J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Governance at James Madison’s Montpelier

James Madison’s estate Montpelier was a slave-labor plantation. 

In fact, Madison appears to have been comfortable with that. He didn’t wrestle with the morality of slaveholding like his friend Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t even acknowledge the contradictions as frankly as Patrick Henry (“I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not—I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.”).

The historic site of James Madison’s Montpelier had been owned since 1983 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1998 the Montpelier Foundation was formed “with the goal of transforming James Madison's historic estate into a dynamic cultural institution.” Which of course means raising money.

More recently the Montpelier Descendants Committee formed as a “nonprofit organization devoted to restoring the narratives of enslaved Americans at plantation sites in Central Virginia, including but not limited to James Madison’s Montpelier.”

This month the Montpelier site announced a significant step in its governance, making the Descendants Committee and the Foundation co-equals in governing the historic site.

This is the latest step in a long process that included a National Summit on Teaching Slavery convened at Montpelier in 2018. One product of that gathering was the report “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites” (P.D.F. download).

Every historic site is in a different situation, but it will be interesting to see how other sites associated with slave-owning Founders approach the questions Montpelier has been talking through.

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