Located in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the home of former president James Madison. Virginia is the state with the most former presidents, eight including Madison. Most of them have homes you can visit with a number of them lavish estates. Montpelier is no exception. Just the drive here from Charlottesville was an eyeful of beautiful countryside with green rolling hills, white fences around pastures, horse farms and large mansions. It is spring in Virginia and there were fresh green leaves on the many trees and dark pink buds on the redbud trees like in the picture above. I thought to myself that Virginia must be the most beautiful state we have driven through so far.
Madison’s grandfather first acquired this property and developed a tobacco farm. When he mysteriously died after being poisoned, Madison’s father, James Sr. took over the estate. He eventually became the leading planter in the area after buying 5,000 acres and more slaves. When James Jr. was a boy, the Montpelier home was built. After being gone for some years he returned in 1797 to live here with his wife Dolley. He inherited Montpelier and continued adding on to the house, including wings on both sides. The picture below is the view of the property from the house. The home is surrounded both front and back with huge lawns.
Madison had an extensive political career and is one of the founding fathers of our country. He is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” While serving as a delegate from Virginia for the Continental Congress, he wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the framework for our system of government. In addition, he and Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican party. Madison served as Secretary of State while Jefferson was president and was elected as president for two terms during the years 1809 to 1817. At the end of his presidency, he retired to Montpelier, just as Jefferson and Washington retired to their homes in Virginia. His financial situation after retirement was as bleak as Washington and Jefferson. Neither of these early presidents had pensions after serving in political office and they had many expenses maintaining their estates and way of life.
Dolley Madison was considered the “First Lady” of the White House as she defined the role. Her support of her husband in office and her skill at social engagements and as a hostess at Montpelier greatly contributed to her husband’s popularity. I had forgotten how charmed the public was with Dolley. Her name and image began appearing on different products in the 1880’s and continued for many years. Some of you might remember the Dolly Madison Snack Cakes that were popular for a long time.
In the picture below, I sit with a life size sculptor of James and Dolley, who actually spelled her name with an “e.” James was the smallest U.S. president at 5’4” tall and slight in build. He was also sickly throughout his life.
We enjoyed seeing his home with many original furnishings and belongings. Mark and I were surprised at how small some of the rooms were. The Madisons frequently entertained in the dining room, which seemed small for a group of 30 or more. Madison spent his last ailing years in a very small sitting room/bedroom where he would visit with family and friends. While looking around the narrow room, I marveled that here was the room where an ex president and successful landowner spent his last years. I probably most enjoyed seeing his collection of books, some of them original to the 1700’s. There is something so neat about seeing books that are hundreds of years old.
Montpelier has a formal walled and terraced garden that is open to visitors. Madison used to enjoy strolling through this garden and it has been restored to the way it was when he was president. Above is a picture of the entrance to the garden and below some of the garden beds.
I finished up my tour of the property with a walk through the “Landmark Forest” of old growth trees. This 200 acre forest property has trees that are hundreds of years old with eight miles of trails that can be walked here.
I will close with a view from one of the barns on the property, looking out at the Virginia countryside. Thanks for checking in and stay tuned for more posts on our Virginia travels.