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Historical Context

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Putting It All Together

Through several firsthand accounts, students have gained a better understanding of Montpelier and the way the Madisons lived there. Have them keep those impressions in mind as they complete the following activities.

Activity 1: Researching the Madisons
Dolley Madison was as colorful and vivacious as her husband was quiet and serious. Have students work in pairs, and have half the pairs research textbooks and library sources for more information on the personality and character of James Madison, and have the other half do research on Dolley Madison. Tell students that biographies found in the public library’s juvenile section are especially good to use as a first source. They are short, easy to read, and often include interesting anecdotes. After students have found sufficient data, have them meet with the other pairs of students who researched the same person. Ask each of the two groups to design a creative exhibit (using different visual, textual, or multimedia approaches) for the classroom that highlights the most interesting information they found about James and Dolley Madison. Ask students to discuss how their research contributed to their understanding of the Madisons and the time period in which they lived.

Activity 2: Slavery and Freedom
It is hard for people of the 20th century to understand how America’s founders, such as the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison, could write that document’s preamble and still deny liberty to the slaves. Have students consider these words: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Then have students look again at Reading 2 and the excerpt from Paul Jennings’ writings in Reading 3. Hold a classroom discussion in which students try to put themselves into the mindset of James Madison, and try to justify the institution of slavery as they believe Madison would have done. Next, have the students try to discuss the institution of slavery from Paul Jennings’ point of view. Complete the activity by discussing the concepts of justice and fairness in different historical time periods. Make the point that people in the future may feel that some of our beliefs are as unjustifiable as we find the practice of slavery today.

Activity 3: A Historic Place in Your Neighborhood
Every community has a place that is historically and culturally significant. If students are unaware of the location of such a site in their community, have them contact the librarian of the local historical society or curator of a local museum. Those people will be able to help the students research the history of the place and the people who lived there. Have students find out as much as they can using primary source evidence that describes the place, the people, and their daily lives. Questions to which students should find answers include: Why is the place significant? How have geographic, economic, social, and political factors influenced the place? What people lived at the site? How were they described? How did they earn a living? What were their daily lives like? Who visited the place? Why? Additional research strategies to consider include touring the historic site or researching secondary sources that relate to the place. When students have gathered as much information as possible, have them work with their local historical society or other sources to develop a special exhibit for the community. Finally, have students compare and contrast the local historic site with Montpelier.

Activity 4: Preservation or Restoration? A Great Debate
The decision to restore Montpelier to its appearance in the 1830s was not made lightly. Two ideas about how to care for historic buildings were at odds with each other. On one side, people argued that changes made to buildings over time tell a worthy story on their own about the long history of the building. It is a core principle of historic preservation that “changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved” (“Preservation as a Treatment,” The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties). On the other side, a modified building could weaken the site's ability to interpret an important, earlier period. What is a particular place’s most important historic association? In the case of Montpelier, advocates insisted that it was the story of James and Dolley Madison’s residency and Madison’s work on the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

Have students research the history of Montpelier after Dolley Madison sold it. Who owned the house and when? Were any of the owners significant in the history of the local area, the Commonwealth of Virginia, or the nation? Did any important historical events occur at the house after the Madisons lived there? Would studying this house or the larger estate at any particular time in history help us better understand how people lived during that period? Were any of the alterations a significant reflection of an architectural style or period or method of construction? The National Register of Historic Places’ Criteria for Evaluation can help students make conclusions about the historical significance of Montpelier’s evolution over time.

Next, explore the National Trust’s decision about Montpelier in a formal class debate over preservation vs. restoration at Montpelier. Break students into an even number of dueling teams of 2-4. Half the teams must argue for preservation and half must argue for restoration. Students should prepare for the debate by studying the preservation/restoration issues and arguments. They can find this information in case studies, scholarly or trade journals, blogs, newspaper articles, and the websites for their State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs). A list of current SHPOs is available on the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers website. Becoming familiar with The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties will also be helpful. Each team should develop a reference table of major points and counterpoints with a real-life example for each. Teams should submit a copy of their table to you at the start of the debate.

 

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