Daniel O. Jamison
Written by Daniel O. Jamison
Those who support having monuments and statues of Confederate heroes in the public square and who cannot understand others’ deeply held views on matters of race might visit Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Northern Virginia.
Madison was the nation’s fourth President and is often described as the “Father of the Constitution.” On visiting Montpelier, you see its beauty and sprawling grounds, both made even more magnificent when the DuPonts took ownership in the early 1900s. You tour Madison’s book-filled library where he ensconced himself for months to study the history of successful and unsuccessful governments before leaving for the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In those months, heeding the lessons of history, he drafted the Virginia Plan to present at the Convention, which in large measure was adopted in the United States Constitution.
A close friend of George Washington, this brilliant scholar and politician helped write these words of Washington’s first inaugural address: “there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: … the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
On walking Montpelier’s grounds with your mind lost in reflection on what Madison meant to America, you come to the Madison family graveyard and reflect further on the weathered burial family monuments. Further on the trail, your heart sinks as you come upon the slave graveyard. There are no monuments here, no graves are marked. There are only slightly perceptible depressions in the ivy-like plant covering the graveyard. You wonder who’s buried here. If you are not one you wonder what feelings the descendants of slaves must have at the sight of this. The depressions in winter will eerily fill with snow that outlines the graves in contrast with the snowless terrain around them.
Above all, you wonder how to reconcile Madison with this calamity. Madison denounced the institution of slavery but put preservation of the union first. He kept his slaves for the needs of his family. He speculated the institution would eventually die out as the country expanded westward, believed that whites and free blacks could not live together, and supported colonization of free blacks back to Africa.
Ultimately, the contradiction of the nation’s ideals, his ideals, with the institution of slavery erupted into the Civil War. Upon Virginia seceding, aging and retiring “Old Fuss and Feathers” Commanding General Winfield Scott offered Robert E. Lee command of the Union Army. Lee had been Scott’s talented chief engineer during the Mexican-American War whose work facilitated the march to Mexico City. Lee felt a greater loyalty to his native state of Virginia than to the union and declined. Scott told Lee he was making the biggest mistake of his life, and so Lee was.
Lee and the soldiers of the South fought to preserve enslavement of black persons, to preserve being able to throw deceased slaves in unmarked graves. Skilled, brave and fierce though they were, what they fought for was wrong.
Many protest removal of public statues of Confederate heroes as an overreaction that will snowball to absurd additional demands, such as that the name of USC’s horse at football games be changed because it was also the name of the white horse that Lee rode. Others argue that to preserve history and respect sensibilities, the statues and monuments should be in museums.
Are the statues harmless symbols of Americana or painful affronts to the descendants of slaves, and others, who must walk by the statues, busts and monuments in parks, schools, and on other taxpayer supported grounds?
Wherever one stands on the monuments and statues, the views of those who would remove them to museums merit thoughtful regard because, sadly, we don’t know who’s buried in Madison’s graveyard.
Daniel O. Jamison is an attorney with Dowling Aaron Incorporated in Fresno. He can be reached at email@example.com.