Some have been noticing the shift in focus — and at times an ideological bias — that pervades many of our historic sites. Case in point: Montpelier, James Madison’s home, where politics has overtaken history.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the organization that owns Montpelier, has considerable resources, but Montpelier is not using its funds to preserve the legacy of James Madison. Rather, supported by the trust, Montpelier is diminishing Madison’s legacy and seeking to influence how history is taught throughout Virginia and how America itself is recognized on the world stage.
Though the trust owns Montpelier, Madison’s home is operated by the Montpelier Foundation. The mission of the Montpelier Foundation is to engage “the public with the enduring legacy of Madison’s most powerful idea: government by the people … to communicate Madison’s role in creating our modern, democratic government.” Incredibly, there are no exhibits at Montpelier dedicated to our nation’s fourth president, the man often called “the Father of the Constitution.”
In 2020, Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources gave $1,000,000 to the County of Orange for programming at Montpelier. Montpelier’s website states that the funding was for a memorialization project, which would include a memorial to enslaved people and the development of anti-racist curricula for use in Virginia public schools. No such memorial has yet been built.
Montpelier’s memorialization project now seems to encompass the Arc of the Enslaved Communities. According to the Washington Examiner’s Quin Hillyer, the original objective of that arc was to have the “whole area from Montpelier to Monticello declared a UNESCO World Heritage site,” all 850 square acres, and recognized as home to one of the “highest concentrations of enslaved Americans during the formative years of the United States.” The arc was conceived by the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) and funded by the National Trust.
The U.S. has a fraught relationship with UNESCO and is currently not a member. In 1983, the U.S. left UNESCO; President Reagan’s administration stated that UNESCO “extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with. It has exhibited hostility toward a free society, especially a free market and a free press.” Some contended that UNESCO downgrading Yellowstone National Park because of plans to open a gold mine in the area was an attempt to undermine America’s “rights to govern itself and to destroy the fabric of US sovereignty.”
Transforming a Historical Site
The UNESCO designation could also further entrench Montpelier’s political shift. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) language is scattered throughout the UNESCO guidelines. In granting international assistance, UNESCO prioritizes, “the inclusive nature of the activity, in particular as concerns gender equality and the involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples.” The MDC claims to represent those whose ancestors were enslaved at Montpelier, but the majority of them are not actual descendants. The UNESCO designation could provide financial incentives to solidify the MDC’s power and encourage DEI programming at Montpelier.
Declaring a portion of Virginia a historic site on the basis of slavery is a complicated and politically fraught objective. It is certainly true that slavery existed in Virginia, and slavery is part of American history. Yet those who seek this designation diminish James Madison and Virginia as the intellectual birthplace of the Constitution. James French, current chairman of the Montpelier board, has noted that people come to Montpelier to “worship” a president and a document, and that Montpelier should “leverage the meaning that [Montpelier] holds for the nation and for the world,” “reinterpret an iconic institution,” and “challenge its history.”
Following a board takeover led by French, it seems Montpelier will continue to try to diminish, rather than recognize, the many accomplishments and status of Madison. For example, they recently changed the banner on their email blasts, relegating Madison’s name from the logo title to a subheading alongside “enslaved community” and “constitution.”
Others at Montpelier want to remake American history. Shockingly, Montpelier’s longstanding director of archeology Matthew Reeves reportedly stated that he has no interest in “honoring a ‘dead white president and a dead white president’s Constitution,’” and that “he needed to act ‘less like a bulldozer and more like a termite that undermined a building’s foundation, destroying it from within before tearing it down.’”
Perhaps because it has strayed from its mission of preserving Madison’s legacy, Montpelier has been in financial trouble for quite some time. According to its statements, Montpelier’s expenses exceeded its revenue in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In the fiscal year ending June 2020, its net assets had decreased by more than $2 million from the previous year. Montpelier currently has “$1.66 million in ‘unfunded liabilities,’ which appear to be the ‘borrowing’ of restricted donations to use for operational expenses instead,” according to The Examiner.
In addition to Montpelier, the National Trust for Historic Preservation owns 26 historic sites that are open to the public. An Act of Congress established the trust in 1949, and, according to its bylaws, “Upon the dissolution or winding up of the Corporation, which according to the Statutory Charter shall be by an Act of Congress, title to its property, both real and personal, shall… pass to and become vested in the United States of America.”
The trust has significant resources and influence. Fifteen of its employees are making well into six figures; its president and chief executive officer receives a base salary of more than $370,000. During the 2020 tax year, it received $4.2 million in government grants, adding to its $411 million in net assets. Other funders of the trust include the Ford Foundation, Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland sit on the trust’s board.
Montpelier and the National Trust are seeking to use the influence of powerful individuals and institutions, including international bodies, to transform American history. Their leverage point of choice is the Father of the Constitution’s own home.
It is up to the American people to push back against these elite forces and restore a faithful and balanced telling of American history, reflective of the national gratitude we owe generations past. Once again, in the spirit of their forebears, Virginians can assume their particular responsibility and defend the home and reputation of James Madison.