But a short drive from Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello lies the mansion of his friend, presidential successor and fellow Virginian, James Madison, whose Montpelier stands to this day as a testament to the “Father of the Constitution.”
It was here at Montpelier that Madison spent time in his library reading about the history of democracies while mulling over a new form of republic to be born, as well as where he and his beloved wife Dolley retreated when his term in the White House came to an end in 1817 — five years after British forces invaded the nation’s capital and burned the original Executive Mansion and nearby Capitol.
As the Blue Ridge Mountains get ever nearer on the drive southwest from Washington, unassuming signs direct the tourist toward Madison’s home in what was once virginal American frontier land. (As Jefferson’s secretary of state, Madison helped expand the size of the young nation with the Louisiana Purchase.) Turning off of a nondescript highway in Orange, Virginia, the visitor drives up through property roads that allow the first views of the mansion set back in the grounds.
From the a parking lot, it’s a short walk to the front entrance of the mansion, where a docent greets us to impart a primer of the property’s history, from its settlement by Madison’s forbears on up through its sale by Dolley in the aftermath of her husband’s 1836 death in order to settle some substantial family debts — after which she returned to the recently rebuilt Washington City to live out her remaining days among the many friends she had made while first lady.
You will also learn how the property’s final private owner, Marion duPont Scott of the DuPont dynasty, decreed upon her death that the home would be bequeathed to the public good so that everyone could experience the home as the Madisons had lived in it. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has owned and operated the home since Scott’s death in 1983, and millions of dollars have since been spent to recreate the Madisons’ decor as close to their intentions as possible.
Our amazing guide, April Bertaux, not only discusses the history, but also applies her theater training to approximate the dramatic tones of many of Madison’s and Dolley’s private letters. She also, in a thoroughly stirring moment, recites the final words Madison was alleged to have said on the morning of June 28, 1836, when asked by one of his nieces what was wrong:
“Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear,” he said before passing into history at the age of 85.
For all of Madison’s many accomplishments — author, statesmen, crafter of the Constitution and president — it is also undeniable that he benefitted from the unpaid labors of hundreds of slaves he owned over the course of his life, including his personal manservant, Paul Jennings. April informs us that while Madison himself envisioned a day when slavery would be eradicated from the American character, he refused to free his own slaves before his death.
A new exhibit to open in June, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” will detail the history of the generations of slaves owned by Madison as well as his father and grandfather. Historians have been working in concert with the “descendent community” to tell the entire story of Montpelier, from its famous owner to the hundreds who tended the grounds, fed the animals and otherwise kept the estate running for the nation’s fourth president.
Until that exhibit opens, visitors can amble over to the slave graveyard, which holds the remains of many of the Madisons’ slaves in unmarked graves. But a short walk from there is also the final resting place of James and Dolley, as well as several of their ancestors and descendants. A signpost also provides a rough estimate of the dimensions of the original home on the site built by Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose Madison. (In an ironic bit of history, Ambrose was poisoned by his own slaves and died in 1732.)
After seeing additional exhibits in the visitor center and on the second floor of the home, it’s a must to pop by the local Barbecue Exchange-run Exchange Cafe in the visitor center for some rather stellar barbecue food, which one would not think to find this far out in the woods, but here is the delicious proof as ham-and-cheese sandwiches, pulled pork and desserts await after a few hours of learning.
Make sure to also amble through Dolley’s treasured gardens, as well as see the horse stables installed by the DuPont family.
It will be a day well spent — with a fine meal to cap it all.
For more information, visit Montpelier.org.
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