Honoring the Honest Contradictions at James Madison's Montpelier Plantation
Reflections on a visit to "the memorial to James Madison and the enslaved community"
This simple sign, on a side path off the main road leading into James Madison’s family estate, Montpelier, encapsulates the fundamental contradiction that has plagued America since its founding.
As a religion scholar and a descendent of Baptists seven generations back from Georgia and Virginia, I’ve spent most of my life thinking of James Madison as a hero—father of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights, and defender of religious liberty. When my daughter was little, I gave her an action figure of James Madison that lived in a basket in the company of her stuffed animals.
But my visit this week to his family estate drove home a troubling truth which which we come to terms in adulthood: like all real-life heroes, Madison was a complicated and flawed figure.
This champion of liberty and freedom—who stood up for my white Baptist ancestors’ right to practice their religion freely in Anglican-controlled Virginia—inherited and lived out his days on a 5,000-acre tobacco plantation, known as Montpelier, that enslaved more than 300 people across four generations of Madisons. He conjured soaring new principles of human government—calls to “establish Justice” and to “secure the blessings of liberty”—from his well-appointed study, which looked out over the bent backs of enslaved people toiling in the hot southern sun.
These contradictions were not lost on this Founding Father. Madison could speak eloquently, as he did at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, about the evils of slavery:
“We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
And yet, he never freed a single enslaved person in his lifetime.
After James Madison’s death in 1836, popular first lady Dolly Madison sold a large number of enslaved people to settle debts, and then further divided the remaining people into three groups at the sale of the property in 1844: a small cadre accompanying her move to Washington, DC, 25 deeded to her son who lived on a nearby plantation, and a similar number remaining at Montpelier who were sold with the property. These sales of enslaved people, driven by economic considerations, painfully separated families, many of whom also had histories extending back four generations at Montpelier.
To its credit, The Montpelier Foundation (TMF), the organization entrusted with the property since 2000, has made serious efforts since its inception to present the fullness of this complicated history, both in its exhibits and in its governing structures. With a major gift from David Rubenstein in 2014, TMF reconstructed the dwellings of enslaved people on their original foundations near the main house and transformed the cellar level of the house into an immersive exhibit entitled “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” which opened in 2017.
TMF pored through records to identify by name nearly 300 enslaved people, memorializing them on the walls throughout the exhibit. And the foundation also engaged the living community of descendants of enslaved people in Orange County.
This consultation produced two principles that shaped the exhibits and tour narratives. First, they sought to move the discussion of slavery from an abstract topic to stories about human beings. Second, they sought to address a shortcoming in the ways similar institutions have talked about slavery. As Elizabeth Chew, VP of Museum Programs, put it:
While white visitors to historic sites may view slavery as a historical issue located in the past, black visitors frequently view slavery as a personal issue—a trauma that their ancestors overcame, but one that is still raw, still provokes anger and shame, and still has relevance and consequences in the present. The [descendants of enslaved people] advisory group asked us not to leave the story of enslavement at Montpelier in the past, but to bring it up to the present day.
Finally, just this year, TMF put its money, and its power, where its mouth is. During the week of Juneteenth 2021, the board voted to share power equally with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), the first such arrangement for museums and historic sites that are former places of enslavement.
My visit to Montpelier was complicated and produced an uncomfortable mix of emotions. But I’ve realized that I—and I believe most of us—are capable of holding together two truths in tension.
I still deeply admire Madison’s ability to express a sweeping vision of liberty and freedom of conscience, and I’m grateful for the path he blazed for my Baptist ancestors and the country as a whole. Our Constitution—one that both protected and ended slavery—is a marvel of human achievement and a work in progress. But I’m also deeply pained and disappointed in this flawed man, whose economic interests and selfish desire for his own comforts held his own conscience and humanity captive, limiting his vision of “ourselves and our Posterity” to his own racial tribe.
And this gets to the heart of the current debates we are having about our history today. Many conservative white Americans, and white Christians in particular, are alleging that telling this history of honest contradictions is unpatriotic, a betrayal of our heritage and our country.
But walking these grounds, on paths trod by both the Madison family and generations of enslaved people, it’s clear that if we want to know who we are as a country and who we might become—E Pluribus Unum—the story that begins with 1776 is not different from the story that begins with 1619. They, and we, are one.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
-I Corinthians 13:1 (NRSV)