The Mere Distinction of Colour

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Founding Father James Madison said, “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.” At Montpelier, and the thousands of other plantations dotted across the South in the years up to the Civil War, there were approximately four million enslaved people, accounting for nearly half the population in South Carolina and over a third of the total in Georgia. There were about 300 slaves at Monticello and 100 slaves at Montpelier, living in poorly constructed cabins directly adjacent to the main house.

I took my youngest daughter, Amanda, to Charlottesville, VA to visit Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, and Montpelier, home of James Madison in Orange, VA earlier this week. In a stunning coincidence, just the day before, the Ku Klux Klan marched through Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Their march was matched by a simultaneous protest by Black Lives Matter, with mayhem narrowly averted by the intervention of the State of Virginia's police force.

To go to these most stately mansions is to imbibe the Enlightenment thoughts of these brilliant men. How to balance the interests of the small states versus the large states? How to assure that the executive did not overwhelm the legislative branch? Why have a bill of rights as a separate set of amendments, to guarantee freedom of worship and protection of the press? Jefferson is our most brilliant thinker and writer, with his immortal words from the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal,” while initiating the most profound transformation of America through the Louisiana Purchase that opened our nation to the Pacific. Madison, as author of the Constitution, created a governing framework that is the envy of the world.

And yet the failure to address this stain on American history must be recognized as our greatest collective failure, explained only by human weakness and a willingness to pass the problem on to future generations.

Monticello and Montpelier were built on land cleared by slaves, constructed by slaves and maintained by slave labor. Jefferson’s slaves were auctioned off on the front steps of Monticello to pay off the debts he incurred in his lifetime. Though Madison agonized about slavery, proposing emigration to Africa and a Federal buyout of slaves from owners, he did not free his own slaves on his death.

Kat Imhoff, president and CEO of Montpelier, said: "Our site cannot be a monument to half truths...the story of race in America is complex and often uncomfortable... but it must be a story that every American feels a part of."

That is why the new exhibition at Montpelier, using Madison’s own words, the Mere Distinction of Colour, is such a significant contribution to the American discourse at this turbulent time.

Margaret Jordan, board member at Montpelier and great-great-great granddaughter of Madison's personal slave Paul Jennings, wrote recently in The Washington Post, “In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history. We have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society…From mass incarceration to the achievement gap to housing discrimination and the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and lack of opportunity, the legacies of 200 years of African American bondage are still with us.”

Located in the cellars of Madison's home and in the South Yard, the exhibit features letters, documents and artifacts to depict the experiences of the enslaved. The exhibition follows 97 slaves who lived at Montpelier. Through stories told by their living descendants, we gain an understanding of slavery and its impact on a young American nation as well as the race issues we face today. For example, it shows a woman enslaved at Montpelier who had a husband at a plantation 10 miles away, who she was able to visit only on Sundays. Her children were sold to other plantations, sometimes in Virginia, far enough away for infrequent contact. The most gripping part of the exhibition is a ten-minute film, which offers a view of the years through Emancipation until the present, including a Washington, D.C. march by the Ku Klux Klan and a lynching of an African American male.

I’m very proud of the work our team in our Washington, D.C. office has done in support of the exhibition. The broader lesson of the Montpelier exhibit for those of us in the corporate world is to be brave enough to present an unvarnished story that stimulates discussion and prompts learning. There is no ability to reverse history, but there is a chance to change the future.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.