FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

There’s No Defense for Founding Fathers Who Practiced Slavery

This summer, on the very day that white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was down the road visiting Montpelier — the home of James Madison, our fourth president.

On the house tour, we stopped in Madison’s upstairs library, where he spent hundreds of hours reading about earlier attempts at self-governance.

There, he imagined the previously unimaginable: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to a jury of one’s peers. Madison would go on to write those amendments into the Constitution, earning him the name “Father of the Bill of Rights.”

As we stepped outside to Montpelier’s beautiful grounds, we learned something else: To keep his small family of four white people in the height of 18th century luxury, James Madison enslaved 100 black people.

Indeed, Montpelier now has an Enslaved Community Exhibit and tour. I was eager to see how these two Madisons were being interpreted: the man who conceived  unimaginable freedoms for himself and his kind, while simultaneously denying freedom to countless others.

The Enslaved Community Exhibit is powerful: historians, archeologists, and descendants have worked hard to document the lives of the hundreds of African Americans enslaved at Montpelier over the years.

Artifacts of their lives are on display, and hundreds of their names are painted on the exhibit walls. Videos recreate the story of enslaved people who tried to escape and were recaptured and imprisoned.

Then I took the tour.

The white guide began to explain why James Madison didn’t free any of the people he enslaved when he died. “James Madison was a practical man,” the guide said. “He knew that they would not be welcomed into the deeply prejudiced society of the time.”

I tried to give the man a way out. “Perhaps this is what Madison told himself so he could sleep at night. But if he’d asked any of the people he enslaved, I’m sure they would’ve preferred freedom.”

“No, no,” the guide continued, “slave states required that freed men and women leave the state within a year. Even the North wasn’t welcoming. … They would’ve had to go all the way to Canada.”

Canada? Would that really have been worse than slavery?

When I wrote to the Montpelier administration afterward expressing my outrage that their staff would justify slavery on any grounds, the reply included this information: “A visitor to Montpelier in 1835 noted that [Madison] ‘talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged.’”

My correspondent then explained that Madison’s solution was support for the American Colonization Society, which proposed — and implemented — the outrageous scheme of sending African Americans to West Africa, to what’s now Liberia.

In other words, though Madison could imagine a brand new form of government, he couldn’t imagine living a more modest lifestyle, side by side with people whose skin was a different color from his own.

Let’s pause a moment and consider the possibility: What if James Madison — and the other most powerful men of his time — had declared publicly, as apparently they did at home, the evils of slavery? What if the original Bill of Rights had ended slavery outright?

It seems shocking, I know. But in 1789, so did freedom of religion.

What if we were the new revolutionaries, and dedicated ourselves to building a society that truly enacted the promise James Madison imagined — for all our people?

Sarah Browning directs the Split This Rock poetry collective. She’s an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Distributed by OtherWords.org.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail