Homes of slaves who served President James Madison at his Montpelier estate in Virginia will be rebuilt for the first time over the next five years, along with other refurbishments to the home of one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, thanks to a $10 million gift announced Saturday.
David Rubenstein, a leading Washington philanthropist and history buff, pledged the $3.5 million needed to rebuild the slave quarters next to the mansion in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another $6.5 million will be devoted to refurnishing parts of the home where Madison drafted ideas that would become the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
After widow Dolley Madison sold the estate in 1844, many family belongings were dispersed or sold, leaving some rooms mostly empty of period furnishings after the estate opened to visitors in 1987. Now, curators hope to recover or borrow artifacts from the fourth president’s family life to bring the estate back to life, said Montpelier Foundation President and CEO Kat Imhoff.
Rubenstein told The Associated Press he wanted to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave funds to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.
“It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country — Jefferson, Washington, Madison — yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do much about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.”
The donation marks a trifecta of gifts totaling $30 million to projects at Virginia’s oldest presidential sites. Last year Rubenstein gave $10 million gifts to both Jefferson’s Monticello estate and George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.
Recreating Montpelier’s South Yard, where domestic slaves lived, as well as the basement areas of the mansion where they worked, will help tell a fuller version of history, Imhoff said.
“For folks that have been coming to any of these presidential sites, the fact that we’re bringing this complete American story back into the landscape I think is very important,” she said. “It is challenging, but I also think it’s that wonderful tension that we as Americans are embracing, that this is our history, that making the invisible visible is very important to us as a nation, and it will make a stronger American story.”
The slave quarters at Montpelier were cleared away 165 years ago and planted over with grass, but the site has not been disturbed since. Archaeologists plan to excavate the South Yard in public view to recover remnants of slave life to help illustrate new stories.
One of the slaves who lived in a cramped dwelling was Paul Jennings. He was born at Montpelier in 1799, and at the age of 10 moved with the Madisons to serve in the White House. He later wrote a book about his experience, which is considered the first White House memoir. Jennings recalled helping Dolley Madison save curtains, silver, documents and a famous portrait of George Washington when the British burned the White House in 1814.
Jennings returned to Montpelier as Madison’s personal manservant. After Madison’s death, Jennings purchased his freedom and moved to Washington.
Matt Reeves, Montpelier’s director of archaeology, said his team can recreate the slave quarters close to their original construction through research from documents and excavations.
“By bringing the slave quarters back, what we’re able to do is tell the stories of the slave families that lived here and tell their more personal stories that allow visitors to imagine the enslaved community not as just workers, but as people, as mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles,” Reeves said.
Visitors now get an authentic experience at the front of the mansion and see the home inside as it was when Madison lived there, after a major $25 million architectural restoration completed in 2008, Reeves said. But as visitors leave the back porch, they see a 20th-century landscape of grass and trees, void of any evidence of the plantation where more than 100 slaves lived.
“It’s really going to bring this larger community back to life,” Reeves said. “It will really help define Mr. Madison as who he was — as a Virginia planter, as a slave owner.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.