a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, August 8, 2011

James Madison hid his slaves behind his case for freedom

The National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., is rebuilding slave cabins, which once were shielded behind trees to the right of James Madison's Montpelier in the Piedmont of Virginia. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

ORANGE, Va. – The father of the U.S. Constitution left behind a conflicting legacy in terms of equal rights when it came to slave ownership.

As a young lawmaker James Madison argued in support of abolishing slavery, only to later seek a compromise on the issue to hold the young, divided nation together, said Mike Dickens, a guide at the fourth president of the United States' beloved plantation, Montpelier.

"He died knowing he failed," Dickens said while leading a tour on a hot, muggy July afternoon of the property in Orange, Va., undergoing intense restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dickens' tour focuses exclusively on the enslaved community here, where as many as 110 slaves lived at any given time to run the house and work the tobacco fields.

He begins with the murky story about Madison's grandfather, Ambrose, supposedly having been poisoned by three of the family's slaves six months after he acquired the property in the Piedmont of Virginia in 1723. While the science of proving cause of death then proved unreliable, one of the slaves died by execution, while two others would be convicted, too, only to be returned to the plantation and work there for the remainder of their lives.

"It raises all sorts of questions," Dickens said, including one about why slaves at that time would have even been afforded their day in court.

"These were real people," he said. "They had certain rights."

Years later, James Madison would plant an alley of pine trees on each side of his stately brick mansion to shield from view the buildings where his skilled slaves worked and also the tiny cabins where they lived. Montpelier's slaves bedded in six, two-room duplexes, which each measured 19 feet by 20 feet and slept 10 people, Dickens said.

Madison shielded the outbuildings, having stated his house did not "look tidy" sandwiched between them, Dickens said.

Meanwhile, Madison would write the draft of the U.S. Constitution in the second-floor library of the big house under the direction of America's founding fathers. He did so while reading books written in several languages on the topic of governmental policies sent to him from abroad by Thomas Jefferson.

He would later author the Bill of Rights after the First Congress convened in 1789, with a personal master slave at his side. On one trip to Philadelphia, he wrote home that his slave Billey "has been tainted by freedom" and argued in support of setting the man free.

Once freed Billey chose the name of William Gardner, went on to become a shipping agent and did business with the Madison family - while his parents remained enslaved at Montpelier. Gardner likely wanted to keep a good relationship with the Madisons to ensure his parents were treated properly on the plantation, Dickens said.

Gardner soon went missing at sea during a storm, and Madison "had enough decency in his soul that he wrote to Gardner's parents that he had perished," Dickens said.

He ends his tour in the slave cemetery, where tombstone are barely visible on grounds covered in periwinkle. He breaks off a piece of the green vine and says, quietly, that most slave cemeteries like this one are buried under the plant because its leaves break off in fours and resemble a Christian cross.

"Madison deserves some postmortem credit," Dickens said.

Madison authored the 14th Amendment, which states the federal government cannot take away a man's liberties without due process, he said.

"And he helped to form the U.S. Supreme Court, which used it to put an end to the Jim Crow era," he said.

If you go make sure to set aside time to also visit the nearby segregated 1910 Southern Railroad train depot, shown above, which has been restored by the Montpelier Foundation without changing its separate entrances for coloreds and whites. Its two waiting rooms, one smaller for black people, were required by segregation laws on the books in Virginia from the 1890s until the 1960s. And don't miss the freedman's cabin, either. It's one of just two such remaining log houses built by an emancipated slave in this state about the time of the Civil War. The house, shown below, was built by George Gilmore, a slave born at Montpelier after he was freed in 1865 during federal occupancy of the area.

1 comment:

amy said...

Wonderful story, as always. I enjoy your blog (and your travels) so much!