Virginia is for history lovers. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier—a triad of epicenters of our nation’s past—are all within driving distance.
Those who own and operate these historic houses have a significant say over how the American Founding is taught. Unfortunately, as described in a new Heritage Foundation report, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) work has been influential at James Madison’s Montpelier.
You might think Montpelier would focus on Madison’s numerous accomplishments, particularly his role in shaping the Constitution and the nation. You would be wrong. They now concentrate almost exclusively on slavery, its “central role in the framing of the nation” and its “lasting legacies." In so doing, Montpelier ignores and diminishes Madison and puts identity politics over the American Founding.
The SPLC is famous for maintaining a list of “hate groups" that has come to include individuals and organizations they disagree with like the Family Research Council, which was targeted by a gunman who found them on the SPLC’s “hate map.” Another of the SPLC’s initiatives is "Teaching Tolerance" (rebranded "Learning for Justice"). The project provides educational resources, including guides for “Teaching Hard History” (what they refer to as “frameworks”) for addressing slavery in classrooms. Their materials are often sent directly to schools, bypassing parents.
For grades 6-12, the "Learning for Justice" materials contend that inequalities in employment, housing, educational opportunities, health care, workplaces, sports setting, churches, and mass incarceration are all legacies of slavery.
In 2017, Montpelier introduced "The Mere Distinction of Colour," a series of exhibits on slavery. Some are informative, providing a history of slavery and describing what life was like for those enslaved.
One portion features a contemporary video on slavery’s lasting legacies. Montpelier states, “From mass incarceration, to the achievement gap, to housing discrimination, and the vicious cycle of poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity throughout America’s inner cities, the legacies of 200 years of African American bondage are still with us.”
Prominently featured in the video is Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University and a host of the SPLC’s "Teaching Hard History" podcast. Jeffries not only helped develop the Montpelier video, he also co-authored the SPLC’s “Teaching Hard History” framework for K-5 students and wrote the preface for the 6-12 framework. In that preface Jeffries states, “Some say slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin.”
There are multiple similarities between Montpelier’s video and the SPLC’s preface. For example, Jeffries’ preface notes, “Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, ‘Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.’” The Montpelier video features Gibson delivering those remarks. Likewise, in the preface, Jeffries writes that people are more comfortable with the “Disney version of history.” In the video, he repeats those same remarks.
Another section of Montpelier’s exhibit deals with the Constitution and slavery. It is often misleading and gives the false impression that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document. It draws attention to the Electoral College, a provision historian Sean Wilentz notes was “no slaveholders’ ploy.” The exhibit also neglects to explain that the Constitution was crafted, purposefully and carefully, to avoid affirming property in man, as Wilentz details in "No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding."
The exhibit draws attention to the clauses in the Constitution that pertain to slavery (though the word itself appears nowhere in the Constitution). The majority of the clauses highlighted by Montpelier are those addressed in the SPLC’s framework. Some are obvious, like the Three-Fifths Clause. Others, like the sections dealing with domestic insurrections, are not primarily about slavery (though they did apply to slave revolts). Many historians agree that the delegates had at the forefront of their minds Shays’ Rebellion, during which 1,500 people seized control of Massachusetts' roadways to protest state efforts to collect taxes. The rebellion, which had nothing to do with slavery, had ended just a few months prior to the convention. The government’s inability to stop it convinced many (including James Madison himself) that the Articles of Confederation were too weak. Yet Montpelier does not provide this historical context.
The SPLC’s influence seems even to extend to Montpelier’s exhibit for kids. In 2019, Montpelier was awarded a federal grant for a children’s exhibit “to foster conversations about fairness, justice, and race between children and their caregivers.” In the corner of the exhibit is a reading nook that describes the books it offers as "great tools for introducing young children to topics like race, identity, and justice.” All eight of the available books are recommended by the SPLC’s teaching framework for grades K-5.
SPLC associates also now enjoy leadership roles at Montpelier. Dr. Jeffries and Maureen Costello, the SPLC’s former director of "Teaching Tolerance," were recently nominated to Montpelier’s Board of Directors. Jeffries was confirmed, and while not ultimately appointed to the board, Costello was invited to join an Advisory Council to assist Montpelier.
Prior to this, authors of the SPLC frameworks and Costello were invited to a summit hosted by Montpelier that produced a manual (which they refer to as a “rubric”) to guide historical sites on how they should teach about slavery and engage “descendent communities.” In that rubric, Montpelier cites the work of the SPLC, noting that while its “assessment targets the teaching of slavery in America’s schools, it is equally applicable to museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions.”
The rubric further states that American history should be approached in a “spirit of restorative justice,” and staff should undergo “significant and ongoing anti-racist training (which includes interpreting difficult history, deconstructing and interrogating white privilege, white supremacy, and systemic racism, and engaging visitors on these subjects).”
Montpelier seems to agree with the dubious and inflammatory contention that slavery is not just America’s original sin but our origin. The exhibits for children and those about the Constitution focus on race and slavery. There are no exhibits on James Madison’s accomplishments.
Telling a complete story of America means acknowledging not just the evils of slavery but also America’s significant contributions to the cause of human freedom. Sadly, the latter is sorely lacking at Montpelier.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear Public Affairs