A new report from Heritage Foundation scholar Brenda Hafera provides unique insights and observations into how the presidential homes of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison mostly are failing to teach accurately what these men achieved to establish our country.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon is easily the best of the three, remaining relatively faithful to its former owner. But things quickly get bad at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and just ugly at James Madison’s Montpelier.
As Hafera notes:
Madison [and] his accomplishments are relegated to a portion of the house tour [in] which guides can write their own script. But they must talk about Dolley and James Madison, the enslaved people, and the Constitution. So Madison is talked about there. He is talked about in a brief video in the visitors center, which also labels the Constitution racist and Madison a slave owner.
But there are no exhibits on James Madison as the fourth president, as the father of the Constitution, as the primary author of the Bill of Rights, or writing a number of the Federalist Papers, which ensured the ratification of that Constitution.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Richard Reinsch: Welcome to “The Daily Signal Podcast.” I’m Richard Reinsch. Today, I’m talking with Brenda Hafera, assistant director and senior policy analyst at the Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, about a new report she has written titled “A Tale of Three Presidential Houses: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Now, this is a lengthy report that details concentrated efforts, pedagogical corruption, and presentation of the legacy of our great Virginian presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Brenda, news is starting to trickle out of things going on at these homes. People are starting to write about it. However, you have written a comprehensive and detailed review of the exact nature of the corruption, of how we might learn about the legacy and the ideas and the teachings of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
You also write about the George Washington home, Mount Vernon, but things there are not nearly as far gone as they are at these other two homes. Tell us what prompted you to write this report, and what did you find?
Brenda Hafera: Well, honestly, what prompted me is I have gone on these tours multiple times. And most of the time I would get into, I would call a conversation, with some of the tour guides over the way they were presenting things. And some of the things that they said, which were just inaccurate and I didn’t think a fair representation. And so that’s how this all started. And what I found is in our assessment [is that] Mount Vernon is the good, Monticello is the bad, and Montpelier is unfortunately the ugly.
Mount Vernon is doing quite a good job because they have an entire education and museum center focused on George Washington and his accomplishments. So they take you through his early life, the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, the farewell address, and all these different pieces that are an important part of Washington’s legacy. During the house tour, they talk about Washington. They talk about life on the estate, including the enslaved people who lived there. And they talk about the house itself.
And so Mount Vernon is incorporating the story of slavery into the story of Mount Vernon. It’s presented in a very even handed way. It’s just, this is part of our history, and we just talk about it in a fact-driven manner. And so them doing that, along with paying careful attention to George Washington’s accomplishments, is what makes them the gold standard.
Reinsch: And I take it the Mount Vernon presentation, there is not also the attempt to look at slavery as it existed at Mount Vernon, and then say this defines forever George Washington’s legacy. And in effect, tarnishes him and removes him from being an exemplar and the founding father that he was for America?
Hafera: Exactly. Slavery is kept in proportion. They have reconstructed the slave quarters and they have a memorial to those who died on the estates, which is really lovely. But still, the dominant focus is on George Washington. And there’s no biased motivation behind the account of slavery. It’s not used to tear down George Washington, it’s simply a part of the estate and part of life on the estate.
Reinsch: OK. So that’s good. And I take it we’ve got to preserve that and do that. Now, let’s look at the Thomas Jefferson home, let’s look at Monticello. If someone listening to this podcast who say, doesn’t have a detailed understanding of Thomas Jefferson, were to visit Monticello, what do they learn about his role founding the University of Virginia? His role in religious freedom, establishing religious freedom in America? His role in the American founding, generally? Drafting the Declaration of Independence, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” his presidency? Would they learn those things? Would that information be, in some form made readily available to visitors?
Hafera: Unfortunately, most of that is pretty sidelined at this point at Monticello.
Reinsch: So what is emphasized?
Brenda Hafera: There are a number of exhibits on slavery at Monticello. They have reconstructed the quarters along Mulberry Row and talk about what slavery was like both in the United States and in Virginia. In the cellars, there are multiple exhibits on the purpose of each room, as well as slavery of the individual families, an exhibit on the life of Sally Hemings.
