Ideas to Impact Blog

The Mob Comes for Madison: On the Woke Hijacking of James Madison’s Montpelier

About. The following is an excerpt from an editorial that appeared in The New Criterion, a Bradley Foundation grant recipient. The writers highlight the Montpelier Foundation’s decision to embrace the fashionable reframing of the American Founding, including how visitors to the estate of James Madison should understand his legacy.

The Mob Comes for Madison

If chattel slavery hadn’t existed in the United States, the Left would have had to invent it. What we mean is that the idea of slavery has become so dear to the disciples of identity politics that without its moral sanction they would be lost. Absent the original sin of slavery, the entire racialist racket that holds our society hostage would sputter to an inglorious halt. The race hustlers promoting “affirmative action” (i.e., race- or sex-based discrimination) would be out of business, as would the real-estate magnates and firebugs of Black Lives Matter. Ditto the angry historical fantasists behind The 1619 Project. Forget that most societies practiced slavery throughout history. Is anyone asking for “reparations” because their ancestors may have been enslaved by the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, or the Romans? Forget that slavery ended in the United States more than one hundred and fifty years ago because Abraham Lincoln prosecuted a brutal civil war to keep the country together and end the “peculiar institution,” which was not peculiar at all. (When, by the way, will slavery end in Islamic society, or India, or China?) The world has had numerous long-distance trades in slaves of different phenotypes. Most of the West African slaves who made their way to America were sold into servitude by black African slavers.

Those impolitic facts are what the Bolsheviks of old called “counterrevolutionary.” That is, they are politically “false” even if empirically true. The wardens of wokeness tell us that they hate slavery and its legacy. Doubtless in one sense they do. But they are divided in their minds. They also cherish the historical fact of slavery. For one thing, they understand that it is their irrevocable meal ticket. They also perceive that it is an imperishable source of emotional power. Because it is a wound that can never heal, it is also a sin that white society can never expiate—which is why they tell the world that the legacy of slavery is ubiquitous and ineradicable.

But if that were true, why should anyone have ever bothered to campaign against it? It would be like campaigning against the onset of night.

It is a thriving concern, and its latest victim is James Madison, the coauthor of The Federalist Papers, principal drafter of the US Constitution, and fourth president of the United States. Madison, you see, like many of America’s founders, owned slaves. He disapproved of the institution of slavery, but he never freed his own slaves, not during his lifetime nor in his will. Moreover, he acquiesced to its recognition in the Constitution because (as he put it in 1788) “Great as the evil [of slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” This, by the way, is essentially the same position Lincoln maintained in the run-up to the Civil War.

The professional race-mongers have had their innings with Jefferson, Washington, and other founders who have been weighed and found wanting. Now it is Madison’s turn. The occasion is the takeover of Madison’s Virginia home, Montpelier, by the revisionist race lobby. Madison died practically bankrupt, and his widow had to sell Montpelier soon after his death in 1836. The property was acquired by the National Trust for Historical Preservation in 1984 and restored to its original lineaments as a “monument to the Father of the Constitution.”

On the issue of slavery, James Madison was not a moral paragon. But he was an enlightened and humane man who was fondly remembered by at least some of his former slaves. Paul Jennings, one such figure, called Madison “one of the best men that ever lived” and went out of his way to help Dolley, Madison’s widow, in her impoverished last years. Madison objected to using the word “slave” in the Constitution because he “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” Accordingly, he resorted to euphemisms, a practice that, as Lynne Cheney notes in James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (2014), had two purposes. On the one hand, it was “a way of avoiding the terrible truth that slavery existed.” On the other, it “also allowed the delegates to create a document suitable for a time when it would not.” Citing the political scientist Robert Goldwin, Cheney notes that the founders thus “created a constitution for a society that would offer more justice than their own.” That approach, it seems to us, betokens a farsightedness and generosity of spirit sadly lacking among the race-obsessed vigilantes who are despoiling our history.

Read the whole article here.