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James Madison and Montpelier

By John T. Marck




James Madison's father Ambrose, purchased 4,675 acres of land in 1723 on the Virginia frontier in what would later become Orange County.  It would be on this land that he desired to start a tobacco plantation, and to accomplish this he used a small number of slaves to handle the tedious process of clearing the land, building a house and constructing the other necessary outbuildings. In 1732, Ambrose and his wife Frances Taylor Madison, along with their children moved into their new home, which they called Mount Pleasant.  In less than 6 months thereafter, Ambrose died, the victim of poisoning. It has been said by historian Ann Miller that Ambrose fell ill probably in early summer, from poisoning, but this poison did not kill him directly, but rather caused damage to his system, which doomed him to a slow death that took several months, dying on August 27. It was discovered that three slaves conspired to poison Ambrose, who later were convicted of murder, the first such crime to occur in the region. 

Upon her husband's death, Frances assumed the duties of the plantation until their oldest and only son James was able to take over in 1741. Colonel Madison, as he was known, grew into an excellent farmer and businessman, and was able to show a very good profit from the farming. In 1749 James married Nelly Conway, who in 1751 gave birth to the first of 12 children, a son, James Madison, Jr., who would become the future president. This birth took place at the home of her mother in Port Conway, Virginia. Four years later in 1755, the Madison family began building a new home which took five years to complete, which became Montpelier.  

In 1760 when James Jr., was nine, they moved into this new home that was originally a simple eight-room brick house.  Although the exact date of the move in not known, James Jr., wrote in his memoirs that he remembered moving items and light pieces of furniture to this new house at the age of nine. In time this house would undergo many changes. The first significant change came in 1797 when James Jr., returned from Philadelphia with his new bride, Dolley. To accommodate them, a thirty-foot addition was added as well as a second front door, making the house a duplex. 

Twelve years passed before additional construction began in 1809.  This consisted of adding two wings on each side of the house and the original dividing wall in the middle removed. A central front door was added and when James completed remodeling Montpelier, it had a total of 30 rooms. 

It would not be until 1801 that James Jr. inherited Montpelier and it took until 1817 for James and Dolley to move and live there exclusively.  Although it took many years before James Jr. would inherit Montpelier, this delay was merely a result of the natural course of events, rather than any problems between himself and his father.

James Madison

As mentioned earlier, James was born in Port Conway, Virginia on March 16, 1751, the oldest of twelve children, and grew up on the family's plantation, Montpelier.

Madison's formal schooling began in 1762 at the age of eleven upon attending a school that was operated by a Presbyterian minister named Daniel Robertson.  This school was located in King and Queen County, and was so far from his home that he could not travel the distance daily.  Therefore, James lived at the school until the age of 16, and then returned to Montpelier where Thomas Martin tutored him until the age of 18. In 1769, James began his education at the College of New Jersey, which today is known as Princeton University, where he graduated in 1771. 

Madison's Early Political Life

Three years after graduation, Madison began a political career that would last 41 years, beginning in December 1774, when he was appointed to the Orange County Committee of Safety.  In 1776, Madison was elected to the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg that drafted the state's first constitution. In the years that followed, James served as a delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates, and was elected to the Second Continental Congress as well as served as a member of the United States House of Representatives. By the spring of 1787, Madison traveled to Philadelphia where he attended the Constitutional Convention.  It was during this time that Madison drafted the United States Constitution, some of his most brilliant work, earning him the title at the age of 36 of Father of the Constitution.

James & Dolley

In 1794, during the spring, James met a Quaker widow named Dolley Payne Todd.  That summer their courtship began, which did not last long, resulting in their marriage at the home of Dolley's sister on September 15, 1794.  Although they were married for 41 years, their marriage did not produce any children.  However, Dolley had two children from her first marriage, of whom a son, John Payne Todd was raised as Madison's son. 

Dolley Payne Todd Madison was born on May 20, 1768 in Guilford County, North Carolina. At the age of one, her family moved to Hanover County, Virginia where they lived until 1783 when they moved to Philadelphia.  In 1790, Dolley married a fellow Quaker gentleman named John Todd, Jr., with whom two children were born; John Payne Todd and William Temple Todd. In 1793, during the yellow fever epidemic, Dolley's husband John, his parents and their infant son William all perished. About one year following her husband's death, a friend, the legendary Aaron Burr introduced her to the dashing James Madison.              

The Madison's and Washington D.C.

Under Thomas Jefferson, his longtime friend, Madison was appointed Secretary of State resulting in James and Dolley leaving Montpelier to live in Washington.  Unknown to them at this time, this move, would keep them in Washington for the next 16 years.  Madison would serve two terms as Secretary of State in Jefferson's administration, followed by his election as the fourth President of the United States, a position he held for eight years. While serving as President, the War of 1812 began with Great Britain, and in 1814 British soldiers invaded Washington and burned The White House, resulting in the president and first lady making a narrow escape. 

Before her husband would become president, while he was Secretary of State, Dolley at times served as President's Jefferson's hostess in the White House, which gave her some prior experience of what was to come. 