At the base of the mountain, there are some exhibits on the construction of Monticello and Jefferson as an architect and scientist, which they talk about during the house tour as well. And they talk a bit about some of the accomplishments of Jefferson you just mentioned, but it’s really not the dominant focus. There’s no exhibit, for example, on the Declaration of Independence, on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
Reinsch: A big omission. To not even speak about the Declaration of Independence, when he was the first mover of that document, in effect.
Hafera: Right. He’s the primary drafter. And even independent of Thomas Jefferson himself, it’s important to talk about these documents because they really define our character as Americans. So Americans are losing a big part of our history, including losing the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.
Reinsch: So I go to Monticello, what do I learn? What do I learn about Jefferson and the home Monticello, how it functioned and operated when he was alive? What would I take away? What do you think those who are curating that exhibit, that home, want me to take away?
Hafera: Well, I think something that gets at the heart of this is just to look at what tours are available and how long they are. So the house tour is about 45 minutes long, and they talk about Jefferson as a scientist. They talk about the inventions in the house. They do talk a little bit about the Declaration, and often.
And then they talk about him as an inventor, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the life of Sally Hemings. They introduce that story when they talk about Thomas Jefferson’s time in France. And they are presenting that story without qualification now, rather than a controversy over which historians disagree.
So there’s the house tour. There is a 45-minute tour on slavery, which is quite a popular tour. And then a two-and-a-half-hour long tour, From Slavery to Freedom, is now also available.
Reinsch: So the Sally Hemings controversy is … just for the benefit of listeners. Did Jefferson father a child with Sally Hemings? Did he have an affair or relationship with her? Scholars to this day are divided on this, factually. I mean, it seems that many have come down and said yes. Some still say no. But at the home, it’s a fait accompli, in effect?
Hafera: Right. We don’t know, and I certainly don’t know. Historians do disagree. There was DNA evidence released in 1998 that proved that a Jefferson, but not necessarily Thomas Jefferson fathered one of Sally Hemings’ children. Multiple societies have launched questions and investigations into this question. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation that owns Monticello has now decided to present this as verified fact and have eliminated any qualification on their website or at the exhibits.
Reinsch: What did you find? Just thinking holistically here, I mean, so much about Jefferson and the American founding, you go and visited this home, Brenda. What bothered you? Just speaking impressionistically. What bothered you and what bothered you regarding those visiting this home and what they’re not going to learn and what they are going to learn about Jefferson?
Hafera: Right. So I am perfectly fine with talking about slavery. It’s part of our history. It was a contradiction to our principles that we eliminated and the founders took deliberate steps to set on the course of ultimate extinction. So I don’t have an issue with that.
What I do have an issue with is that the founders’ legacies are effectively being erased or distorted. That so little time is being devoted to what these great men did and what unites us as Americans. These ideas are really fundamental to our character. So learning about these things or not learning about them is incredibly important. And the folks who are sidelining the ideas of the Declaration and the importance of the Constitution, are actually undermining our unity as Americans.
Reinsch: What did you think was the worst part at Monticello, of the experience? Most egregious misrepresentation or gilding the lily, as it were?
Hafera: Guides often claimed during the tours that Jefferson did not mean [it at] all when he wrote that all men are created equal. And that just isn’t true. “Men” is not a substitute for “white men.” It’s not an exclusion of women. It is a substitute for all of mankind. This is a set of universal principles that Thomas Jefferson and the founders put forth.
And this idea is something that we have continually strived toward. It is the North Star of America. And that doesn’t mean that we are perfect, but we set forth this principle, starting with the founding. And generations of Americans have contributed to the project of a further realization of that principle. So to say that all does not include everybody, is just a disservice.
Reinsch: Who’s behind Monticello? Who owns it, who runs it, who funds it? What do you make of the sources of this corrupt presentation?
Hafera: It is privately owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. And I would say there has been a marked shift at Monticello in the past 10 years or so, about since 2007, around that time. I’ve been going to Monticello for quite a while. And for those who haven’t been for some years, it has changed significantly.
