James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland
A guide dressed and acting like James Monroe led our family on an exhaustive tour of the unassuming Monroe farmhouse. We learned the Monroe Doctrine, first declared by the president during his State of the Union Address in 1823, was actually conceived by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. We also discovered that although the iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware depicts 18-year-old James Monroe holding the flag behind George Washington in the barge, Monroe actually crossed the river in a separate boat.
Our guide fawned over the fancy French furniture, Elizabeth Monroe’s pink wedding dress and gifts from Napoleon (the Monroes attended his coronation). But for us the highlight of the tour was the bathtub in the master bedroom, which the entire Monroe family used by filling the tub with water once and then taking turns — finishing with the baby. Picturing that bathwater growing progressively dirtier helped our two daughters fully comprehend the origins of the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
At Andrew Jackson’s beautiful and serene Hermitage, where “Old Hickory” resided before and after serving as the seventh president of the United States, we roamed the 1,050-acre plantation. We were intrigued to learn that Jackson, the first president born in a log cabin and the only president to pay off the national debt, fought at least 12 duels. That would seem to be one way to end political gridlock.
Jackson died in his bedroom in 1845, and at the funeral, his pet parrot began squawking vulgarities (learned from Jackson) and had to be carried from the room. Gen. Jackson is buried next to his wife, Rachel, in a tomb in the garden. No one knows what became of the parrot.
Nixon Presidential Library & Museum
Yorba Linda, California
“Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain,” said Richard M. Nixon in his farewell address to the White House staff following his resignation in 1974. So begins the poignant introductory movie at the Nixon museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., which is built on the property where Nixon’s parents ran a small citrus ranch from 1912 to 1922. Also on the grounds sits Nixon’s birthplace and boyhood home — and the helicopter that whisked him away from the White House after he resigned.
No matter how anyone feels about Nixon, there is a sense of awe when standing inside the modest 900-square-foot wooden house built by Nixon’s father from lumber and materials ordered through a mail-order catalog. Standing before the humble piano that Nixon played when he was growing up, seeing the bed where Nixon was born and peeking into the small attic loft where Nixon slept with his four brothers make his simple beginnings seem, well, perfectly clear.