photos by Julia Travers

Constitution Day at Montpelier: A Welcoming and Interactive Encounter With American History

On Saturday, Sept. 16, Montpelier, home of fourth president James Madison, hosted its annual Constitution Day, traditionally held on the third Saturday of September. Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution” for his essential role in the composition and promotion of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. The U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787. Montpelier ran a host of free family-friendly and educational events and tours throughout the day.

The United States Constitution has been described as the hinge point in world history — the moment when the dominant form of government began to change from monarchy to democracy. As the lifelong home of James Madison … Montpelier celebrates Constitution Day to honor the fundamental ideas of natural rights, individual liberty, democracy, citizenship and rule of law that continue to shape American life and inspire people around the world,

Christy Moriarty, tourism coordinator at Montpelier, expressed in an email.

A variety of tours were offered during this event, including the “We the People” trail walk. This interpreter-led walk took guests along the 3.55-mile Montpelier Loop Trail to and introduced them to topics such as Madison: the early environmentalist, Montpelier management, tree identification, other historical families who have lived on the property including the duPonts, and additional related subjects.

Many other tours filled the warm and mild Saturday, including: “Montpelier’s Enslaved Community,” which introduces guests to important sites in the lives of Montpelier’s slave community; “Gardens & Grounds;” and the “Dig It! Archaeology Tour.”

The house was open with free admission as were the nearby Gilmore Cabin, a freedman’s farm, and the Train Depot Jim Crow exhibition, In the Time of Segregation. Mr. Madison was on-site in the appropriate garb of his era, welcoming guests and answering questions. Colonial-era games and toys as well as hands-on history activities took place around the grounds as well.

Many families could be seen enjoying these historic wooden amusements.

Brick making was another popular activity — visitors were taught how to make bricks and were then able to write their initials in them and lay them in the sun to dry. Locally-made bricks will be used in the reconstruction of historical structures in the South Yard, including the kitchen.

The Pickin’ Daisies, Apple Butter Soul and Pretty Little Miss provided live music by the Visitor’s Center — I personally enjoyed hearing the Pickin’ Daisies bright harmonies.

Guests could choose to purchase a sumptuous lunch from the Barbeque Exchange. This meal featured pulled pork, fried chicken, Brunswick stew, hoppin’ John and other delicious fare. Lunch was enjoyed at tables around the center or picnic-style on Montpelier’s extensive and lovely grounds. Adult beverages from Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company and Castle Hill Cider were also available.

The sixth annual Liberty Ride took place on the 16th as well, which is an under 10-mile horseback ride and fundraiser for the Orange County Parks and Rec Foundation. The trail ride commences at Montpelier and moves along the estate and neighboring properties.

I ride once a year, for this event, and it gives me chills each year when we ride up to mansion. History was made here and it’s pretty cool to ride your horse in the same places that horses were ridden over 200 years ago,

Orange County Parks and Rec Director Tim Moubray told the Orange County Review.

The archeological lab and working archaeological dig sites were open during this daylong, festive event. The Archaeology Department also holds monthly tours that allow guests to learn about their process, including the locating, excavating, analyzing and reconstructing phases.

The Montpelier Enslaved Community tour ties into Montpelier’s newest permanent exhibition called, The Mere Distinction of Colour. This exhibit lives in Montpelier’s cellars and South Yard where many enslaved people would have lived, and is the culmination of years of archaeological work and research. This multimedia exhibit features video, sculpture, photograph and artifacts that share the stories of those enslaved as told by their own living descendants. According to the Montpelier site, it empowers visitors to “explore how the legacy of slavery impacts today’s conversations about race, identity and human rights.”

Eugene Hickok, an author, former political science and law professor, and member of Montpelier’s Foundation Board, wrote about the current relevance of these issues as highlighted by the observance of Constitution Day, in the Richmond Times Dispatch:

On this Constitution Day, it might be wise for all of us to retreat from the chatter in the media and seek to find quiet time to think and read and study about what Madison and his contemporaries sought to accomplish. They created the conditions that made the current discussion of race and gender and equality and governing inevitable. They didn’t solve the problems. They forced us to confront them.

I’m a writer who runs the Ask Artists interview series. Find interviews here along with some other stories. More of my work:

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