James Madison Scholar from U.Va. to Appear on 'History Detectives' TV Show

September 11, 2008

September 10, 2008 — Identifying the recipient of a letter written by James Monroe in the early 1800s is the focus of an upcoming episode of the PBS show "History Detectives" — and the investigation was aided by a University of Virginia scholar.

Because one potential addressee was James Madison, the show contacted associate editor Mary Hackett of the Papers of James Madison project, whose offices are housed in U.Va.'s Alderman Library.

Co-produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Lion Television, the "History Detectives" series airs Monday nights at 9. The Sept. 15 show includes the investigation of the Monroe letter.

Four hosts  — the "history detectives" — lead each weekly episode of three segments, using traditional techniques and the latest technology to solve puzzles of the past. The detectives delve into the folklore and facts behind objects and stories that might fill in the missing pieces of extraordinary events that shaped America, or just the everyday activities that made up American life. The hour-long, interactive show allows viewers to become armchair experts as they follow and learn the purpose and method for each investigation.

Host Gwendolyn Wright, a professor of architecture, planning and preservation and professor of history at Columbia University, interviewed Hackett at Alderman Library in the Mount Vernon Room, which is reserved for special occasions and not usually open to the public. Hackett was able to give Wright a solid background on the case.

Here are just a few details, so as not to reveal too much:

The Monroe letter concerned an American commercial ship lost in 1805, a "spoliation case," Hackett said. "Spoliation" referred to warring parties seizing money, goods and other booty, as in "to the victor belong the spoils."

The international sea trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries could be a hazardous business — and not only because of pirates. When Great Britain, France and Spain battled on the high seas, their warships often seized cargo ships they suspected of trading with their enemies — which sometimes meant each other's colonies in the West Indies and South America. Although the trading ships were supposed to be neutral, the fighting parties didn't always treat them as such.

The "History Detectives" segment tracks whether and how the letter's contents might be connected to Madison. Its 1807 date puts it under Thomas Jefferson's presidency, when Madison was secretary of state and Monroe was U.S. minister to Great Britain. Both men could have been involved.

Daniel Preston, editor of the Monroe Papers at the University of Mary Washington, and other experts also weigh in on the investigation.

Who worked on the case of the stolen ship and whether Monroe was writing to Madison will have to remain a mystery until Sept. 15.