Thomas Jefferson’s name often overshadows James Madison’s in the annals of early American presidents, and his Monticello does likewise among historic Virginia plantation estates. But James Madison’s Montpelier—home of our fourth president and very first true first lady—is becoming an increasingly popular and important museum destination. It’s a must visit for people who want to learn more about the Constitution. But it also expands its visitors’ appreciation for both partners in one of the most significant marriages in American history.
The Father of the Constitution
James Madison is considered the Father of the Constitution. As a Congressman he penned its outline, was a galvanizing figure during Constitutional Convention debates, and later drafted the Bill of Rights. It was in his upstairs study at Montpelier where, in 1787, Madison set out to offer an alternative to the controversial Articles of Confederation. He read volume after volume about various forms of governments and arrived at the “Virginia Plan”—three government branches and a two-house legislature that balances equal representation with the interests of majorities. Naturally, one of the featured tours at Montpelier is called “Madison and the Constitution.” Just as fittingly, Montpelier also is home to the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution, which offers many educational programs related to the supreme law of our land.
The Archetypical First Lady
Yet this 2,700-acre Piedmont estate just south of Orange, Virginia, appeals to audiences beyond constitutional scholars. Notably, it instills in new generations a greater awareness of Dolley Madison. Museum visitors gain insight into her style and taste, the public role she played in the formation of Washington social custom, and her equally significant influence behind the scenes. Dolley Madison first came to prominence acting as the widowed Jefferson’s presidential hostess while her husband served as Secretary of State. She threw grand dinners, receptions and official parties, which made her unanimously popular in Washington society and beyond and, in turn, elevated the public profile of her quieter, reserved husband. Dolley Madison’s favor among congressmen in the Electoral College might even have helped James Madison overcome determined political opposition to win the 1808 Presidential election.
Dolley Madison’s visibility increased during her husband’s presidency. She’s best known for her courageous vigil while British troops and mercenaries descended on Washington in the War of 1812. James Madison was meeting with military leaders in the field. As word spread that the British had overrun defenders in Maryland, the city emptied. But Dolley Madison kept her staff in place, stubbornly awaiting her husband’s return. When she had no other recourse, she finally evacuated on August 24, 1814. But first she calmly gathered all sensitive government documents. She also famously ordered that a portrait of George Washington be removed from the dining room, fearing its propaganda value in British hands. In the mounting chaos, servants couldn’t unscrew the frame off the wall. She ordered them to break the frame.
James and Dolley Madison reunited safely but the invaders burned down the President’s House, Capitol and the rest of official Washington. The city was rebuilt after the war, but some wanted the capital moved to Philadelphia. Dolley Madison disagreed and began throwing her famous parties again. Her message was clear—Washington was safe, normalcy had returned, and it was OK to keep the capital where it was. More so than Martha Washington or Abigail Adams, she defined the national role of a president’s wife. Men admired her and women mimicked her fashion style and hostess practices—which continued for years at Montpelier after the Madisons retired from public life in 1817. When President Zachary Taylor introduced the term “first lady” in 1849, he used it in his eulogy of Dolley Madison.
What to expect at James Madison’s Montpelier
Today, visitors to James Madison’s Montpelier get a glimpse of how the couple spent their retirement. Some of the objects on display are authentic—including some that had to be recovered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has owned the property since 1984. Other parts of the mansion have been recreated as faithfully as possible, as Dolley Madison sold or gave away most of the couple’s belongings when she sold Montpelier in 1844, eight years after her husband’s death.
Still, visitors on the one-hour Signature Tour can see the restored library where James wrote the Virginia Plan, the dining room where Dolley entertained, and other noteworthy rooms. An entire section of the second floor is dedicated to a self-guided exhibit on the War of 1812. Other two-hour tour options apart from Madison and the Constitution address “Slavery at Montpelier” and “The Women of Montpelier.” Various other tours around the grounds are available, including a walking tour around Montpelier’s beautiful gardens and woods and an inspection of an active archeological dig in progress on the property, both free. Visitors also can hike through the old-growth majesty of the 200-acre James Madison Landmark Forest. Behind-the-scenes tours, which are by appointment and more exclusively priced, are also available. Additionally, there’s a children’s playroom in the mansion cellar for visitors who look forward to taking a more scholarly approach to the experience.
The duPont Family
The Montpelier experience also was shaped by the prominent duPont Family—William and Annie, and later their daughter Marion. The duPonts bought the historic home in 1901 and maintained it as a family estate for more than 80 years. They expanded and updated it before releasing it to the public for restoration to the Madison era. One notable duPont touch is the Red Room. Conceived in Art Deco, the room pays tribute to Marion duPont’s love of horses and career as a champion equestrian rider and breeder. Meanwhile outside, Annie du Pont had converted James Madison’s former fruit and vegetable garden to a 4-acre floral display. Today, the Annie duPont Formal Garden is among the top attractions at Montpelier.
There’s also a surprise in the Montpelier Visitors Center. There visitors can view a short film that prepares them for the tour and later enjoy a cafe lunch and shop for gifts and souvenirs. But in addition, the center is home to rotational exhibits of the most rare Madison artifacts. The cutting-edge Joe and Marge Grills Gallery displays pieces that either reside in the permanent Montpelier collection or are on loan from other museums and galleries.
Construction of the plantation began in 1764 when James Madison was teenager. It’s believed to be named for Montpellier, a city on the Mediterranean in the South of France then known as a resort destination. Now some 250 years later, the French city has industrialized while its Virginia Piedmont namesake has become a popular vacation stop. Whether you’re a Madison scholar, a general history buff or someone looking to learn a lot in a short period of time about early post-Colonial American life, James Madison’s Montpelier belongs in your Virginia Plan. If you’ve already finished that plan, revise it. Make Montpelier your first amendment.
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