James Madison’s political ideas may be well-documented, but very little is known about his personal life, including his relationship with the 100 slaves he owned at Montpelier.
To gain insight into our fourth president, the JMU Department of Anthropology has held a four-week archaeological field school at Montpelier every summer since 1987.
From May to June, the field school excavates between 40 to 50 five-by-five foot units, compared to three units a week when students aren’t at Montpelier.
The special bond between Montpelier and JMU makes the archaeology project increasingly important to understanding Madison.
“It’s an absolute necessity for the amount of work we get done,” Reeves said.
To reinforce the student connection to Montpelier, President Alger is pushing for a “Return to Madison,” encouraging students to visit Madison’s home and to bring more attention to his ideals. On the final day of his inaugural week in March (Madison’s 262nd birthday), Alger gave a speech at Montpelier.
“It is quite fitting, I believe, that students attending a university named for James Madison make this journey, connect these two places and contemplate their meaning,” Alger said.
Two full rooms of household records were burned in the 1850s, when Madison’s nieces and nephews found too much scandal associated with his stepson, John Payne Todd.
“You’d think with being the home of James Madison, everything would be recorded,” said Montpelier Director of Archaeology Matthew Reeves, but that isn’t the case.
To make up for the lack of documentation on Madison, archaeology is used to learn about daily plantation life at Montpelier.
Excavating the various slave quarters has been the most recent undertaking of the field school. By comparing artifacts associated with house slaves, field slaves and artisan slaves, archaeologists can learn how the different groups were treated.
“You go down two inches anywhere on the property, and you’re in the early 19th century,” Reeves said.
The students, assisted by Montpelier’s eight full-time archaeologists, dig through trash deposits to learn about the kinds of things slaves owned and how they were treated. The field school found lots of shards of rare bamboo and peony ceramic dinnerware in the Madison’s domestic waste. Similar pieces kept appearing in almost every slave site they excavated.
“That potentially was a marker for how much interaction was happening between where slaves were living and what relationship they had with the Madisons,” Reeves said.
Elliot Hodson, a 2012 anthropology alumnus, saw first hand how the historical archaeology process works at Montpelier. Hodson participated in the JMU field school last summer and is now on staff as an archaeological field technician.
Hodson was assigned to dig in what was thought to be the former home of enslaved field laborers. He found some common domestic artifacts, but several artifacts, like post hole trenches and some strange metal teeth, suggested the building had other uses.
“We went back and forth between what [the site] was used for,” Hodson said.
The archaeologists thought the metal teeth were part of a harrow: a farming implement that aerates soil. They called in an expert who told them the teeth were actually from a threshing machine: a device that separates wheat from the stalks and husks.
With this discovery, Montpelier research archaeologist Mark Trickett asked the curatorial department for any information on threshing machines.
That search turned up a court case in which the owner of Montpelier in the 1840s sued the infamous John Payne Todd for stealing a threshing machine. The mysterious post holes, the archaeologists determined, were used to brace the threshing machine.
“We’re constantly re-evaluating our interpretation based on evidence,” Trickett said.
Archaeological digs at Montpelier are important because most of our current knowledge of how Madison treated his slaves is anecdotal. Madison was known to talk about the evils of slavery with his guests, who would often write about their visits to Montpelier. French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette recalls one slave, Old Grandma Millie, being more than 100 years old.
“Regardless of how he treated them, the institution of slavery is still fundamentally dehumanizing and that’s always problematic for Madison,” said political science professor Howard Lubert said.
Madison believed African Americans could never coexist with whites due to white prejudice. This was a sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, who was known to be blatantly racist.
Madison never freed any of his slaves, and it’s unknown if he wanted to. Poor finances, however, would’ve made that process very difficult. Montpelier tour guide Mandi Dean said Madison was in debt during his retirement years due to a severe nine-year drought, expensive presidential campaign and paying off $40,000 of his stepson’s gambling debts.
“If he did free the slaves that would be even less means for paying off the debt for Dolley,” Reeves said.
Public opinion posed another obstacle to emancipation. Slavery was the economic lifeblood of the union for its first 70 years, and slave owners did not want to part with their property.
“That said, I think it’s important to remember that lots of people did emancipate their slaves,” Lubert said.
The field school is Montpelier’s main source of interns. Usually four or five of the 15 field school students stay on as interns every summer, and those interns often stay on as full-time archaeologists.
“It more than doubles how much we can get done,” Reeves said.
Alger wants to increase our association with the legacy of James Madison. The last day of inauguration week Alger gave a speech at Montpelier on Madison’s birthday to celebrate his legacy.
“We have always celebrated the legacy of President Madison, but I think its a priority for Mr. Alger,” public affairs manager, Bill Wyatt said.
Wyatt also wants students to remember Madison and learn more about him.
“I think thats a concept that fits well with the University’s mission of educating enlightened citizens who go out and make a difference in the world,” Wyatt said. “That’s kinda what Madison did, that kinda what his policies as President did, so it just fits well with the university.”
Contact Sean Dolan at email@example.com.