What would you think are the most important rooms in U.S. history? The Oval Office? Independence Hall in Philadelphia? How about a quiet private library on a Virginia plantation?
I am standing in a room with a group of about ten people, imagining a young man in his mid- to late-30s, scribbling furiously between long looks out the window, lost in thought.
That man was James Madison, 4th President of the United States and Father of the Constitution, and I am in his library.
Years before his presidency, Madison would receive books from his friend Thomas Jefferson while he was in France. They didn’t just line the shelves of this library, Madison studied them intently to learn about various forms of government throughout history and around the world. He kept notes on what worked, and what didn’t. Eventually, this self-education guided his Virginia Plan, the starting point for the Constitutional Convention.
Throughout the sometimes contentious proceedings, Madison kept order, steered debate, and was acknowledged as the most educated in the room when it came to politics and government. He kept the unofficial minutes of the convention, which are now the only record of what occurred, and pored over these notes in his study. Largely through his efforts, the Constitution was born and ratified, and James Madison recognized as its father.
And here I stand in his library.
It’s just one of the rooms open to the public on a tour of Montpelier, the Madison family plantation built by James Madison Sr. in the 1760s. There’s a fun fact I didn’t learn in school: the President was a Jr.! Here’s another: the estate was called Mount Pleasant, but Junior re-named it after a French resort town because he liked the way it sounded.
Our tour starts in Mother Madison’s room. She was the lady of the house, living with James and Dolley long after James Senior passed, often being the person who welcomed visitors and decided whether they got to meet with the President. The room today is decorated much as it may have been in her day but, as is common at historic homes, photography is not allowed. (You can see a “virtual tour” of Montpelier at the Encyclopedia Virginia.) Because she lived with the family, the home is set up almost like a duplex, with James, Dolley, and their family residing in the rest of the home.
Passing the grand main entry, you come to the Drawing Room, where James and Dolley Madison welcomed frequent visitors, and displayed an impressive art collection. The room is richly decorated, and includes busts of Madison’s friends and contemporaries: George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The highlight, though, are the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to the lawn and forest beyond.
The family dining room has one of the most interesting displays seen during our tour of Presidential homes: the table is set and guests are attending dinner! The “guests” are painted cut-outs of frequent visitors, and include a who’s who of the Madison’s time: Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson, Revolutionary War hero Marquis du Lafayette, author Margaret Bayard Smith, and Dolley Madison’s sister, Anna Payne Cutts. Standing in the corner is Paul Jennings, the slave who served as James Madison’s valet. The two had a very close relationship, ending with Madison’s passing; Jennings wrote the only account of the president’s death. Jennings stayed with Dolley for many years, until he was purchased and freed by Daniel Webster.
The dining room, along with the study and the Madison’s bedroom on the first floor are all beautifully decorated, as was the Madison’s style. Upstairs is the Presidential Library, where much of Madison’s work and research on the Constitution and Bill of Rights was done. The long room is lined with bookshelves, with another built in the middle of the room. A desk sits beneath windows looking out to the estate’s long approach. The picture from this window is beautiful, and I wonder whether I would work on such weighty matters as Madison did, or just drift into daydreams inspired by the view.
The remainder of the upstairs rooms are devoted to displays on the War of 1812, and the restoration of the home, which was completed in 2008. Outside of the house is much more to explore:
Annie duPont Garden: The Madison’s had an extensive garden close to the house, including a two-acre formal garden of French design. After the duPont family purchased Montpelier in 1901, Annie duPont transformed the space into a 20th-century formal garden, adding statuary, garden walls, and a gate. The garden was renovated again after the estate was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Annie duPont’s plantings were identified and catalogued, and today’s garden includes many of the varieties included in the duPont garden.
Archaeology Lab: While Montpelier is open to the public, restoration and archaeological work continues. During our visit, an open pit was being worked east of the main house, and there is an on-site lab where archaeologists clean and process finds. There are exhibits and artifacts on display, and a hands-on area where kids can “discover” artifacts.
Madison’s Temple: The neoclassical structure built over the ice well is the symbol of Montpelier. During Madison’s time, it was referred to as the Summer Study, kept cool by its location over two stories of stored ice. There is no evidence that Madison used it as a study, though. Unfortunately, the temple was closed for renovation during our visit.
Civil War Trail: At first glance, this seems out of place since the Civil War was decades after Madison’s death. Virginia, though, was always at the center of the struggle, and Montpelier traces history from the Civil War through emancipation and segregation. The trail features the remains of a Confederate winter camp, a reconstructed camp street, and a freedman’s home illustrating life after slavery.
James Madison Landmark Forest: You cannot visit Montpelier without noticing the surrounding forest, 200 acres of old-growth trees that have been largely undisturbed since the 1790s. The 200-acre forest is now a National Natural Landmark protected by the Nature Conservancy. There is a network of free hiking trails through the forest, which includes about 10 species of native trees, some up to 300 years old and up to five feet in diameter! It’s been called the “best example of a mature forest in the Piedmont of eastern North America.”
Visitor’s Center & duPont Gallery: The visitor’s center at Montpelier is excellent, with plenty of books and souvenirs, a café, and a museum devoted the First Family. Dolley Madison, regarded as America’s first First Lady, served as a hostess for bachelor president Thomas Jefferson, as well as First Lady for her husband, and remained a fixture in Washington after his death. Several of her belongings, including her engagement ring, are on display, along with her husband’s personal belongings.
Across the plaza is the duPont Gallery, showing life at Montpelier in the early 20th century. Dolley Madison sold the estate in 1844, and there were six owners before William duPont bought it in 1901. It remained with the family until Marian du Pont Scott bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.
When You Go
Plan on spending at least a half day at Montpelier. Tours range up to two hours each, and you’ll want some time to explore the grounds. Before you go, download the James Madison’s Montpelier app for Android or iOS. There is a café and picnic grounds, making it a convenient place to enjoy lunch. If you enjoy walking or hiking, there are many trails at Montpelier. You might also consider visiting the James Madison Center for the Constitution, and the 1910 Montpelier Train Depot which was established as the duPont family’s train station and post office. It is on Route 20 adjacent to the entrance to Montpelier, and has been restored to its original design as a segregated facility.
Getting to Montpelier
Montpelier is near Orange, Virginia, about a half-hour’s drive northeast of Charlottesville, where we stayed. The drive from Charlottesville traces the Constitution Route (Virginia Route 20) through beautiful rural Virginia, passing the homes of presidents Jefferson and Monroe along the way. It’s less than three hours driving from Norfolk, Virginia, and about two hours from Washington, DC. Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (CHO) is served by daily flights by American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines.
Montpelier has seasonal hours, so check the web site when planning your visit. Admission and tour tickets are available online and at the Visitor’s Center. There are a variety of tours offered, some seasonally. Admission includes guided tours of the enslaved community at Montpelier, and the Archaeology Lab. We chose and highly recommend the Signature Tour (at an added cost), which includes areas of the house and touches on Madison’s political work, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and Dolley Madison’s life and influence.
Admission is $20 for adults / $19 for Seniors & Military / $7 for children 6 to 14. Under six are free. Tickets for specialty tours are the same, so admission and the Signature Tour, for example, would be $40 for adults. There are discounts for members of the National Trust and Friends of Montpelier.
Getting a Bite
The Exchange Café at Montpelier offers soups, salads and sandwiches, along with soft drinks, coffee drinks, and – most importantly – dessert! You can eat in the café, or the nearby picnic area.
If you have been to Montpelier, we’d love to hear your impressions. Or, if it’s on your bucket list, what are you most looking forward to? Let us know with a comment!
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