We were awake and out of the hotel by 8:15 this morning and on our way to visit Montpelier, the home of James Madison. The Madison Foundation has been at the forefront of a intentional effort to reframe the narrative surrounding the institution of slavery. Of particular concern is to examine the role it played in the thinking of Founders like Madison with respect to their decision making and policy formulating–including on such pivotal documents as the Constitution. The house and grounds have been subject to extensive renovation, archeological investigation, and the additions of new interpretive exhibits that seek to help visitors understand the way the Founders attempted to reconcile slave ownership with their professed distaste for the institution and the ideals of the American Revolution. We also were impressed with the way in which the exhibits at Montpelier spotlighted some of the legacies of slavery and racism that are evident in contemporary society. This shift came about in no small part at the behest of the Descendant Community of formerly enslaved people at Montpelier. Our docent for the morning, Kyle, was excellent. His command of history was impressive, and his ability to engage our students by asking questions and challenging their understanding was admirable.
After we finished at Montpelier, we drove for the better part of an hour through the scenic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to tour Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Jefferson lived about 30 miles away from Madison , a journey which took eight hours in a horse drawn carriage. The two men visited each other fairly often, and when they did so, they would stay a week or more at the other’s estate. Monticello is probably the best known of the Founders’ estates and with good reason. Jefferson’s “architectural essay,” as he was inclined to refer to his plantation home, is fascinating as a work of architecture, a museum of Jefferson’s intellectual pursuits, and as a study of his complex and troubling relationship with slavery–especially given the inspiring words he bequeathed us in the Declaration of Independence.
We took a special tour at Monticello that focused on Jefferson’s six children with Sally Hemings, his deceased wife’s half-sister who was enslaved on the estate. After decades of denying the existence of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, DNA results forced Jefferson scholars and the white descendants of our third President to acknowledge the existence of the “shadow family.” Our docent was honest and forthright regarding the heartless way Jefferson compartmentalized the liaison, ignoring his own children and insisting that Sally live in a windowless cellar while he inhabited a luxurious mansion. Of course, there is no way to make sense of it or fathom the bottomless tragedy that is slavery.
After Monticello, we headed downtown to Charlottesville to see a little of the University of Virginia campus before eating dinner at a gourmet restaurant called Citizen Burger. It was a short jaunt to our next stop – Richmond. It is the capital of Virginia and was the capital of the Confederacy from 1861-1865. We’re leaving the Revolutionary and Early National period and will jump ahead a few decades to see how slavery evolved and eventually ruptured the Union!