Visiting Montpelier

On May 28, 2014, President’s Commission on Slavery and the University co-Chairs Dr. Marcus Martin and history professor Kirt von Daacke visited James Madison’s Montpelier. Joining them on the trip were Meghan Faulkner and undergraduate student Aaron Ojalvo (a leader of the University Guides at U.Va.). Matthew Reeves, an ex-officio member of the PCSU and Montpelier’s Director of Archaeology, had invited us out for a site visit as a way to further discussions about how to incorporate slavery and the lives of the enslaved into the public presentation of site and institution history.

As an interpretive site, Montpelier focuses on James Madison as a Founding Father and on Madison’s key role in shaping our frame of government, the United States Constitution. This creates special challenges when working to highlight daily life at an eighteenth and nineteenth century Virginia plantation home. Yes, that story “includes the contributions and sacrifices of the enslaved community who were an integral and intimate part of the site,” but dovetailing that history and those stories with the institution’s interpretive themes can be quite difficult ( ).

We toured an active archaeological dig where the foundation of a curving brick wall has been discovered. The wall at some point may have separated the formal planter house yard from the plantation work yard and slave community. Just south of that wall and thus likely outside the formal house yard, the dig team has also uncovered what they think was a dairy building.curving-wall-montpelier


Those buildings were all part of a slave housing and work complex located adjacent to James Madison’s house. Earlier archaeological digs unearthed the locations of several such outbuildings, including four slave duplexes, a kitchen, a smokehouse, and further from the house, a cabin that housed an enslaved family. Many of those buildings have been partially re-created so that visitors can see how the layout might have looked in the early nineteenth century. The hope is that visitors will be confronted with the fact that slavery and the labor of the people he owned were central to James Madison’s life, even if he remained deeply ambivalent about the institution—on the one hand, referring to slavery as “the magnitude of this evil among us,” but also remaining unable to see a post-emancipation future of equality and bi-racial democratic participation: “The two races cannot co-exist, both being free & equal. The great sine qua non therefore is some external asylum for the colored race” ( ).


Ultimately, the site visit was quite thought-provoking and informative. Thomas Jefferson, like Madison, expressed a profound ambivalence about slavery, terming the institution a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” but nonetheless owned over six hundred individuals during his lifetime, freed only a handful of them, and made no objection to watching dozens of slaves labor to build the University of Virginia. He did not live long enough to witness the four decades of slave labor at the University after it opened, but surely he would have found that fact unremarkable. As we move forward with our attempt to memorialize the role of slavery and the lives of the enslaved in the building and functioning of the University of Virginia, we are reminded once again of the how difficult the process can be.