Montpelier, the lifelong plantation-style home of James Madison, founding father, diplomat, and fourth president of the United States, has as rich and varied a history as the man who made it famous.
The property of the National Historic Landmark, which covers over 2,600 acres, belonged to the Madison family as early as the 1720s. When James Madison was born in 1751, he came home to a much smaller house located about a half-mile from where Montpelier currently sits. Madison’s father is thought to have built the earliest part of the present house in the 1760s, and when the family moved in, the Georgian-style home was the largest residence in Orange County.
Father of the Constitution
Though Montpelier was the place that James Madison called home, he was absent from it for many years. He graduated from The College of New Jersey (now Princeton), served in the House of Delegates in Williamsburg and Richmond, and lived in Washington for nearly two decades. In his time away, he became indispensable to the birth of the American Nation.
“What made our revolution complete was the genius of Madison,” said Michael Quinn, former president of the Montpelier Foundation in an article by Smithsonian. “He formed the ideals of the nation.”
Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, devised the system of checks and balances amongst the government’s three branches. As a co-author of the Federalist Papers, alongside Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison defended the constitution under the pen name Publius. Madison went on to serve as Jefferson’s secretary of state, and then two terms as president. He navigated the Louisiana Purchase under Jefferson, convincing Congress to ratify and fund it, and then, during his time as president, declared war on Great Britain in 1812 (When the Madisons fled Washington just before the British set it aflame, Madison’s wife, Dolley, famously rescued the eight-foot portrait of George Washington). After his presidency, Madison retired at Montpelier.
A Working Plantation
In the 1790s, Madison added on to Montpelier to create space for him and Dolley to live. Madison’s parents continued to live in the old house. Madison inherited the house after his father’s death in 1801, but his mother remained at Montpelier.
As a plantation owner, Madison was interested in both making his land profitable and preserving its integrity. He kept much of his land wooded, and today, the land includes gardens, walking trails, and archeological sites.
Three hundred slaves lived and worked at Montpelier, and are the subject of the powerful exhibition “The Mere Distinction of Color” which is open to the public from Thursday – Monday from 9AM – 3PM. Advance ticket purchase is strongly advised for this popular exhibit that explores the paradox in that Madison was adamant in his opposition to the evils of slavery, yet he himself was born into ownership of a family plantation with slave labor.
The exhibition is named after a famous 1787 quote of Madison’s from the Federal Convention which drafted the U.S. Constitution: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” which reveals the irony of a slave owner who argued against slavery.
After Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley began to spend more and more time in Washington. In 1844, she sold Montpelier to pay off the debts her son, Payne Todd, from a previous marriage, had accumulated.
In 1901 the William duPont family bought the property, adding onto the house and replacing the brick with pink stucco. In 1984, the house and estate were bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation by Marion duPont Scott, who requested that the house be returned to its Madison-era appearance.
In 2003, the Montpelier Foundation launched a restoration project to return Montpelier to the way it looked when James and Dolley lived there.
Today, Montpelier has been restored to its original federal-style facade, with brick siding and “massive pillars painted a dazzling white,” according to a description from a public newspaper. A new roof comprised of 30,000 hand-cut shingles replicates the one that would have been at Montpelier in Madison’s day.
James and Dolley Madison loved to host. That sense of hospitality remains an important aspect of the estate even now. Today, Montpelier’s eight miles of walking trails are free to the public Thursday- Monday during business hours and used daily by hikers and nature lovers. Children from city schools travel to Montpelier on field trips to experience the outdoors and also gain a hands-on experience of history.
Many tours are available at Montpelier (tickets are strongly recommended to be purchased in advance). Property tours and the Highlights of Montpelier Tour offer insight into the daily lives of the residents of Montpelier.
Both Montpelier and Madison are made up of layers and different chapters. A visit to Montpelier will leave you wanting to discover more about the man who helped shape America and the home he loved.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com