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August 11, 2017

James Madison’s Montpelier tells the stories of the enslaved people who lived there

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  • Montpelier, the home of James Madison, recently opened a new permanent exhibit at the Virginia estate to inform visitors about the lives of the enslaved people* held by the nation’s fourth president.
  • Madison authored the U.S. Constitution and pondered about liberty and democracy with his fellow Founding Fathers, but he owned about 300 enslaved people. Even though the original Constitution never mentioned slavery, economic, political and ideological language in it cemented the institution.
  • The title of the new interactive exhibit, “The Mere Distinction of Color,” comes from a line in Madison’s notes during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He wrote, “We have never seen the mere distinction of color in a most enlightened period of time a ground for the most oppressive dominion exercised by man over man.”
  • The exhibit will join other ways that visitors can explore enslaved people’s stories, including a slave cabin, a slave cemetery, and an archaeological dig where artifacts are unearthed regularly.
  • Kat Imhoff, the CEO of Montpelier, said, “If you said that you were not going to allow or enable in some way or codify slavery, without ever mentioning it, you were never going to get enough votes to ratify the U.S. Constitution…So, James Madison, in those early days, chooses the union over really what he knows in his heart is the right thing to do.” She added that even in their own time period, Founding Fathers had trouble explaining their double standards even to themselves.

  1. Essential question: How can historians convey the most difficult aspects of U.S. history, such as slavery?
  2. What contradictions were evident in the language the Founding Fathers used in the Constitution and their practices in everyday life? Provide specific examples.
  3. What do exhibits like the one at Montpelier need to do to tell enslaved people’s stories effectively? Explain.

Key Terms:

ratify: to sign or give formal consent to, making it officially valid

*enslaved person: In recent years, a debate has ensued over the use of the term slave vs. enslaved person; perhaps you will find this debate is worthy of discussion with your students. Criticism of the term slave comes from the passivity of that noun in that it strips enslaved people of their dignity as human beings, while others maintain that the abhorrent way in which slaves were treated calls for the word to continue to be used.

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