Traveling the Constitution Route, then and now

Montpelier by Bruce Stambaugh

Montpelier, home of James and Dolly Madison.

By Bruce Stambaugh

White, pink and yellow floral displays, both wild and domesticated, brightened the cold, steely overcast morning, invigorating our drive along Virginia’s historic Constitution Route.

Pastels predominated in the form of flashy forsythia bushes and clusters of buttery daffodils, showy pink magnolia petals, peach, cherry and redbud blossoms. Serviceberry bushes and flowering ornamentals showed their whites against winter’s dormant and dull remnants.

Familial signs at the gates of long lanes announced the names of many old money mansions of the sprawling plantations that now operate as horse and cattle farms all along the serpentine trail, officially known as Virginia Route 20. Mint Meadow, Gaston Hall, Hershey Hill, and Somerset were only a few of the rolling farms’ monikers.

Blooms at UVA by Bruce Stambaugh

Ornamental trees were in full bloom in Virginia.

Miles of fences, some white as the tree blossoms that kept them company, others stained soot black, still others meshed wire, lined the curvy route between Montpelier, James Madison’s home, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s architectural wonder.

Most of the meandering highway on the 40-minute drive closely followed the very route that these two founding fathers and United States presidents had traveled by horseback or carriage more than two centuries earlier.

At one of the lazy s-curves, with a greening meadow on the east side and a dense deciduous woodlot on the other, a Bald Eagle flew across in front of us. Its talons clutched a trailing tangle of leafy vines, likely the softer lining for its bulky stick nest.

Though we were traveling at a much faster pace in a much faster world, I couldn’t help but sense the history that had happened along this path and at the dignified homes we passed. Only now farmhands groomed the horses and fed the cattle instead of slaves.

Madison statue by Bruce Stambaugh

A lifesize statue of James and Dolly Madison accentuates the beautiful backyard at their historic homestead, Montpelier in Virginia.

At Montpelier, a spreading magnolia in full-bloom served as the backdrop for a life-sized bronze statue of James and Dolly Madison. Though slight in stature, both were giants in establishing the democratic and social courses for our fledgling republic.

The ingenious Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, and the meticulous Madison, the father of the Constitution, regularly rode the Constitution Route to each other’s homes to both socialize and pontificate.

To walk in their footsteps and see first hand their magnificent homes, slave quarters included, and to learn more about their magnificent minds and accomplishments was beyond inspirational. It was humbling and moving.

Exploring there was a refreshing retreat from the current turbulent and often selfish political times in which we find ourselves. Silently I wondered what these two great men would say about today’s state of affairs. At each location, the informative visitor centers helped answer that pondering.

Montpelier slave quarters by Bruce Stambaugh

Excavating the living and working areas of Madison's slaves at Montpelier is underway.

Jefferson and Madison, both learned visionaries who lived at opposite ends of the Constitution Route, were united in determining the direction the Constitution should take, that all people are created equal and endowed with specific freedoms.

Virginians will quickly point out that both men played prominent rolls in developing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Their joint influence is revealed in the law: “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” That concept was the first point Madison made in the Bill of Rights.

The two homesteads were fascinating to tour. The dedicated commitment of Jefferson and Madison to form, frame and cement certain rights, including the choice of religion sans government endorsement or coercion, made the Constitution the jewel in the crown neither president ever wanted to wear.

Monticello by Bruce Stambaugh

Thomas Jefferson's masterpiece, Monticello.

8 Comments

Filed under column, history, photography

8 responses to “Traveling the Constitution Route, then and now

  1. MMG

    Nice column, but I would like to play devil’s advocate for a second. It’s nice that these men advocated for religious freedom, and I’m not an expert on Madison, but Jefferson (with whom I share a birthday), was a slave-holder. What about the cultural, social, moral implications of this very fact? No doubt these men played a key role in the creation of our democracy, but the U.S. was built on the backs of slave labor and human exploitation, a major human rights violation–and a horrific and embarassing cultural legacy.
    I think it’s nice to visit these places, but don’t hold these men up on pedastals when they clearly also had major flaws.

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    • Meena, You’re absolutely correct. Since my column is limited to 600+ words, I had to only refer to the slave situation during the early development of our country. To expound on them could be a column unto itself. I was impressed, however, how openly and honestly the guides and info centers at Montpelier and Monticello discussed the living conditions and treatment of slaves on those two plantations. Perhaps I should have also included a picture or pictures of the excavations of the slave quarters that are ongoing at both sites. Either way, your point is well taken, although I really don’t think I was idealizing the men as much as I was sharing my experience of walking where these founding fathers had walked. Thanks for sharing. Bruce

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  2. MMG

    Thanks for taking my opinion so graciously. I know I’m outspoken. But I agree that the topic of slavery could be another column. I’m glad the guides are open and realistic.

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    • Meena,

      I have added a picture of the excavations of slave quarters and work areas currently underway at Montpelier. It’s a token start to an idea I need to cultivate and expand on here.

      Thanks, again.

      Bruce

      Like

  3. Pingback: Traveling through Virginia « Amalia Travel

  4. I really enjoyed your post and linked back to it in my own blog post about traveling on the Constitution Route. Hope you enjoy! Happy Traveling and writing.
    http://ethnostravel.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/traveling-through-virginia/

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  5. Pingback: Traveling through Virginia | Amalia Vida

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