And I would attribute that change to two primary things. One is there was a change in leadership. There’s a new president at Monticello. And two, a man by the name of David Rubenstein gave $20 million to Monticello for the Mountain Top Project, which includes much of what we covered. The reconstruction along Mulberry Row, the life of Sally Hemings exhibit, and those sorts of things. So, there are some big funders, I would say, that are behind and driving this.
Reinsch: So David Rubenstein’s funding adds or places a lot of weight on this focus on slavery or racism and other parts of a legacy, presenting it in, of course, an overhanded way. Is that fair?
Hafera: That seems to be the case. And Rubenstein seems to be very interested in preserving American history. He’s donated to the Washington Memorial. He’s donated to a lot of projects. But unfortunately, he does seem to agree with the idea that “all” does not include all in “all men are created equal.” And Monticello has said that his $20 million gift was a transformational gift. So it did have considerable weight.
Reinsch: Let’s turn to the ugly. James Madison’s home, Montpelier. I’ll ask you the same question about Madison that I asked about Jefferson: If I visit the Madison home, do I learn about his role in the American founding? Do I learn about his incredible ideas in the Philadelphia convention, the Virginia Plan? Do I learn about his writings in the Federalist Papers, his presidency, any number of aspects of his memorable career? He was just a brilliant young man and one of the youngest founders, definitely the youngest at the Convention. So this is James Madison. He is rightly thought to be a magnificent founder of our country. Do I learn about those things at all if I go to Montpelier?
Hafera: Montpelier is the worst offender of the three. There are currently no exhibits on James Madison himself. The only portion …
Reinsch: Wait a minute, let’s just back up for a second. At his home, at his presidential home, there are no exhibits on Madison?
Hafera: That is correct.
Reinsch: That’s incredible.
Richard Reinsch: You state that so calmly, Brenda.
Hafera: I’ve been writing about this for a while. Madison is … his accomplishments are relegated to a portion of the house tour, [for] which guides can write their own script, but they must talk about Dolley and James Madison, the enslaved people, and the Constitution. So Madison is talked about there.
He is talked about in a brief video in the visitors center, which also labels the Constitution racist and Madison a slave owner. But there are no exhibits on James Madison as the fourth president, as the father of the Constitution, as the primary author of the Bill of Rights, or writing a number of the Federalist Papers, which ensured the ratification of that Constitution. So Madison, more than anyone else, I think, is responsible for the Constitution. He was the political philosopher of the American founding, and he is not being given his due at Montpelier.
Reinsch: So just let’s just think about the Constitution for a minute. They mention him to be a slave owner. OK. They talk about the Constitution. They don’t talk about him and his connection to the Constitution. Is that what I hear you to be saying?
Hafera: Right. So what predominates at Montpelier is the “Mere Distinction of Color” exhibits, which is a series of exhibits in the cellars of Madison’s home and the reconstructed quarters in the south yard. So there is an exhibit on the Constitution, but it focuses on slavery and the Constitution. And it’s a very misleading exhibit. It doesn’t focus on James Madison’s role in shaping the Constitution, or the remarkable [stature] of that document. Which today, is the oldest written Constitution in the world.
Instead, it focuses on slavery and it misrepresents the Constitution and leaves out certain facts, I would say that are important. For example, Madison says at the Constitutional Convention that the delegates purposely refrain from affirming the idea, the principle that you could have property in men. And this is a very deliberate move on behalf of the delegates, to make sure that they can set up slavery to be extinguished.
So they understood the Constitution as being a pro-freedom document. Where [at] Montpelier, the way they are presenting it is as a proslavery document. Which is an idea that has … it’s revisionist history. It’s really gotten momentum in the past 30 years or so. And it’s just not giving the Constitution, really, the place in our American history that it deserves.
Reinsch: It’s a slave owner’s constitution. And now, we have a slave owner’s constitution. It was the Confederate States of America’s constitution, which expressly affirms ownership of human beings. As you know, that was not in our [U.S.] Constitution. I take it then that the notion of compromise, of the competing aspects of history that they confronted, and we were dealing with to try to build a union, that moves to the side. That doesn’t even get mentioned. What is mentioned is a very heavy handed reading that there was slavery, they were racist, and they’re using this Constitution to protect that and build it for the future.
