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Del. Ken Plum: ‘A Mere Distinction of Colour’

by Del. Ken Plum June 15, 2017 at 11:00 am 24 Comments

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.

  • No-Hate

    Ken is right! After we finish removing all the confederate monuments in VA, we need to rename James Madison University in Harrisonburg. Get the hate out of VA, Ken lead the way!!

    • RestonAssurance

      Exactly. Times have changed, and hatred in the form of statues and monuments have to go. The pride of the day for these monuments and statues negated other people’s marginalization and pain.

      • historian

        Right – because that is all that the Civil War was about.

      • TheKingJAK

        So you address “marginalization and pain” by creating more of it? Great logic.

      • The Constitutionalist

        Yes, just erase history because it’s painful. Run away from our problems and delete them from existence instead of using them as a tool to teach future generations.

      • drb

        Isn’t this like what ISIS is doing everywhere it can. We now know why you guys like them so much. You are just like them. From tearing down things from the past that isn’t part of your beliefs to killing all that do not follow you.

    • Edward Calvert

      Don’t forget Washington and lee

    • The Constitutionalist

      Only hate I see in Virginia is your ilk shooting up bipartisan baseball practices.

      • Jenny Gibbers

        Trump yesterday: “And Steve, in his own way, may have brought some unity to our long-divided country. We’ve had a very, very divided country for many years. And I have a feeling that Steve has made a great sacrifice, but there could be some unity being brought to our country. Let’s hope so.”

        Trump pretty much makes you look like some american sharia jihadist, just based on your brazingly ignorant comment. Do you even know the constitution?

        • The Constitutionalist

          Congratulations. I officially believe you have a mental disorder.

          Challenge my knowledge of the constitution. Many of your peers have tried, and you’ve all failed.

          Explain to me how President Trump makes me look like some “american sharia jihadist.”

          Explain the ignorance in my comment.

          I’m waiting, and I’m sure that I will be for a very long time…

  • Mike M

    Thanks, Ken. Update: The Civil War is over. Slavery is illegal. Slavery is WAAAAY bigger than Virginia. The Romans, The Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians. Shall we attempt to purge their influence as well? Good luck with that.

    It’s not 1954; it’s 2017. Your harping on this is one of your very few repetitive themes that seeks to divide rather than unite. It is a common Democratic theme and it is aimed at the African-American community. It says, “You are separate, and you need the Democratic party to protect you.” It’s bunk!

    I was not surprised to see Hollywood rush out so many bad slavery themed movies last year. it was an election year. Fortunately, that propaganda campaign failed. Fortunately, more and more African-Americans are seeing through this tripe as having NOTHING to do with the genuine and common interests of all Americans. The negativity and divisiveness of the DNC is losing it’s “magic.” Get relevant!

    • Willie Reston

      “It’s not 1954; it’s 2017.”

      Have you tried telling that to your MAGA brethren?

      • Mike M

        Well, I don’t know who or what they are? OK, my oppressed one.

        • Willie Reston

          “Get over yourself” says the guy who spouts his fringe beliefs and attacks others via several essay-length comments on a community blog every day.

          • The Constitutionalist

            “Fringe beliefs” – says the guy still in denial about who was elected president on November 8th.

          • Willie Reston

            Fact: conservatives are the only ones who ever bring up the election results anymore. Insecure much? But actually, you know who else might still be questioning the election? Robert Mueller.

          • The Constitutionalist

            Do you know what a fringe belief is? Sorry, I’m just trying to wrap my head around the irony here. It’s difficult because it requires me to literally grab binoculars to see that far down into your autistic dwelling place.

          • The Constitutionalist

            So I’ll take that as a no, then.

            Called it?

          • Mike M

            Yes, Willie. I am literate and have lots to say. What about that bothers you so?

          • Willie Reston

            Believe me, it doesn’t bother me at all that you think so highly of yourself.

          • Mike M

            Then why do you have nothing to say in here other than insult me and whine about race?

            I don’t believe you, Willie.

  • 40yearsinreston

    The sooner Ken’s tenure is part of history, the better
    How about it Ken

  • Reston Realist

    Ken, It seems like every week your lectures become increasingly obtuse and offensive.

    Please Retire…. Please!!

  • 40yearsinreston

    What ever will happen to the Richmond Avenue Of Traitors and Losers aka the Avenue of Honor


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