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WashingtonSlavery slaveownersLast year, I decided to take my teenage sons on a trip across the country. We traveled in our motor home, starting in our home state of Utah, visiting sites of historic significance along the way. I am not a historian, but on this trip I discovered that left-leaning benefactors doling out large grants have ensured that visitors are presented with a version of history driven by political correctness—all while ignoring the essential contributions that the American founders made to our Constitution and founding ideals.Two weeks into our journey, we arrived at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. In front of the ticket office was a sandwich board display advertising a smartphone app called “Slave Life at Monticello.” The goal of the tour and experience was an attempt to divert attention from the man who owned this property, one of America’s Founding Fathers, to slavery. The docent leading the tour of the house never missed an opportunity: as we moved from one floor to another, we were instructed to imagine how difficult it was for the “enslaved servants to carry meal trays up and down this narrow stairway.” At every hearth: “imagine enslaved servants having to carry wood up to these fireplaces…” It just went on and on.

slavery monticello


Jefferson’s philosophical and political viewpoints were omitted to leave time for an explanation of how difficult life was for his servants. Not once did the guide omit the adjective “enslaved”—his demeanor was patronizing and condescending to those who made the journey to see Monticello, for anyone vaguely familiar with Thomas Jefferson would know that he owned slaves.

Interestingly, this revisionist-style performance was not presented at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s other home west of Charlottesville. I complimented the docent for enlightening us on the details of the home and the family, and told him how much we appreciated him not making the tour all about slavery, as they did at Monticello. In response, he asked if I would repeat my comments to the staff at the main visitor center, as there was a faction trying to shift the emphasis of the presentation to slavery. When I did so, my comments were met with obvious displeasure by a woman working in the gift shop, who likely disagreed with my feedback.

slavery montpelier


Later that day we arrived at Montpelier, the home of James Madison. The introductory movie there was a laughable exercise in self-contradiction. On the one hand, masters and slaves were said to experience a mutually beneficial relationship. The movie concluded by evoking the image of “hundreds of African-Americans… enslaved to benefit a single white family.” I am still wondering why they didn’t bother to edit their own efforts upon completion of this feckless presentation.

After viewing the film, we took a tour of the home. The dining room featured cardboard cutouts of individuals who had been known to visit James and Dolley Madison. One such figure was the Marquis de Lafayette, who, our guide indicated, chided James Madison for not freeing his slaves.

I took this moment to inquire as to whether the Marquis considered Mr. Madison a caring human being, because had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved. She said that it would be necessary to provide for them, so I asked for how long, and would that include descendants. Would he also be responsible for slaves he inherited in perpetuity? Where would she draw the line? She even answered in the affirmative when I asked if history would view Madison in a better light if he released his slaves and they perished.

slavery in phillyI also asked if the Marquis would respect laws making the emancipation of slaves illegal. She responded that emancipation was illegal in “some states.” I informed her she was standing in one such state, Virginia. She admitted that today we do not look at the slavery issue in the context of the time it existed, yet she seemed to be completely at ease with her flawed analysis.

Her parting shot on the subject was that Madison did not think blacks and whites could live together. I replied that neither did Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. At that point, another visitor asked if we could please go back to talking about the room. (By all means, let’s instead discuss the color of the wallpaper.)

Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.

We experienced the same approach at other sites, including the home of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun and in Colonial Williamsburg.

Calhoun’s home lies in the heart of Clemson University. The home is beautifully maintained and gives visitors the impression that it is still lived in, with one exception: poster boards with pictures of slaves and their stories are everywhere, even in the doorways of bedrooms, so you are forced to look around them to see the room. I mentioned to the docent that their placement was a distraction, and she agreed, but admitted there was nothing she could do about it.

