Prior to his election as fifth president of the United States, James Monroe (1758–1831) held several diplomatic posts and served as Secretary of State under James Madison from 1811 to 1817. In 1803, Monroe was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison as special envoy to Paris and Madrid to assist in negotiating for the purchase of Louisiana and the acquisition of western Florida. Following the successful completion of these duties, Monroe replaced Rufus King as Minister to Great Britain and began his efforts to stop English impressment of American seamen and the seizure of American vessels. His efforts resulted in the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty, which was poorly received in Washington. In July 1807, while Monroe was engaged in attempting to renegotiate the treaty, the American ship Chesapeake was boarded by the crew of the British naval ship Leopard just off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. The confrontation resulted in the death of three American crew members and eighteen others were wounded. The nation nearly plunged into war. Aware of the immense danger to American ships abroad in foreign ports, Jefferson asked Monroe to negotiate reparations with the British. When these efforts broke down, Monroe returned to the United States, arriving only five days before Jefferson sent his embargo bill to Congress. The embargo was enacted into law on December 22, 1807.1Ammon , 203–88; Brandt, 323–24; Spivak, 12–30, 71–104.
Monroe returned to the United States disheartened. He feared that his handling of treaty negotiations had hurt his relationship with Jefferson and Madison, and he suspected that his plantation in Virginia had been mismanaged in his absence. Shortly after his arrival in Virginia, he became a candidate for President, further straining his relationship with Jefferson and Madison. Although he was soon reconciled with Jefferson, he and Madison remained estranged until 1810. During these two years, Monroe concentrated on domestic problems. His pleasure at returning home to put his affairs in order is expressed in his gift to Captain Edward Howe (1742–1821), master of the ship Augustus, which delivered him to Norfolk, Virginia, in record time.2Hamilton, 5: 1–48. The symbolic importance of the voyage—ending as it did in the very port where the atrocity against the Chesapeake had occurred—may have prompted the gift as well.
The urn stands within the tradition of presenting silver trophies to ship captains who performed their duties with extraordinary courage and dispatch. Two-handled covered cups presented to heroes of the French and Indian Wars for their capture of French privateers are the earliest American objects made for this purpose. The tradition continued after the Revolution.3This urn strongly resembles two other examples, both in its form and in its purpose: one in the Hammerslough collection, made by Joseph Lownes of Philadelphia in 1799, and presented by the Marine Insurance Office of Philadelphia to Captain William Anderson of the ship London Packet for preserving the ship during a perilous voyage (Philadelphia: Three Centuries, 187); and one made by Paul Revere for presentation by Samuel Parkman to Captain Gamiliel Bradford for defending the ship Industry against attack by French privateers in 1800 (Paul Revere’s Boston, 193–94).
The Collection’s urn is unmarked, and its place of manufacture is difficult to ascertain. As Monroe was in financial straits at the time of his return, but able to pay for his passage with government funds, it is possible that Howe purchased the urn using part of the passage money that Monroe had given to him. Howe, who according to family tradition was a veteran of the Boston Tea Party, would have been proud to carry the illustrious diplomat home and pleased to capture the moment for posterity in a lasting memento.4Silver Supplement, 89. Therefore, it is even possible that the urn was made in Boston.
Unusual silver pins, visible on the inside of the urn, suggest that the area to the left and just above the engraved cypher was extensively repaired at one time. The body, however, is made up of several parts, and the pins may be part of an unusual construction system similar to that used by Paul Revere on his earliest fluted teapots.5Janine Skerry in Paul Revere: Artisan, 53. Skerry also notes the distinctive construction of Boston cream pots, which nearly always have applied lips, in contrast to the integral lip design common in England and other American centers. Several Boston silversmiths, among them Jacob Hurd and John Coburn, also made round teapots in two parts, forming the lower part of the body out of a shallow, raised dish form, and the upper body out of a bowl form. The composition of the silver in each of the parts of the Department of State’s urn differs slightly, and analysis suggests that the ring handles and the handle of the spigot once may have been covered with a gold was (Report on X-ray fluorescence analysis, Winterthur Museum Analytical Laboratory, March 26, 1990). The engraving is distinctive in its design and composition and more suggestive of a Philadelphia or Southern origin. American engravers rarely used more than one element in an oval surround, and parallel lines as a decorative element are not often found on American work.6The elements used in the borders of most oval surrounds usually were simple dots and dashes forming leaf-like sprigs around the central motif. More elaborate surrounds are sometimes found on silver made in Philadelphia and Baltimore, but the design is usually uniform throughout the surround. Shield-shaped surrounds for ciphers are also more common in Philadelphia and Baltimore than elsewhere. See Goldsborough 1983, 69, 70, 72–76, 85–87, 89–93, 107, 111, 114, 121–24. The Yale University Art Gallery owns a tea caddy by Philip Garrett of Philadelphia that employs paired parallel lines as part of its engraved design (Buhler and Hood, 2: 221). The spigot on the Department of State’s urn has been repaired or altered; the original spigot probably looked like the one on a tea or coffee urn by Anthony Simmons of Philadelphia now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Buhler 1972, 2: 630–31).
Barbara McLean Ward
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.