Some of the best events in life are not planned. That was indeed the case when my wife and I set off from Washington, DC to Monticello, VA. Our plan was to leave Reagan National about 9 AM and drive the 2-and-a-half-hour ride to Monticello to arrive around lunch. But as luck would have it, my medication and my body’s reaction to it was cause for some serendipitous detours see map below:
This time I mixed up one of my medications. I usually delay taking this medication when on a road trip, because its purpose is to rid my body of excess water, making numerous bathroom stops necessary. Essentially, I need to stop every 1 hour (or less) to do number 1. So unbeknownst to me at the start, our route to Monticello would be a meandering one.
The urge to purge struck me about 10 miles from the Chancellorsville Visitor Center. I did not know at the time that I was stopping there but when I saw the National Park sign 8 miles later, I had to decide. Pulling into the parking lot with nary 15 seconds to spare, I put the car in park, left the car running (lucky my wife is used to this) and sprinted to the Visitor’s Center restroom. I really should be on one of those “Got to go commercials” for overactive bladders!
After finding relief, I linked up with my wife again and said since we are here we might as well look around. I am glad we did since he learned some historical lessons.
Chancellorsville was a tactical victory for the Confederacy but ultimately a turning point in the war for the Union. How can I say this? The Confederacy did win on the battlefield against Hooker’s Army of the Potomac with an army half its size. But it lost one of its two indispensable Generals – Stonewall Jackson (Lee being the other one). Also, Lee was unable to stop the withdraw of the Army of the Potomac.
In the hour I spent meandering on the trail right outside the Visitor’s Center, I learned two important lessons in history and life. First, often the hinges of history rest on the shoulders of one or two people. Think of Winston Churchill in WW II. To a somewhat lesser extent, what if Stonewall Jackson, the ears and eyes of the Confederacy was at Gettysburg. I am glad he wasn’t for the sake of this great nation, but the question made me ponder how often one person can impact history. The second thing was I was surprisingly moved by the simple stone monument put up on the National Park site to recognize where Stonewall Jackson was shot and ultimately died. It was put there in 1888 by members of Stonewall Jackson’s staff. In the current debates of today, it would be easy to say pull the monument down. But I think not. It is a pivotal part of our nation’s history. If we tear it down, we would remove the memory of how the tide of the Civil War started to turn.
With our first circuitous stop in our march to Monticello completed, my wife and I got back in the car. It was now 11:30. Our stop had taken a big bite out of the time we could spend at Monticello, so we looked for a plan B. We looked on the map and decided I would never make it to Monticello without taking another rest room break. Looking at the map and scanning the internet, we noted that Montpelier, the residence of James Madison was closer and would make a good stop. So, after taking a bite to eat, we drove to Montpelier.
I barely made it! Again, I came to a racing stop at the visitor’s center as I rushed into the rest room. After regrouping, we decided to take the Constitution tour or Montpelier. And I am glad we did! Our second serendipitous stop taught us the good, the bad, and the ugly about James Madison.
The good was the brilliance of James Madison and his contribution to our country. Thomas Jefferson is known as the poet of the American Revolution with his writing of the inspirational Declaration of Independence. But James Madison was responsible for the prose of the American Revolution – the Constitution and Bill of Rights upon which our republic is built and the Federalist papers that underpin these documents. The Declaration of Independence without the construct of the Constitution is essentially no more than a dream. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights make it a reality. And James Madison was the driving force of both.
The Bad was the paradox of slavery. James and Dolly Madison were slave owners and Montpelier would not exist if it was not for slave labor. Here was James Madison who created the Constitution and Bill of Rights that declared all men equal under the law denying the freedom other men and treating them as property. There is an excellent exhibit at Montpelier called “The Mere Distinction of Color” that shows the unvarnished truth about how James Madison and other founding fathers treated the slaves.
This exhibit eventually descends into the ugly truth of Montpelier. James Madison to bail his stepson John Payne Todd from debtor’s prison had to mortgage Montpelier. Later when he died, Dolly to pay off her son’s debts primarily due to his alcoholism had to sell all of Montpelier and the slaves residing on it. Families were torn apart as they were separated and sold to different slave owners, creating an ugly legacy for the architect of the Constitution – the greatest force for freedom and liberty ever designed. What irony!
After visiting Montpelier, it was 4 O’clock. Too late to visit Monticello that evening but only 29 miles away from Charlottesville and our hotel for the evening. Even I can make it for 29 miles without stopping for the restroom. So, we pulled into our hotel. More meandering on our trip to Monticello would happen after dinner as we visited the University of Virginia. But we will leave that for Part 3 of this blog series to be discussed together with our visit to the UVA founder’s home – Monticello!
If you found this blog interesting, please click on the following link for the first in this series. A Walk with History (Part 1): Overcoming Slavery’s Stain