Last month I wrote about a tour I recently led to presidential sites in Virginia. I detailed our visit to Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington. We also visited Monticello (the home of Thomas Jefferson), Montpelier (the home of James Madison), and Sherwood Forest (the home of John Tyler).
In this column, I will focus on Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison.
James Madison was our country’s fourth president (1809-1817). Perhaps as much or more than for his time as president, Madison is known for his efforts at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. His preparation for the convention was extraordinary. During the winter and spring prior to the convention he basically reviewed the history of government. (Thomas Jefferson sent him more than 200 books from Paris.) In particular, he studied why confederations failed.
At the convention, Madison was the most informed of any of the attendees, attended every session and spoke at most of them. His notes were the most complete and we know what happened at the convention (it was behind closed doors) in large part because of his documentation. Later, in Congress, he proposed amendments to the Constitution that eventually became the basis for the Bill of Rights.
Madison was raised in the Orange County, Va., plantation house known as Montpelier and inherited it when his father died in 1801. In 1808 he began renovations to the home which were completed circa 1812. Madison died in 1836 and his wife, Dolley, inherited Montpelier. To pay off debts, Dolley sold the estate in 1844. Dolley’s son John Todd from her first marriage, a gambler and reported alcoholic, is said to have caused many of the debt issues.
After 1844 Montpelier went through a succession of owners before being purchased in 1901 by William and Annie Rogers duPont, of the prominent American duPont family. The duPonts made significant changes to the home and it stayed in the duPont family until Marion duPont Scott’s death in 1983, when it was passed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Interestingly, after extensive research, between 2004 and 2009 Montpelier was returned to the 1812 Madison era appearance.
In excellent shape today, Montpelier is most enjoyable to visit. Depending on your level of interest, there are a number of tours available. See the Montpelier website, montpelier.org, for information. Starting in the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center with a short movie and some displays, the home tours are a short walk from the visitor center. The formal garden is most impressive, and there are also over eight miles of hiking trails to stretch your legs.
One portion of the home tour not to be missed is called “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” which examines slavery at Montpelier. The displays are both insightful and disheartening.
Getting to Montpelier takes a bit of driving, as it is in the Virginia countryside about 30 miles northeast of Charlottesville. You can fly into Charlottesville, or, as I mentioned last month, if you are doing other history sightseeing in Virginia, you might consider flying into Richmond and driving from there.
There is, of course, much literature on the Madisons and Montpelier. One book I recommend is “James Madison” by Richard Brookhiser. Another is “A Slave in the White House, Paul Jennings and the Madisons” by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Amazingly, Jennings not only was in the White House with the Madisons, he was also James Madison’s valet at Montpelier. He wrote a memoir of his time in the White House that is considered to be the first of its kind. Eventually freed after Madison’s death, Jennings visited Dolley Madison in Washington, D.C., where they both had moved. According to the Montpelier website, “During his tenure as a free man, he would occasionally visit the now impoverished Dolley Madison and even provide ‘small sums of money from his own pocket’ if he found her wanting.”
Doug McCormick is retired from the Air Force after spending 21 years as a space operator. He spent 14 years as a defense contractor supporting Air Force Space Command. He is now a tour guide and has started his own business, American History Tours LLC, specializing in taking people to see locations associated with significant American history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.