Hafera: Yeah. So the impression you get is that slavery is the central animating force behind the economy and laws of the United States. That seems to be the thesis that they’re putting forth. And they don’t, as you mention, contextualize certain compromises. So for example, at the Constitutional Convention, it was incredibly tense. And Madison at one point says, the real division here is not between the large states and the small states, which led to the Great Compromise. He said the real division is between the North and the South. And what he meant by that [was] on the question of slavery.
And the Southern delegates were threatening not to sign on to the Constitution and to go and join and make their own country, which, of course, later they tried to do. And if they didn’t have the Union, the Founders knew that they had very little, if any chance for extinguishing slavery. Because if the South formed their own country, the North would’ve had no influence on them in getting rid of slavery. So if they had drawn a hard line and refused to compromise, it’s probably the case that very few, if any slaves, would’ve actually been freed.
Reinsch: Exactly. And there’s also just this question of, what are you going to do? Politically, prudently, given the assessments that you face, the problems that you face, and your need to form a whole country. And those are questions that statesmen always have faced throughout time. And to read that in, as in this ideological way or this deeply misguided way, suggests to me pedagogical corruption.
And beyond just that, it suggests to me that what’s invaded Madison’s home, … this is my take, and I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts, is what’s called critical race theory or anti-racism. And this need to assert, as [The New York Times’] 1619 Project does, that America is just founded on slavery. It’s founding is no good. And we need an entirely new country with new principles.
Hafera: I think that’s fair to say. Critical race theory puts slavery as the animating central force behind America, rather than properly placing it as something that always contradicted our principles and that we moved towards the eliminating. It’s not simply about discussing race and slavery. It’s something far more insidious than that. And I would say Montpelier is adopting that narrative, based on what they are putting forth as the driving force behind the Constitution.
And I think what this demonstrates is the real motivation here of what they’re trying to do. In painting the Constitution as pro-slavery and diminishing Madison, they’re really trying to diminish the principles that define America. And if you can make those principles, if you can taint them sufficiently, then you open up the doorway for them to be replaced by something else. Something like the principles of identity politics and critical race theory. So I think this is really an ambitious project.
Reinsch: So, just a practical question that comes to mind, I’m sure you thought of this. Who’s still going to visit these homes? I mean, most Americans are not into this. We know that from a lot of other political discussions, arguments that are going on. Americans, when they hear about this or are confronted with these types of arguments, identity politics-type arguments, tend to recoil or look the other way. They’re not impressed with it.
Who is going to come to Madison’s home as this corruption becomes more widely known? I suppose they would say, we don’t care, necessarily. But we care. And it seems to me they’re really hurting their own project here of trying to present Madison to the public.
Hafera: I think the numbers bear that out. Mount Vernon has by far the most visitors every year. I think it’s about twice the number of Monticello. And Montpelier comes in at 125,000, I believe, where Mount Vernon is about a million. So the proof is there that people really are not getting what they expect to get when they go to Montpelier, which is to learn about the Constitution and learn about James Madison.
Reinsch: The Madison home, in particular, when did this start? In your research, did you uncover when it really seemed to go in this direction? And do you have a sense of why this happened and where the money’s coming from to fund this? I remember visiting Montpelier in, I think 2009. And there seemed to be a lot of work going on to make the home … I don’t know, more attractive, or to restore it. Various projects, construction projects seemed to be going on. And as I’ve thought about your report, I’ve thought, maybe there was this inflection point where they wanted to go in a new direction with the Madison home. And they obviously have.
Hafera: Montpelier hosted a national summit for teaching slavery. And the folks that they invited to that summit include associates from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a group that maligns people they disagree with as hate groups. They invited SPLC associates to that summit, and they then invited them to produce the video that is shown in Madison’s cellar. And in that video, they say that there are probably more defeats in pursuit of justice and fairness and equality in American history than there are moments of triumph.
