Dear Ms. Sherman,
When I read your reflection in The American Conservative I was so sorry to hear that you had mistaken the museum at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for a monument to the Declaration of Independence. This mistake clearly caused much despair to you, and I suspect, to your unwitting children, who later found themselves flung headfirst into the depths of their mother’s folly before a crowd of annoyed weekenders. And so, though it was due to your own mistake, I offer you my sympathy and am glad to hear, for the sake of your emotional well-being, that out of the glare of national attention, on a lesser known property, Jefferson’s Poplar Forest estate, you were able to receive the version of history which you most preferred. For the sake of people like you, if it would not be such a terribly expensive endeavor, mental health professionals might find it useful to maintain lovingly bowdlerized versions of historical exhibitions, lest your delicate intellectual constitutions be damaged by being forced to experience history in its full and living palette.
I am only taking, (should I say seizing?) the liberty of writing to you now, because the accounts which you offer of your continuing misadventures in slavery’s land, lead me to believe that you may be putting yourself in a hopeless position if you continue your historical travels, and I want to take it upon myself to offer you a way out of this place of suffering. After finding yourself jilted at Monticello, you went to Madison’s Montpelier, then to John C. Calhoun’s home in Clemson, South Carolina and then to Peyton Randolph’s home in WIlliamsburg, apparently, still in search of a museum in which to discuss 18th century political theory, all in vain. Your fruitless sojourns lead me to reach out in compassion to explain something which may put an end to them: The preservation of historical homes is done, not to propagate the abstract notions which their owners may have harbored within those walls, but, to preserve for posterity a glimpse into the daily life and domestic situations within which history occurred. Monticello is not a monument to the Declaration of Independence, because there is nothing which one can learn about that document from peering into Jefferson’s kitchen which cannot be better learned from a book. Montpelier does not memorialize The Federalist papers and the Constitution, it relies on the words to memorialize themselves and on careful study, which gives a broader historical and intellectual context, to make their theory live again.
It was not America’s founding documents which gave these places daily life, nor the theories of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau which created their domestic situation, Thomas Paine’s pamphleteering did not do the labor and make the profits which made such luxury possible, all this was the work of slavery, or, more precisely, the hundreds of enslaved West African men, women and children which your founding fathers forcibly held in bondage.
I am the descendant of those people. My mother’s people slaved in South Carolina, my father’s in Georgia. As of now, I know nothing else concrete about them. I do know, that if you had visited any of these stately homes in their heyday, you would have seen far more slaves than free people. A uniformed Black man would have taken your coat and cordially led you deeper into the recesses of the place. You would have seen men and women of all ages, impeccably uniformed, hurrying to and fro, forced by the existential threat of violence, to attend to your comfort. If you had just stood still, you might have gone minutes, even hours, without seeing another White face. Madison had a wife and one son, which means that when the Madison family was home “alone,” if you exclude the one White overseer he employed and the overseer’s family who also lived on the estate, as many as 98% of the people living at Montpelier at any time were enslaved Africans. Which means, that while the story of Madison’s presidency and his intellectual contributions to the nation’s founding are his; the story of Montpelier is the story of its slaves.
I imagine that story may not mean much to you. You seem to want to treat it as being no more worthy of discussion than the wallpaper in Calhoun’s bedroom. But, as their descendant, I have no choice but to know that they were human beings, as I am a human being, with births and deaths as miraculous and tragic as any that ever were, with lives as filled with laughter and tears, loves and hates, aspirations and fears as any human lives. The inner mysteries of these enslaved souls were as great as the chasm between this world and the one beyond. The stealing of a single one of their lives, much less hundreds, is a crime of striking magnitude, which therefore makes up the most important story these buildings can tell. But on this, we disagree. I imagine you would be very disappointed by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the 1.5 million Jews and Gentiles killed there are distracting from the all-important discussion of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s lackluster painting career. You probably think the Gallic war is the story of Julius Caesar’s trip to France, not thousands of Romans subjugating thousands of Gauls. You probably think the history of America’s Gilded Age is the the story of how Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Morgan made and spent their wealth, and not the story of men, women and children who had lived their lives in fiery iron dungeons, sweating to make the gilding. You would probably call the stories I suggest: revisionist history, no, it is history given vision, history which shows us the world as it really was, so we can see it as it really is.
You argue that had Madison freed his slaves, they likely would have starved, which I find to be an odd way of looking at things. Let us imagine the more quotidian aspects of James’s life, the life of a typical Virginia slaveholder. When he was born, he was likely to have been delivered by an enslaved midwife, after hers and his mother’s, the next arms to cradle the small, sickly, pale child would have been those of an enslaved Black wet nurse. From her body, he would have drawn the elixir of life, via the same mother’s milk which founded the strength of her own children, who would serve him all his days. Every stitch of clothing which would ever touch his body for the majority of his life, would be made by enslaved seamstresses and, after the boy was weaned, every bite of food he would ever eat at home would have been prepared by an enslaved cook, from food which was either raised or paid for by the slaves who did everything else for him, in his father’s house, which slaves built and then in the White House, which slaves also built. James’s first playmates would have been children too young to work, but still slaves, as he would learn when told of the immutable line which divided him from the people whose suffering and toil made up the very substance of his body. As James grew older, he might have, if it pleased him, seen fit to seize his first bit of carnal knowledge from the body of one of his wet nurse’s daughters. When he went away for the schooling which his family paid for with the wages of theft, a slave boy about his age went with him, to keep him from any acquaintance with the slightest labor. And it was with this education that his slaves paid for, that James rose through the ranks of the Virginia aristocracy to sire a constitution and lead a nation. And when James’s frail body finally gave way, it would have been lowered into a grave dug by enslaved men, in a coffin made by the enslaved people who had been carrying him all his life.
Though Madison, like several of the nation’s most politically prominent slaveholders, agonized over the issue of what was to be done with the African slaves on which they depended, he never allowed his to go free; not because he was afraid that without him to carry around they might starve, but because he feared, quite logically, that without captives to carry the burden of his life, he, as a man accustomed to luxury and knowing no trade but politician, would starve.
You therefore have the matter exactly backwards. In death, the moral weight of this decision cannot even rely on the fictions of acolytes like yourself to support it. Though you valiantly tried when you said that manumitting slaves was illegal in Virginia, when, in fact, the Virginia legislature legalized manumission in 1782. Though for most people, it would go without saying, that whether it was illegal to free his slaves or not, this in no way bears on Madison’s guilt, as the one who actively held slaves. I am therefore as sorry that the tour guides could not correct your misinformation, as I am that they were unable to correct the several of your follies which I have striven to correct here.
To return us to the matter of starvation: As far as I know, there is no record of any mass starvation associated with the manumission of American slaves, though four million were freed at once by an act of congress in 1865. And, I can attest, that though my family has been free 151 years, in all that time, free of vicious little men like James Madison to carry about, we may have hungered, but we have never starved! My people work. They have earned the entirety of their substance in fields and factories, in classrooms and law offices and as soldiers of the United States. An honorable, clean way of living which all your founding slavers avoided by resorting to lives of gentrified brutality.
This is the history of the American South, which you, not being from this region, might find it convenient to avoid, but which you have no right to expect the nation as a whole to avoid, so that you might miss it while staring it square in the face. Moreover, as it is the history of the material foundations of the United States of America, it is the only history you have this side of the Atlantic.
V. R. Bradley