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The Daily Need

A couple of pawns in a historic game of chess

While politicians are busy mining the intellectual works of the Founding Fathers for evidence to support their agendas, archaeologists in Virginia have uncovered actual physical evidence of how one such Father exercised his intellect at home. Archaeologists at Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia estate, recently discovered pieces of two pawns that belonged to the former president’s chess set among a variety of artifacts excavated from a 19th century trash heap.

Historians have long known that our fourth president was an avid chess player. Madison frequently matched wits on the chessboard with his presidential predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, whose granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge would later write that her grandfather, “a very good chess-player,” sometimes participated in “’four hour games’ with Mr. Madison,” as the Associated Press recently pointed out.

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The games may have had special significance for the two presidents, who were close friends and allies. “You can play chess and just move people around, but those epic battles are very evocative of what their friendship was,” said Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at Montpelier.

Madison’s leading role at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 earned him the nickname “Father of the Constitution,” though his introversion has allowed more flamboyant characters like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to overshadow him in the popular memory. Visitors to Montpelier in the years after Madison left the presidency recalled extensive discussions of politics, books and the beginnings of the nation. Chess was a game well-suited to the ex-president’s quiet intelligence. His passion for the game “showed that he was an intellectual,” said Reeves. “His intellectual nature extended into his personal life, into his daily activities. Even in games, he was very much an intellectual.”

Reeves began searching for remnants of the former president’s chess set after managers at Montpelier  announced their wish to purchase and display a contemporary set. He found two small pieces of ivory that stood out, though barely, in a collection of sewing equipment excavated from the grounds in the 1990s. “If you weren’t looking for a chess set,” he said, “they looked like they might be part of a sewing bobbin.”

Reeves sent a photograph of the pieces to a chess expert, who confirmed they were, in fact, part of a colonial-era “Washington-style set.” The high cost and low availability of chess sets in Madison’s time made them almost exclusively the property of the master of the house, which meant that Reeves had likely discovered a part of the set given to Madison by his colleague Benjamin Franklin and used in his matches with Thomas Jefferson.

Those ivory pieces provided Montpelier’s curators with enough information to purchase an identical chess set dating from the same period. They unveiled it this week at Montpelier.

“It might seem like a simple little chess piece,” said Reeves, “part of a pawn, but it helps us to add another detail to the rich tapestry of who Mr. Madison was.”

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