Magazine article Humanities

The Home as History

Magazine article Humanities

The Home as History

Article excerpt

FOR FIFTY YEARS, THOMAS JEFFERSON and James Madison were the closest of political allies and friends. Jefferson, who according to his Federalist opponents was the "generalissimo" to Madison's "general," supplied the vision while Madison served as tactician. Frequently they dined at each other's houses, only a day's ride on horseback. Now, in the middle of a massive restoration project, Madison's plantation, Montpelier, serves as a backdrop for one of NEH's twenty-six Landmarks of American History and Culture workshops.

The Landmarks workshops provide educators with a week of intensive study at some of America's key historic sites. Each summer about two thousand teachers and scholars converge on these sites to discuss history where it was made. "What you want to do if it's a real Landmarks workshop is use the site for educational purposes. That is, the site itself, the materials here, the house and the gardens and all the characteristics of the plantation, need to be become materials for instruction and understanding," says Will Harris, director of the "James Madison and Constitutional Citizenship" workshop at Montpelier.

During two successive weeks in June and July, about fifty teachers work with scholars on the plantation to further understand Madison's role in the founding of the nation and the writing of the Constitution. "There is something wonderfully grounding about doing this at Madison's house. This is where so many of the founding ideas were conceived to begin with, by the one man who made so many of the proposals. This is a good place to recover that," says Harris.

Each morning of the conference begins with a lecture from a scholar. In about two and a half hours, the scholars pack in weeks' worth of material.

In his lecture on The Federalist Papers, written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in defense of the Constitution, Harris draws from Aristotle, the Bible, Jefferson's system of organizing books, and the Star Wars trilogy to explain the feud between the Federalists and anti-Federalists, showing the political divides that still exist. He uses diagrams and Madison's own writings to explain four centuries of political theory.

Besides Harris, a political science professor from the University of Pennsylvania, the program includes professor Ralph Ketcham, whose biography of Madison is a central text of the workshop; Jeff Tulis, a professor from the University of Texas; Hunter R. Rawlings III, interim president and professor at Cornell University; the Honorable Sue Leeson, former associate justice of the Oregon Supreme Court; and Kim Lane Schneppele, director of the Law and Politics Program at Princeton University. Harris says, "Our goal is basically to say to the teachers, 'you can own these ideas. And you can teach them because you know them.'"

For the Montpelier workshop, Harris divides the program into six parts, corresponding with different times in Madison's life, ranging from his early political preparation to his role at the Constitutional Convention to his place in the new government. Madison is not only remembered for his work on the Constitution, but also as the draftsman of the Bill of Rights, secretary of state under Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States.

The workshop is a lesson in civics as well as history. Harris, who helped write the National Civics Standards, and the other instructors try to bridge the gap between the late eighteenth century and today by showing how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights still protect liberties. As Harris says, "We're not just trying to recover Madison's ideas, we're trying to recover Madison's way of thinking." Throughout the lecture, Harris emphasizes the civic responsibility that drove men such as Madison to leave their homes in the service of a young nation. He tells the teachers, "Without you, this Constitution fails." Karen Gallimore, a high school teacher from Sterling, Virginia, echoes the thought: "The schools today are the only connection left to foster citizenship. …

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