Reinterpreting James Madison’s Montpelier

Back in October, I visited James Madison’s Montpelier with Bob Weyeneth, who was my graduate advisor at the University of South Carolina. Bob was co-director of USC’s Public History Program and is still a professor of history there. He was in Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia’s symposium on Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape. Several years ago, students in his graduate-level Historic Site Interpretation class created a website, “Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801-1865,” and even identified a surviving slave quarters building on the campus. Since then, Bob has been involved in efforts to interpret the role of slavery on university campuses across the country. But that’s a story for another post.

So, I met him in Charlottesville and we drove to Montpelier for the day. We were most interested in two aspects of the house: 1. The 2003 “restoration” of the house to its appearance when James Madison lived there after leaving the presidency and 2. the new interpretive exhibits on the role of slavery during Madison’s ownership of the house.

James Madison’s Montpelier

A Brief History of Montpelier
The oldest section of Montpelier was completed in 1764 by James Madison’s father. Madison expanded the house in 1797 when he and his wife, Dolley, moved back to the Piedmont after his term in the U.S. House of Representatives ended. While he was president, Madison expanded the central section of the house again and added two one-story wings on either side. In 1817, when he left the presidency, James and Dolley took up permanent residence at Montpelier.

James died in 1836 and Dolley sold Montpelier in 1844. The plantation changed hands another six times before being purchased by William and Annie Rogers duPont in 1901. The duPonts added even larger wings that nearly doubled the size of the house and stuccoed the exterior, along with other interior renovations. Marion duPont Scott inherited Montpelier from her father in 1928 and bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation on her death in 1983.

“Restoration” of the House
Twenty years later, the National Trust embarked upon a highly controversial restoration of the mansion to its 1820 appearance which included removing the duPont-era additions, restoring the interior decor, and removing the stucco from the exterior to expose the original brick. While Bob and I agreed that being the home of a U.S. President gives Montpelier a “pass” on emphasizing Madison in the interpretation of the house, its later history shouldn’t be completely ignored. During our guided tour of the house, the docent did not mention the duPonts at all, until Bob specifically asked her about them and their ownership of the house. While I understand that it is hard to cover 250 years of history in a one-hour tour, Montpelier probably wouldn’t have survived intact had the duPonts not purchased it. It is all too easy to imagine the property as the “Montpelier Estates,” cut up into 1 and 2 acre lots.

View of Montpelier’s front lawn from the house portico

The interior of one room, the music room which Marion duPont Scott renovated in the Art Deco style, was preserved and recreated in a wing of the visitor center. Sadly, Bob and I were unable to visit the room because the wing was closed the day we visited in preparation for a special event that night. There was a nice plaque at the entrance to the wing that described the duPonts’ ownership of the house. However, as this wing is located on the far side of the cafe from the main section of the visitor center, it is unlikely that many visitors actually see it.

Interpreting Slavery at Montpelier
In contrast to our disappointment with the lack of interpretation of Montpelier’s history after Madison, we were mostly impressed with how slavery is being interpreted there. First, there are excellent exhibits in the house’s cellars entitled “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” One of the challenges of interpreting the lives of enslaved people is the lack of first-person primary source material. For the most part, exhibits rely on letters and diaries of the slaveholders as well as court records, wills, newspaper articles and advertisements, and archaeological findings. There are a few first-person accounts, autobiographies mostly written many years later, but piecing together the everyday lives of individual enslaved persons is difficult. The exhibits at Montpelier do as fine a job as I have seen. What is unique – and exceptional – about the Montpelier exhibit is how the reality of the lives of the enslaved is contrasted with the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution, written was largely written by James Madison.

Secondly, the Montpelier Foundation is reconstructing a number of outbuildings where enslaved people would have worked and lived at the plantation, based on archaeological evidence. More exhibits that are part of “The Mere Distinction of Colour” are on display inside these buildings. This work is still underway, with at least two more buildings planned, and I look forward to revisiting when the reconstruction are complete.

Reconstructed buildings in the South Yard

Finally, Montpelier offers a special “Montpelier’s Enslaved Community” guided tour of the plantation (not the mansion), included with the price of the house tour. Bob and I both applaud the guide’s efforts to tell stories of individuals, rather than a dry recitation of dates and facts. However, the tour started with more general information about the institution of slavery in the United States. We assumed this information was included to provide basic background information for those less well-versed in subject of slavery, but the location of this stop on the tour – the middle of the parking lot – was questionable and we felt it could have been skipped altogether. We dropped out of the tour about halfway through, so perhaps we missed the best part.

In conclusion, I think Montpelier is setting the standard for interpreting slavery at historic sites that in the past have been silent on the subject. Notably, they are working to incorporate slavery into all interpretative elements of the site, not just “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibits. The house tour docent talked quite a bit about the role of enslaved people in the house, Paul Jennings who was Madison’s manservant.  Montpelier has even extended their interpretation into Reconstruction and even the Jim Crow era, with the Gilmore Cabin and the Montpelier Train Station, but I’ll save those for another post. I just wish they did more to acknowledge that the mansion has a history beyond when Madison lived there.