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James Madison's Bequest

To say that James Madison, Jr., Father of the Constitution, 4th President, and author of the Bill of Rights, contradicted himself with regards to slavery is a fair statement and one that fits many of our Founding Fathers and American society at that time. Madison is on record with regard to the “moral crime, curse to society, and menace to the Union” the condition of slavery was; yet, he was a slave holder. Slavery was so deeply entrenched in the economic fabric of the country that it was much easier to want to end enslavement than it was to accomplish the goal through lasting legislation. Madison had tried and failed to obtain such legislation during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

He seemed unable to manumit the enslaved peoples of Montpelier; perhaps due to the slave laws of Virginia at that time, his lack of funds to purchase land outside of the Commonwealth along with supplies and transport; and an inability to pay wages for labor. Madison was also concerned about the "what after"? How would freed form slaves live? Where would they live? Like many of his countrymen, Madison could not envision the two races living in freedom as neighbors; one race having been held by the other in a state of degradation. Madison believed freed Blacks should be moved to another location, away from their former owners’ society. Madison appeared to be concerned that there would be strife between the races. thus he perceived colonization was a possible solution and collaborating with other like-minded individuals, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was created.

The mission of the ACS was to “transport to the African Coast, all free & freed blacks who may be willing to remove thither; to provide by fair means, & it is understood with a prospect of success, a suitable territory for their reception; and to initiate them into such an establishment as may gradually, and indefinitely expand itself.” The African Coast made sense to Madison as he felt there was no chance of ending slavery in the United States and the "free states" discouraged resettlement of Blacks, though they were welcome in Canada if they could make the journey. Africa, the likely home of their ancestors, seemed the best fit.

The ACS was founded primarily by Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister. Other founding members included some of the country's most influential men, including [James Madison] Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, and Bushrod ("Bush") Washington (nephew of George). Bushrod was the Society's first president and signed Madison's life membership certificate (lower right corner).

In 1819, Madison had written to Robert J. Evans, outlining his vision of general emancipation of slaves and their colonization within the United States utilizing some of the unused territory west of the Mississippi River. Madison’s plan of in-country colonization sprang from the American Colonization Society. He even addressed funding the project, writing “…if slavery as a national evil is to be abolished, and it be just that it be done at the national expense, the amount of the expence is not a paramount consideration…”

The ACS was not the success its founders hoped it would be. Only a few thousand formerly enslaved people had availed themselves of the option to return to Africa; specifically Monrovia, Liberia. The founders of the Society may not have immediately understood the desire of formerly enslaved people to remain in the area rather than travel and resettle in Africa. In 1808 all importation of Black slaves from Africa ended.* Many enslaved peoples were not African; they were American - they were born in the United States. While their ancestors were African, their families were here - all that they knew was here.

However, Madison still had hopes for the ACS as evidenced in the bequest in his will. He had instructed that his grist mill be sold to benefit the ACS, for no less than $700.00, a good deal of money in 1845; about $24,000.00 in 2021. Madison's bequest is restated on the document below, page 1 of the indenture [binding legal contract] between Ralph Randolph Gurley and J. Hunter, Feb. 12, 1845:

Page 2.

Page three (below) is the directive of the Executive Committee of the American Colonization Society, following their February 11th meeting, that the said mill be sold for $700.00 dated February 12, 1845. The official embossed seal of the Society is barely visible. You might notice on the second line that Washington D.C. was still called "Washington City".

Below is the "envelop" indicating the Orange County Court's acceptance of the indenture.

The document was a gift to the Museum from Mr. William T. Willis in 1981.

*This was part of a compromise made during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates of the deep south refused to sign any constitution that ended slavery and the delegates of the northern states were ready to walk away. The compromise [enforced in 1808] reached did not end slavery but did end the importation of slaves into the United States.


Peterson, Rutland and Kerr, “The Founding Fathers, James Madison” Published by Newsweek, NY. 1974.

McCoy, Drew. The Last of the Fathers, James Madison & The Republican Legacy” Cambridge University Press, NY. 1989.

Library of America. “James Madison. Writings” Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1999.


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