At her husband's inauguration in 1809, Dolley began refurbishing The White House, turning it into a comfortable place for entertaining their guests. It seemed that Dolley was a natural entertainer, so much so she became legendary in her hospitality that welcomed many guests, and even made her husband's political rivals feel at home.  During the War of 1812, Dolley and one of her servants is credited with saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, removing it before the British burned The White House.

Dolley Madison's Firsts

During the Madison's 16 years in Washington and at The White House, she is credited with several events that were firsts.

Dolley was the first to serve ice cream in The White House, which occurred during Jefferson's presidency; She initiated the first Easter Egg Roll on the Capital Lawn; She was present when the cornerstone was laid for the Washington Monument; She sent the first telegraph message, and at her funeral in 1849, Zachary Taylor used the phrase "First Lady" to describe her, a term which has since been used to describe the president's wife.   

The Madison's in Retirement

         In 1817, when his second term as president ended, James and Dolley returned to Montpelier. James stayed active in retirement, founding the American Colonization Society in 1819 that was dedicated to freeing slaves and transporting them to the West Coast of Africa. Additionally Madison served on the board of visitors at the University of Virginia.  In 1829 at the age of 79, James came out of retirement to attend the Virginia Constitutional Convention. 

Madison enjoyed writing, but in his later years suffered from arthritis and was unable to do so, resulting in Dolley spending a great deal of her time assisting her husband, writing the letters he could not following his dictation.  

On June 28, 1836, James Madison died at Montpelier at the age of 85, and is buried in the Family Cemetery on the grounds.   Upon his death, Dolley left Montpelier and returned to live in Washington, D.C. 

Montpelier Today

Over the years since the Madison's resided there, Montpelier has had several owners, the last being Marion DuPont Scott who died in 1983 and left the house and grounds to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Montpelier opened its doors to the public in 1987 and in 2000; the Montpelier Foundation became the steward of the property. 

During the DuPont ownership, various additions and buildings were added between 1901 and 1917.  The main house doubled in size and was remodeled early in the DuPont ownership, primarily between 1901 and 1903. Between c.1928 and 1937, Marion DuPont Scott, assisted by her friend Carroll Bassett and her private pilot Edward Conklin, masterminded the renovation of the Montpelier "Red Room" in the Art Moderne style. Charlottesville architect Milton Grigg drew the design for the glass and mirrored mantel in the Red Room. Most of the later repairs to the Montpelier house were done by the Charlottesville firm of Johnson, Craven and Gibson as consulting architects, using McCormick Construction, Charlottesville, as general contractor. 

Today Montpelier includes more than 2,700 acres of rolling pastures, gardens, and timber. The estate has evolved from the plantation that was home to three generations of Madison's, to the estate created under the DuPont ownership. Visitors can enjoy a two-acre formal garden, a landscape that includes a mixture of trees planted during the Madison era as well as ornamentals planted in the 20th Century. Montpelier is also home to more than 200 acres of old growth timber, known today as the James Madison Landmark Forest.

         Visits to Montpelier begin and end at the Visitor Center and Museum Gift Shop. Here you can purchase your admission tickets and a wide variety of souvenirs and gifts.

 Quick Biographical Facts

 James Madison

4th President

Term- March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817 

Democratic-Republican Party


Birth: Port Conway, Virginia, March 16, 1751

Ancestry: English

Marriage: "Harewood" Jefferson County, Virginia, September 15, 1794 to Dorothea (Dolly) Payne Todd who was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, May 20, 1768. Dolly died in Washington D.C., July 12, 1849, and is buried at "Montpelier," Virginia.

Children: None; Raised a son John Payne Todd from Dolley's first marriage.

Home: "Montpelier"

Education: Received early education at Donald Robertson's school in Virginia and from private tutors; Awarded B.A. from the College of New Jersey (Princeton 1771); one-year postgraduate study at Princeton.

Religion: Episcopalian

Occupation before Presidency: Member of Orange County Committee of Safety; Delegate to the Virginia Convention; Member of Virginia Legislature; Member of Virginia Executive Council; Delegate to Continental Congress; Delegate to Annapolis Convention; Delegate to Constitutional Convention; Member of the Virginia Ratification Convention; U.S. Congressman; Secretary of State.

Age at Inauguration: 57

First Administration: Vice-President: George Clinton of New York, Inauguration March 4, 1809, House of Representatives, Washington D.C.

Second Administration: Vice-President: Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Inauguration March 4, 1813, House of Representatives, Washington D.C.

Occupation after Presidency: Retired

Death: "Montpelier", Virginia, June 28, 1836.

Cause of Death: Debility at age 85.

Place of Burial: "Montpelier", Virginia.

Interesting Fact:

     During Madison's Presidency, in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key watched the British bombard Fort McHenry, Baltimore that inspired his Star-Spangled Banner. Although the song was popular, it was not made the official national anthem until 1931. 

Copyright  by John T. Marck.  Grateful appreciation and informational assistance from the Montpelier Foundation. Information in part, as well as "Montpelier Today@ noted in quotations supplied by the Montpelier Foundation. Quick Biographical Facts from "The Presidents of the United States,@ by John T. Marck.

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