Our journey would not have been complete without a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. While waiting outside of the Peyton Randolph House, we were informed that the tour would cover the home itself, its rooms, architecture, and a brief description of the family who lived there. After that, the tour would concentrate on the many slaves who served the Randolph family, what life was like for them, and the hardships they were forced to endure.

slavery peyton randolph

Peyton Randolph House

When I inquired if the tour guide would inform us of the philosophical and numerous political contributions the Randolph family made in Colonial Virginia and in the founding of the American republic, the guide shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, indicating he would not. One of the other guides, a man portraying a slave, admonished me, “We’re not gonna sugarcoat anything.”

Peyton Randolph, a formidable figure from the era of America’s fight for independence, was a cousin to Thomas Jefferson. He presided over the first Continental Congress, was a leading figure opposing the Stamp Act and was the first American to be called “Father of his Country.” Peyton’s brother, John, was born in this house, and when Peyton was elected speaker of the House of Burgesses, John was his successor as the Colony of Virginia’s attorney general.

Edmund Randolph went to live with his uncle Peyton after his father returned to England. He later became the aide-de-camp for General Washington, served in the Continental Congress, and was the Governor of Virginia during the Philadelphia Convention. He was one of the drafters of the Virginia Plan, served as attorney general under President Washington, and was secretary of state after Jefferson resigned. I find it incredible that this family was not worthy of discussion.

After we returned home, I received newsletters from The Montpelier Foundation and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Both featured stories about a common benefactor who seems to have influenced the way these sites are presented to the public. According to billionaire David Rubenstein, a major donor to both organizations, our “founders’ homes are out of context without slave quarters.” His philanthropy has contributed to the restoration of the main houses and of the slave quarters of both Monticello and Montpelier; however, the edict seems to have gone far beyond restoration and ventured into shifting the focus from two of America’s most significant founders. And other donors seem to be making the same push.

The point is not that the issue of slavery is unworthy of recognition; it is that slavery is dominating the theme of these places to the detriment of the discussion and sharing of the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded. The Montpelier Foundation and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation have lost sight of the ideals these men stood for. Both Jefferson and Madison are buried on their respective properties, and if you go to their places of rest and sit quietly, you can hear them rolling over in their graves.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (April 2016).

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9 replies to this post
  1. I too have visited Monticello, Montpelier, Randolph House in Williamsburg, and Monroe’s Ashlawn/Highlands. I consider myself conservative but feel it is very important to dwell on the slaveowning character of these “fathers”. Even more than slaveowning is the slavebreeding that took place in Virginia and that the Constitution members knew would not permit slavery to attrit, would make it grow and grow, even after the 1808 slave import ban. The founders passed a Constitution that they *knew* contradicted the liberty promised by the Declaration of Independence, and they knew that slavery would continue by the breeding of slaves. What is more the 3/5 person provision gave Virginia slaveowners the weight they needed to get put into the presidency to consolidate their hegemony over the first several decades of our country.

    Slavery is a major confounding factor which must be studied to make sense of our history. Even more than slavery is to understand the forces that propelled slavery – not just the slaveowners, but most importantly their mercantilist financiers. *Why* was it so difficult to give up slaves? *Why* was the Constitution not a partner with the Declaration? We have a right to know.

  2. This political correctness has also occurred at Gettysburg and other Civil War battle sites. Where visitors were once informed about the battles themselves, troop movements, casualties, etc – visitors are now propagandized about the evils of slavery etc. – many of today’s students must think that slavery and slavery alone characterized the United States of America.

  3. If Trump becomes President he should nationalize all of these properties and throw out the people who run such bad tours and replace them with normal people who will teach visitors proper American history . These are all places of national memory now anyways, so if whoever is running them is doing this bad a job, the Federal government should move in by executive order. It is really sad to read this article . It’s not the Obama and FDR pictures, which are fine, but the ridiculous focus if the tours described in this article. Americans deserve to have their founding history preserved and protected , not made a mockery of.

    As for the issue of slavery, I would like to know how the idea of emancipation and human equality faired in the African tribal regimes which sold the slaves and inquire whether any Jeffersonian thinkers can be found there who made equally important contributions to human equality and freedom as the Southern slave holders who layed the groundwork for freeing the slaves under constitutional republican government ?

