This is a commentary from Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
One of my favorite classes to teach in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University is a course I have entitled “A New Look at the Old Dominion.”
It came out of my experiences growing up in Virginia and attending public schools from elementary through graduate school and using state-approved textbooks, at least in the early years. A persistent problem I had was matching up the romanticized version of Virginia’s history with realities I read about in source materials. This problem is not unique to Virginia or its history; every state and every culture always attempts to put its best foot forward. It skews our view of events and may lead us to believe that America was at its greatest in some bygone era. The fact of the matter is that our greatness has been evolving.
Reading early Virginia textbooks could lead one to believe that slavery was good for all, until what some termed the “War of Northern Aggression,” and then there was the Lost Cause movement that restored faith that Virginia was right all along. We still hear remnants of that line of thinking as the debate on Confederate monuments is going on.
I was reminded of this background as I recently visited a new exhibition at Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Orange County. Through extensive archaeological work there is an attempt to tell “a more complete American story.” The title of the exhibition, “A Mere Distinction of Colour,” is a phrase from Madison’s writings: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
Despite that observation, the Father of Our Constitution was the owner of hundreds of slaves who worked his farms and did his labor allowing him time to be a statesman. He did not free his slaves at his death. Enslaved families were split up and sold to retire the debt he left behind.
Visiting Montpelier today, you can see the mansion beautifully restored, including the upstairs room where Madison probably did his writing about the Constitution. Thanks to important archaeological work, you can visit the area around the mansion where the slave quarters were located, with several reproductions having been added in recent years. A tour of Montpelier can be eye-opening for your children, to contrast the home of the owner with the quarters of the enslaved.
Nearby at Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, there is an expansion of the tours to include a slave tour. The tour guide says very clearly what was denied for generations, that Jefferson fathered several children by Sally Hemings. Of the more than a hundred slaves owned by the writer of the Declaration of Independence who said “all men are created equal,” on his death only those slaves that he had fathered were freed.
The historians at Montpelier call it “a more complete American story.” It is being written way past time. While we need to acknowledge and embrace a history that is inclusive of the men and women who did the work in founding our country, acknowledging the arbitrary distinctions of the past will make us stronger as a nation.