic sites have begun honoring the bicentennial of his two terms in office, which an admiring Boston newspaper dubbed “the Era of Good Feelings.” That’s not news to Paino, a historian by trade before he became a university administrator.
But consider the accord between these two men’s ideas. One example:
“In providing for the prosperity and happiness of a country, a careful attention to literary institutions, and the education of youth ought ever to occupy a high place,” James Monroe told people at Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College) in Washington, Pa., as they welcomed him in September 1817. “To the youth we must look with an eye of deep interest—they are the hope of our country.”
And Paino, on Feb. 19, 2016, when he was introduced to the UMW community: “What excites me about Mary Washington is that it represents hope. When I look out and I see the young students, I become hopeful about the future of our democracy.”
It’s inspiring to read Monroe and Paino on representative democracy, “a love of truth and duty,” “the social harmony of the state” and “a moral community.”
That’s why, in short, why we suggest hearing what these two men have to say tonight. Bring your questions to their 6 p.m. press conference in Room 116 of the university’s Monroe Hall. The public is invited; a reception will follow; UMW will also livestream the event on the internet.