  4. ‘…..Ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded…..’ as the author puts it, in my opinion are best discovered in books read in the comfort of one’s home.. As for long and tiring journeys visiting the homes of the authors of those high thoughts, I would have guessed that what is satisfied is the curiosity to know the domestic arrangements of these great individuals. To these arrangements, I’m pretty sure, the institution of slavery contributed mightily. More than that. It might be argued that the blood, sweat and tears of the millions of humans enslaved in America contributed to the building not only of the great houses that you visited but to the very construction of the great American nation. It certainly could be argued that what slavery did in building America was at least as important as all the ‘ideals, philosophies and political goals’ of the great founders. Absent all those painful calories what would you have?

  5. Jefferson was at least enough of a man to come home to his slaves and look them in the face everyday while spilling his troubled conscience onto paper. We are lesser men because we prefer our slave labor to be out of eye sight over in China or Bangladesh where we don’t have to look at them but can benefit from their produce while pretending to be liberal and blaming the founders for slavery while ruining the republic they built.

  6. Furthermore. Slavebreeding was great-grandma to our modern day eugenics. And the root of the modern day breakup of the family. (Yes, right in parallel with the French Revolution). It has enormous import and should be studied the heck out of.

  7. John Wesley promoted the abolition of slavery as an expression of the Golden Rule, that is from a humble spirit of treating others as you would have them treat you. Others though are always filled with a righteousness which makes it easy for them to point out the sins of others, and well near impossible for them to ever look in the mirror and say, “Thou sinner!” These same are always going on crusades here, and fighting wars of righteousness elsewhere to right every wrong, or at least those done by others. These do not conduct themselves from a humble spirit but rather in an attempt to salve their seared conscience, or to satisfy their libido dominandi. The former should check their own hearts and minds for sin, the latter likely don’t believe in “sin” except to impute it to others for their own gain.

    To those who would point out faults in the Founders for not applying the Declaration to the Constitution on the matter, these documents fall within a tradition. That tradition would be British which country at one time was the leading slave trading country of the world and then became the leading slave abolitionist country in the world, a world wherein slavery was a practice on every continent and had been for thousands of years. This British tradition did not occur within the confines of a two-hour Roots movie, but rather over a century and more. That this tradition, Christianity, and the rise of strong states all contributed to eliminating the slave trade, the latter element particularly in Slavic countries for example, is testament to how actual human history works. It is to think anachronistically to judge others in a different time as no one can know what side of the slavery issue one would have been had one lived in the times of the slave trade. It is nothing short of pharisaical.

    This last point has historical importance to those on the Left who decry the Founders for the institution of slavery. These from their soapbox denounce the sins of others as though they are the epitome of enlightenment, yet proclaim abortion as a right. Perhaps if ever many are truly enlightened in this country those living then will look back upon twentieth century “enlightened” ones as evil doers likened unto the slave traders, as simply defending their own selfish lifestyle rather than applying the rights of the Constitution to all. Just as slaveholders viewed their slaves as less than human, so too abortion rights advocates see the unborn as less than human, even merely zygotes.

  8. Too bad how they never mention that all of the countries in West Africa where the slaves came from were Islamic countries that enslaved those that would not accept Islam. The slave trade was already flourishing in Africa before the Spanish started bringing black slaves over to the Americas to work in there mines, in their fields and any other place they needed free labor. Yes, the British and French are guilty of allowing slaves into eastern part or North America which grew into the slave environment that we know as the Old South in the United States. No one ever touches upon that aspect of the slave trade, or that the Spanish brought far more slaves to the Americas then the British Colonies ever did. So much for history.

  9. Yet by taking this position, aren’t you advocating relativism? True, it’s historical relativism. Yet relativism is still relativism regardless of the differentiae. Just as the fact that Socrates is still a man, though he is Socrates.

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