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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

James Madison still has plenty to teach us

I’m back from a week of Spring Break so I’m busy digging through emails and trying to remember what I promised to who before I left.

But my mind also keeps drifting back to the week my wife and two sons (nine and seven) spent together.

We stayed relatively close to home and rented a cabin for a few days at Westmoreland State Park in Virginia’s Northern Neck -- a swath of land bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. The park is on the banks of the Potomac.

We picked it mostly because they have what they call Fossil Beach, where my wife wanted to search for shark teeth. That was a bit of a disappointment but the park overall is beautiful and also is near George Washington’s birthplace as well as Stratford Hall, the home of several generations of the Lee family.

The most famous Lee was Confederate general Robert E. of course. But he left Strafford when he was about four. But it was the home of his father Lighthorse Harry Lee and uncles (including two signers of the Declaration of Independence) and his grandparents and great-grandparents.

When we left the Northern Neck, we went to my mother’s home in Luray, Va. But along the way we stopped at Montpelier, the home of James Madison.

Montpelier and Stratford Hall don’t shy away from the legacy of slavery upon which both estates were built. It is sobering and depressing but an important lesson.

The contradiction of Founding Fathers espousing the ideals of equality and freedom while still owning slaves is poignant and is a part of our national legacy that we should confront.

Some may argue that slavery is the past and not the present, and that is a debate for another day and another forum.

But there is no argument that history is relevant today at Montpelier when the discussion turns to the U.S. Constitution.

You hear echoes today of Madison’s ideas and philosophical struggles around the role of government and what role government should play. Where does the government’s power end and individual rights begin?

He talked about gun ownership and immigration, supporting both. He advocated for education and warned against the negative influences of too much religion in public life.

The concept of compromise also was important to him and he owes a great debt to his wife Dolley Madison. She was a big believer in bringing people with opposing views together in social settings so they could get to know each other as people. Apparently they wouldn’t dare argue in front of Dolley, so they had to find other things to talk about and through that process they began to see each other as people and not adversaries. And that is when compromises can be reached.

As cliche as it is, history comes alive at Montpelier because as a democracy and an imperfect one, we wrestle with many of the same concepts and challenges today as the Founding Fathers did in the late 18th century.

The history lesson provides confidence that no matter what the political struggle, we’ve been through tough times before and survived and we well again. But the lesson also is a warning that freedom requires vigilance and is not a destination but an ideal to always strive for. Madison himself wrote that in the U.S. Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Apr 02, 2018 at 1:58 PM

Reader Comments

Tue, Apr 3, 2018 Amtower

Nick- nice piece. I read a fair amount of history but don't often go to places like Montpelier. This might motivate me to get on the road more often...

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