James Madison’s Montpelier

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.

4 thoughts on “James Madison’s Montpelier”

  1. As a horse and animal’s person is there a picture of the barns? Would love to see how they housed horses back then if there is original structures still standing….
    Do they know what he passed on from? What were his health issues?
    Inquiring minds are reading and wondering….

    1. I do have a picture of the barns but we don’t know how to incorporate them into replies on the blog yet. From my research it appears the barns were built after the famous Dupont family bought Montpelier. Marion Dupont who owned the estate before it was gifted to a foundation owned and raced Thoroughbreds and probably had the stable built. There are several prominent horses with grave sites on the property. I didn’t talk about the Dupont family owning Montpelier because I didn’t want to make the blog too long or boring, but they made changes to the house and property until it was given to the Foundation as a historical site. The house was then restored to the time period when Madison would have lived there. There is still an impressive equestrian center across the way from Montpelier that we passed driving in. It has a racing track and a few horses were being trained on the track when we went by. They have special events there each year that are quite popular we were told. Madison was noted to be “frail” during his lifetime, but other than reading that he had “bilious fever” which could be epilepsy, I haven’t found much else about any illnesses. I gather he just didn’t have a strong constitution. He died at age 85, probably of old age. Pretty old for a guy back then!

  2. Was there a similar focus on slavery at Montpelier? Does Madison have the same complicated legacy as Jefferson? Or has he been less scrutinized?

    1. Yes, there was a similar focus at Montpelier with restored slave cabins and an exhibit in the basement of the home dealing with the impact of slavery during that time period. He seemed to be of the same mind as Jefferson as he was not a proponent of slavery, but did not know how to do away with it. He also had a very large estate that needed tending.

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