Dear Ms. Sherman,
I am only taking, (should I say seizing?) the liberty of writing to you now, because the accounts which you offer of your continuing misadventures in slavery’s land, lead me to believe that you may be putting yourself in a hopeless position if you continue your historical travels, and I want to take it upon myself to offer you a way out of this place of suffering. After finding yourself jilted at Monticello, you went to Madison’s Montpelier, then to John C. Calhoun’s home in Clemson, South Carolina and then to Peyton Randolph’s home in WIlliamsburg, apparently, still in search of a museum in which to discuss 18th century political theory, all in vain. Your fruitless sojourns lead me to reach out in compassion to explain something which may put an end to them: The preservation of historical homes is done, not to propagate the abstract notions which their owners may have harbored within those walls, but, to preserve for posterity a glimpse into the daily life and domestic situations within which history occurred. Monticello is not a monument to the Declaration of Independence, because there is nothing which one can learn about that document from peering into Jefferson’s kitchen which cannot be better learned from a book. Montpelier does not memorialize The Federalist papers and the Constitution, it relies on the words to memorialize themselves and on careful study, which gives a broader historical and intellectual context, to make their theory live again.
Liberty or death! Patrick Henry, slaveholder, speaking atop the soapbox of unwitting irony.
A Virginia slave labor camp.
I am the descendant of those people. My mother’s people slaved in South Carolina, my father’s in Georgia. As of now, I know nothing else concrete about them. I do know, that if you had visited any of these stately homes in their heyday, you would have seen far more slaves than free people. A uniformed Black man would have taken your coat and cordially led you deeper into the recesses of the place. You would have seen men and women of all ages, impeccably uniformed, hurrying to and fro, forced by the existential threat of violence, to attend to your comfort. If you had just stood still, you might have gone minutes, even hours, without seeing another White face. Madison had a wife and one son, which means that when the Madison family was home “alone,” if you exclude the one White overseer he employed and the overseer’s family who also lived on the estate, as many as 98% of the people living at Montpelier at any time were enslaved Africans. Which means, that while the story of Madison’s presidency and his intellectual contributions to the nation’s founding are his; the story of Montpelier is the story of its slaves.
I imagine that story may not mean much to you. You seem to want to treat it as being no more worthy of discussion than the wallpaper in Calhoun’s bedroom. But, as their descendant, I have no choice but to know that they were human beings, as I am a human being, with births and deaths as miraculous and tragic as any that ever were, with lives as filled with laughter and tears, loves and hates, aspirations and fears as any human lives. The inner mysteries of these enslaved souls were as great as the chasm between this world and the one beyond. The stealing of a single one of their lives, much less hundreds, is a crime of striking magnitude, which therefore makes up the most important story these buildings can tell. But on this, we disagree. I imagine you would be very disappointed by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the 1.5 million Jews and Gentiles killed there are distracting from the all-important discussion of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s lackluster painting career. You probably think the Gallic war is the story of Julius Caesar’s trip to France, not thousands of Romans subjugating thousands of Gauls. You probably think the history of America’s Gilded Age is the story of how Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Morgan made and spent their wealth, and not the story of men, women and children who had lived their lives in fiery iron dungeons, sweating to make the gilding. You would probably call the stories I suggest: revisionist history, no, it is history given vision, history which shows us the world as it really was, so we can see it as it really is.
James Madison, the purveyor of the above slave labor camp, his face withered by years of brutality.
With apologies to those who wanted to learn about the role of rope in 18th century shipping.
Though Madison, like several of the nation’s most politically prominent slaveholders, agonized over the issue of what was to be done with the African slaves on which they depended, he never allowed his to go free; not because he was afraid that without him to carry around they might starve, but because he feared, quite logically, that without captives to carry the burden of his life, he, as a man accustomed to luxury and knowing no trade but politician, would starve.
Though parted from his rural home, these signs of his master’s benevolence he shall carry the rest of his days.
To return us to the matter of starvation: As far as I know, there is no record of any mass starvation associated with the manumission of American slaves, though four million were freed at once by an act of congress in 1865. And, I can attest, that though my family has been free 151 years, in all that time, free of vicious little men like James Madison to carry about, we may have hungered, but we have never starved! My people work. They have earned the entirety of their substance in fields and factories, in classrooms and law offices and as soldiers of the United States. An honorable, clean way of living which all your founding slavers avoided by resorting to lives of gentrified brutality.
This is the history of the American South, which you, not being from this region, might find it convenient to avoid, but which you have no right to expect the nation as a whole to avoid, so that you might miss it while staring it square in the face. Moreover, as it is the history of the material foundations of the United States of America, it is the only history you have this side of the Atlantic.
V. R. Bradley
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