They then produced a rubric from this national summit for teaching slavery at historical sites. They are providing the guidelines for how slavery should be taught. And that rubric talks about teaching white supremacy and systemic racism. That it’s not enough simply to talk about the contributions of the enslaved, these historic sites have to go further. They are putting into practice these things.
So that was a major shift. The organization that owns Montpelier, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, owns about 27 other sites around the country. And they are really … they’re behind this narrative. They’re very large organization. They have …
Reinsch: So just to back up for a second: This trust owns 27 valuable historical sites in American history? So we can say the Madison home has been corrupted. OK, but this raises the prospect of it being exported. And ways being found at all of these other places to use anti-racism to explain them, justify them, or tear them down, I suppose would be the better way to think about it.
So this could really get deep, in terms of the corruption? Right. So the National Trust owns 27 historical sites. They have about $50 million in current assets, about $468 million in total assets. And they are receiving money from some very large donors, including Mellon, Hewlett, Ford, Mackenzie Scott, who is Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife. And of course, George Soros. So there is quite a lot of money behind them and we can expect there’s potential for them to spread their narrative across these other historic sites, including they own the Lincoln Cottage.
Another actor in this is David Rubenstein, who we mentioned earlier, donated to Monticello. He made possible the Mere Distinction of Color exhibit at Montpelier as well. And he has also recently donated $10 million to the Jefferson Memorial. So there is a lot of potential for this narrative to spread in other places. So if one thinks about this, so these presidential homes and these other historic sites, are they mostly privately owned and financed, such that there’s really no response from the federal government or state governments to this corruption? How might one go at it?
Hafera: A bit more complicated. So Monticello recently received funding from the National Endowment for Humanities for exhibits and tours on the Declaration, which is great that they’re going to finally be talking about the Declaration. But considering they put forth that Jefferson did not mean it at all, when he wrote all men are created equal …
Reinsch: So which scholars are they looking to, to implement or design how they present it?
Hafera: We shall see. And Montpelier also received both federal and state funding. So they received a federal grant for a children’s exhibit. Which is, again, not on the Constitution, but about teaching children about race and slavery. And they received $2 million from the commonwealth of Virginia for a memorialization project towards those who were enslaved, which has not been constructed yet. And other projects, including the development of anti-racist curriculum for use in Virginia public schools.
Reinsch: So it’s fair to say, I mean, a lot of people listening will say, so this is what’s happening at public schools, elementary schools, high schools across the country, is also now just being implemented at our historical homes and sites of memory, national memory. The goal being to disabuse Americans of who they are, of where they come from. And then the next goal is, how do I then show you what it means to be an American? It’s to be an anti-racist.
Hafera: This is a full-fledged effort. I mean, education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. These historic sites are where teachers bring their classes, where parents bring their kids, and where families gather to learn the American story. So they’re incredibly important for our history, which I think is revealed by the fact that they are being targeted, and that’s so much money is going toward transforming them.
Reinsch: It’s interesting. It’s a strength of our country that we have the founding documents. That we have ideas and records of debates and how the founders thought about our country and what they were trying to build, and what they disagreed over. And so we have that record and that’s a wonderful thing. Then the focus then at these homes would be to dismiss it, to ignore it, to taint it, as you were arguing. As you’ve thought about this problem, what should we do to think about it going forward?
Hafera: I think the word is vigilance. We really need to be vigilant that this narrative is creeping to these other places. Parents need to be vigilant about this curriculum potentially coming to their school. The Southern Poverty Law Center has distributed curriculum directly to schools, bypassing parents. And with SPLC associates involved at Montpelier, that could potentially happen in this case as well. So parents need to be aware.
The Heritage Foundation has a guide for identifying critical race theory. We’re putting forth a guide on this long report on Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier for parents. If you’re going to take your children there, what is it that you need to know going into it? And my general advice too would be, choose who to support. So Mount Vernon is doing a very nice job. At Monticello it’s much more mixed. And Montpelier is doing a poor job.
Reinsch: We’ve been talking with Brenda Hafera, author of a new Heritage Foundation report, “A Tale of Three Presidential Houses: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Thank you so much.
Hafera: Thank you, Richard.
Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email [email protected] and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the url or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state.