Notes & Comments January 2023
The mob comes for Madison
On the woke hijacking of James Madison’s Montpelier.
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.
We understand that to ask such questions is to be guilty of “racism,” the cardinal tort of our age whose almost aphrodisiac power is ultimately guaranteed by the inexhaustible well of victimhood that slavery, or the exploitation of the idea of slavery, has dug. Martin Luther King Jr. famously dreamed that people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. That is now regarded as a reactionary, indeed a racist sentiment. After all, to judge people by their character, by what they actually do, would upset the entire racialist concession. From now on, race is everything, character a dispensable epiphenomenon. And the ultimate power source, the inexhaustible kernel of animus that fuels the racialist requisition, is the historical accident of chattel slavery in the United States.
An entire cottage industry has sprung up to delegitimize the past and taint the present through a process of anachronistic virtue-mongering.
We see the operation of this charade everywhere in our society: in our colleges, of course, which for decades have acted the prime incubators of bad ideas. It is also increasingly prominent in lower schools, in the media and other cultural institutions, in the business world, and even in the military and other government bureaucracies. An entire cottage industry has sprung up to delegitimize the past and taint the present through a process of anachronistic virtue-mongering.
It is a thriving concern, and its latest victim is James Madison, the coauthor of The Federalist, principal drafter of the U.S. 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.”
That was the initial idea, anyway. As Eric Felten shows in “Whose Montpelier Is It Anyway?,” an essay written for RealClearPolitics, Madison’s home has been enlisted as a synecdoche in the game of racialist delegitimization. It’s been going on for some years. Already in 2017, a permanent exhibition called “The Mere Distinction of Colour” opened in the basement galleries of Montpelier as well as the South Yard of the campus. The exhibition draws on testimony from descendants of those enslaved at Montpelier to “explore how the legacy of slavery impacts today’s conversations about race, identity, and human rights.” The title of the exhibition comes from Madison himself, who mournfully observed that “the mere distinction of colour” had provided “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
In other words, Madison understood the evil of slavery. He also understood that its perpetuation stood in stark contradiction to the ideals of individual liberty he outlined in the Constitution. That he nevertheless held slaves himself is a fact that should be frankly acknowledged. But should it be given pride of place in Madison’s biography?
Increasingly, that seems to be the goal of the Montpelier Foundation, which oversees the property. Last year, William Lewis, the cofounder of the Montpelier Foundation, published a book called Montpelier Transformed: A Monument to James Madison and Its Enslaved Community. A separate nonprofit called the Montpelier Descendants Committee was created to represent those descended from Montpelier’s slaves. It was led by the businessman James French, who is himself descended from slaves in Virginia. French was soon granted a place on the board of the Montpelier Foundation. Now, in what some observers describe as a “coup,” he chairs it.
French is avid about pursuing the new standards for the teaching of slavery set forth at “The National Summit on Teaching Slavery,” an event cohosted by the Montpelier Foundation and the National Trust’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. The 2018 dispensation insists that it “is not enough simply to discuss the humanity and contributions of the enslaved. It is imperative that these institutions also unpack and interrogate white privilege and supremacy and systemic racism.”
Ah, our old friends “white privilege” and “systemic racism.” Don’t leave home without them! James Madison, meet Critical Race Theory. Henceforth, anyone charged with teaching about the founders must undergo “significant and ongoing anti-racist training (which includes interpreting difficult history, deconstructing and interrogating white privilege, white supremacy, and systemic racism, and engaging visitors on these subjects).”
Moreover, “these subjects” are everywhere. Not only are “slavery, race, and racism . . . complex concepts,” but also they are lurking in the most unlikely places. Perhaps you are reading about a document or event that ostensibly has nothing to do with slavery. Try harder. For even if the things you are studying “are not on the surface ‘about’ slavery or enslaved people,” you should “read between the lines” to discover the grisly truth. It’s the sort of hermeneutical practice that Sigmund Freud specialized in.
Apparently, the board of the Montpelier Foundation at first celebrated this sort of racial aggrandizement. It seemed so chic, so up-to-date, and it won plaudits from the media. But then the awful truth set in. It turned out that James French did not just want a place at the table. He wanted the entire dining room for his approved ideological interpretation. “Currently, museums such as Montpelier are dominated by people who look like Madison,” French warned. Henceforth, he demanded, the Montpelier Descendants Committee should be authorized to appoint half the members of the board of the Foundation. Wagging tail, meet your dog.
Perhaps the most preposterous aspect of French’s putsch is his claim that Madison relied on his slaves “for everything, including his ideas, his sustenance, his wealth, his power, and everything” (our emphasis, his repetition). As Felten reports, under French’s leadership, scholarship at Montpelier is moving away from its focus on what French calls the “big house” in order to advance his contention that “James Madison essentially lived in an African American community,” from which the founder derived his ideas. And here you thought that Madison garnered his ideas from ancient political historians like Polybius and teachers like John Witherspoon, his mentor at Princeton and a major conduit for the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment to the founders.
French’s gambit is not new. Though gussied up in the shabby rhetorical dress of “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” etc., French’s contention is no less absurd than the idea, promulgated by the so-called Afrocentrists in the 1980s and ’90s, that Western culture is largely a bastardization of African culture. According to the Afrocentrists, Greek philosophy, science, and political theory were mostly pilfered from African sources. Indeed, according to them, the African contribution to world history has been systematically suppressed by a white conspiracy to deny the black race its place in the sun, as it were. As far as we have been able to discover, French and his likeminded colleagues have not yet declared that Madison was himself a black African, as the Afrocentrists claimed of Socrates and Cleopatra, but he is well down that road.
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.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 1
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