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The Truth About Madison and Slavery


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Below is my column in the Washington Times responding to the controversy over changes at the home of James Madison. While I have not been to Montpelier since the reported changes, I wanted to respond to the condemnation of Madison as “an enslaver.” He was indeed an enslaver but the truth is far more complex than presented by critics.

Here is the column:

If there is one concept that captured the brilliant vision of President James Madison for government, it was his statement in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The use of checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power was key to the stability of the constitutional system that he created. Indeed, his own home at Montpelier may now be an example of what happens when there is such a concentration of power and no check on its excess.

Recently, billionaire David M. Rubenstein gave $10 million to renovate and repair Montpelier. Mr. Rubenstein has given generously through the years to preserve historical documents and buildings. However, he has been accused of unleashing a newly formed, activist board on the property, which has transformed into what critics view as an ideological mission. It is a trend that we have seen at other historical sites, including the National Archives.

Last May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation reportedly pushed the board to accept a new slate of board members with a new agenda. Board member Mary Alexander, a descendant of Madison’s slave Paul Jennings, objected that the new members set out to transform Montpelier into “a black history and black rights organization that could care less about James Madison and his legacy.”

The exhibits now emphasize Madison “the enslaver,” and visitors have complained that there is little comparative attention to his contributions to political theory and institutions.

Visitors are greeted with a sign saying that the estate “made Madison the philosopher, farmer, statesman, and enslaver that he was.” Other exhibits discuss how every one of the nation’s first 18 presidents benefited from slavery, including anti-slavery figures like John Adams and Abraham Lincoln.

As a Madisonian scholar and devotee, I have long discussed the contradiction of slavery and the views of the founders, including Madison. It is an important element to highlight for visitors to estates like Monticello and Montpelier. However, history is often more complex than simple condemnations and Montpelier is an example of how the true history of Madison and slavery can be lost to serve current political interests.

Some of the information at Montpelier appears to reflect the claims of the highly controversial 1619 Project led by former New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, which claimed that racism was the driving force behind the entire American political system. The claim has been challenged by academics and even one of the key fact-checkers at the Times. Historians objected that “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’” They objected that the work represented “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

While the project has commendable elements, the view that the Revolution was primarily fought to further slavery is revisionist tripe. However, while it does not fit the historical evidence, it fits perfectly with contemporary politics.

Whatever the merits of the criticism over these exhibits may be, it is inaccurate and ahistorical to reduce Madison as just another “enslaver.” The true story is far more nuanced and frankly intriguing.

Madison had slaves, and that is a great stain on his legacy.

However, Madison also opposed slavery and sought its elimination. His views often put him at odds with other Virginians. Even during the Revolution, Madison opposed a proposal to offer recruits free slaves for their service and instead proposed giving slaves their freedom in exchange for their military service as “more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be loss sight of in a contest for liberty.”

While Madison wrote early in his career to Edmund Randolph that he wanted “to depend as little as possible on the labor of slaves,” he never made that break with the infamous use of such labor.

Before the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote a publication entitled “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” which declared that “where slavery exists the republican Theory becomes still more fallacious.”

Madison, however, would forge a compromise with pro-slave delegates in the infamous provision that set representation in one house be based on the number of free inhabitants in each state plus three-fifths of the number of slaves.

Madison would continue to work with those resisting slavery, including the dispatch of an extraordinary letter in 1810 to the American minister to Great Britain, William Pinkney, supporting the British condemnation of an American slave ship — even suggesting arguments to facilitate such condemnation. As president, he pushed Congress to end the slave trade.

The compromise captures much of the conflicted background of Madison and slavery. He often chose compromise while seeking to nudge the country toward banning slavery. He met in his home with abolitionists and free slaves to discuss ending slavery.

Madison resisted selling slaves and sold off property to support his estate instead. In his will, Madison asked that the slaves not be sold and instead be allowed to remain on the property until their deaths. (Dolley Madison would later sell the property and the slaves due to the towering debt).

The fact is that there were better men when it came to slavery. General Marquis de Lafayette was a better man. The fierce abolitionist visited Madison and viewed him as a kindred spirit, but noted the continued presence of slaves on the property. Madison’s aide, Edward Coles, was a better man. With Madison’s praise, Coles freed his slaves shortly after Madison retired from the presidency and gave each of them some land in Illinois.

Madison did not believe that freed slaves could live and thrive in a country given “the prejudices of the whites, prejudices which … must be considered as permanent and insuperable.” He proposed instead the funding of a colony in Africa for freed slaves.

Madison always viewed slavery as the thing that would tear the country (and his Constitution) apart. He would be proved correct in 1865. However, his efforts to compromise in favor of incremental progress sacrificed principle to politics.

That is a far more interesting and instructive history than the misleading portrayal created at Montpelier. Just as Madison too readily yielded to politics in his life, the new board has done so today in this revisionist account of this great but complicated historical figure.

Reprinted with permission from JonathanTurley.org.
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