James Madison’s Montpelier

Location: Madison, Virginia

Webpage: Private Museum

General Description: In 1723, James Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose Madison received a patent for 4675 acres along with his brother-in-law, Thomas Crew in the Piedmont region of Virginia. Ambrose moved his family to the property in 1732, naming it Mount Pleasant.  Archeologists have located the original family home near the family cemetery today.  James Madison, Sr, expanded the plantation to over 5000 acres, adding brickmaking, sawmill, and blacksmith facilities.  In the early 1760s he built a new home about half a mile away that became the heart of the present day home.  This original home was two stories of brick laid in a Flemish bond pattern and was the largest brick home in Orange County.  Of his 12 children, James Madison, Jr was his first born son and inherited this extensive tobacco (and other crops) plantation from his father.  James Madison’s early life was spent at Mount Pleasant until age 11 when he was sent to study under the tutelage of Donald Robertson at the Innes Plantation in King and Queen County for 5 years.  In 1769 he enrolled at College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) graduating in 1771 at age the age of 20.  After graduation he became interested in politics, particularly the deteriorating relationships of the American colonies with Great Britain.  In 1774 he took a seat on the local Committee of Safety, a patriot pro-revolution group that oversaw the local militia.  In 1775 he was commissioned a colonel in the Orange County militia, although he would not assume a combat role due to poor health.  During the Revolutionary War he served in the Virginia state legislature from 1776-1779 and became a protege of Thomas Jefferson.  As the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress from 1780-1783 he was considered a legislative workhorse and a master of coalition building.  He persuaded Virginia to give up its claims to the northwest territories which would become part of the states of Ohio and Indiana.  This Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River, although it did not remove slaves from settlers already in the territory.  James Madison was elected again to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784-1786 where he became increasingly frustrated with what he saw as “excessive democracy” where delegates vied for special interests instead of a broader view of what was good for the states.  This concern extended to the federal government which under the Articles of Confederation could not levy taxes and thus unable to repay debts from the Revolutionary War.  Fearing a collapse of the union, Madison was a prime instigator for the new Constitutional Convention in 1787.  Over the years, James Madison had done extensive studies of various forms of government.  While waiting for a quorum at the Convention, at age 36, he drafted what became known as the Virginia Plan that formed the basis of the US Constitution leading to Madison being called the “Father of the Constitution”.  Following the Constitutional Convention, there ensued an intense battle over the state’s ratification of the new Constitution.  Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, they wrote a series of 85 newspaper articles explaining how the proposed Constitution would work that are known as the Federalist Papers.  In the Virginia ratifying convention, James Madison played a pivotal role in eventual ratification in opposition to Patrick Henry that feared the new Constitution would curtail the independence of the states.  Following ratification, Madison was elected to the new House of Representatives.  In 1789 he introduced a bill proposing amendments consisting of nine articles that contained up to 20 amendments depending upon how you count them.  This was reduced to 17 amendments that were sent to the Senate.  After considerable debate and changes the Senate passed a bill consisting of 12 amendments.  Also during this period, James Madison at the age of 43 married Dolley Payne Todd, a 26 year old widow.  Although this marriage did not produce any children, James Madison did adopt Dolley’s only surviving son, John Payne Todd. Dolley Madison put her social gifts to excellent use beginning with James Madison’s appointment at Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson from 1801-1809.  Shortly before Jefferson’s election, Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in France who sold their claims to territory to the west to Jefferson and Madison in 1803, known as the Louisiana Purchase.  James Madison followed Jefferson as President winning the election of 1808.  As an extension of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the War of 1812 was essential over shipping rights in the Atlantic.  When Great Britain’s Royal Navy beginning boarding American ships and impressed its seamen to serve on British ships and arming the Indians in the Northwest Territory, the American public began calling for a second War of Independence.  This was primarily a naval conflict with the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames in 1813, after which the British raided and burned Washington D.C.  Other notable battles was the defense of Ft. McHenry at Baltimore that led to the composition of the Star Spangled Banner and the Battle of New Orleans in 1814.  Following this was which lasted throughout Madison’s Presidency and the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Watterloo, thus bringing an end to the war in Europe, James Madison left office during a time of peace and prosperity.  He retired to his family plantation, now named Montpelier, in central Virginia.  By then Montpelier had been expanded with a 30 foot extension and a Tuscan portico.  The original home had been divided down the middle with two separate entrances for James’ family on one end and his mother on the other end.  While in Washington, his mother continued to oversee the operations at the plantation.  In the last period of construction from 1809-1812, Madison had a large drawing room added and one story wings at both ends of the house with separate kitchens in the basement for his needs and his mother’s.  James Madison died in 1836 and is buried in the family cemetery on the property.  In 1837 Dolley Madison moved back to Washington and in 1844 sold the property to Henry Moncure.  From 1844 to 1901 there were six additional owners until it was acquired by William and Annie duPont.  A horse enthusiast, William dePont built barns, stables, and other structures for equestrian use, including a Hodgson house.  They made extensive changes to the original structure adding bedrooms and even a large ballroom while maintaining most of the core of the house.  Upon their daughter, Marion duPont Scott’s death in 1983, the property was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with $10 million endowment to purchase and maintain the property.  Since 1984 the National Trust has been restoring the home back to the condition during James Madison’s time restoring one of her favorite rooms in a new Visitor Center.  There are still numerous archeological sites locating the outbuildings that would have existed at that time.



1) Your first impression of the property is the modern feel of the extensive pastures that make up the ground as you drive by stables, racetrack, and horses.  They host many events throughout the year on the property including an annual steeple chase, horse races, and even a large wine and cheese event that was just starting when we drove in on a Saturday in May.

2) The Visitor Center is very nice and includes a small cafe, the duPont art exhibit, and the restored room and photographs from Marion duPont Scott.  The Art Deco room that was restored as part of the agreement with the National Trust is a sight to behold!  All of the pictures of horses and the duPonts on the walls was also a fascinating view of the lifestyle of the duPonts in the 80s.


3) There are multiple tours of the house and grounds available, including specialty tours that emphasize James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution” or the archeology work, among others.  We chose to just take the standard tour of the house, which are every half hour.  We proceeded on up to the house where we met our tour guide.  The tour is very well organized beginning with the living room for James’ mother and continuing through the grand entrance hall, dining room, and servant’s areas.  You are then on your own to look at the upstair bedrooms and kitchens below the main floor.

4) Along with a large backyard that was leveled to entertain guests, there is also a large formal walled garden with statues and flower beds.


5) Behind the house is a large extensive trail system that winds through an “old growth” Virginia hardwood forest with large oak, yellow-poplar, and maple trees.


6) In front of the house is a short walk to the family cemetery with the graves of both James and Dolley Madison along with a side trip over to the slave cemetery.