4th President of the United States
Served: March 4, 1809 - March 3, 1817
Born: March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia
Died: June 28, 1836 in Montpelier in Orange, Virginia
Buried: Montpelier in Orange, Virginia
My wife, Debbie, my nephew Damian and I took a trip to Lexington, Virginia in August of 2003 for a three day vacation. We drove down to the Chancellorsville battlefield near Fredericksburg, Virginia first. We spent over three hours touring the battlefield. After that, we drove toward the Shenandoah Valley and south to Lexington. On the second day, we visited many of the historical sites in Lexington, including General "Stonewall" Jackson's home, Washington and Lee University, The Virginia Military Institute, Robert E. Lee's tomb and "Stonewall" Jackson's grave. We also went to the Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Caverns. Not bad for a single day. It was fairly hot and humid that day, which meant that the trip down into the caverns, where it is a constant 57 degrees was very refreshing. On the last day, we headed home. We drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway giving us incredible views, both east and west. We stopped at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, first. Debbie and I had visited here back in 1998, but I felt it was worth a return visit and Damian had never been there.
After touring Monticello, we drove north on Route 20 toward Orange, Virginia and the Montpelier Plantation. We arrived at 3 in the afternoon. We bought our tickets and then drove up to the mansion. We took the insider tour of the mansion and learned about all of the renovations that went on since it was built in 1760 by James Madison Sr. (the father of the future president). Young James was nine years old when the family moved into the new house. The exact origin of the name “Montpelier” for the Madison family plantation is uncertain. It went through a number of changes through the years the Madison's lived there. James did not inherit Montpelier until 1801 and did not live here full time until his years at the White House were over in 1817. His mother lived there with them until her death in 1829 (at the age of 98). After James' death in 1836, his widow, Dolly was forced to sell Montpelier in 1844. It went through a few owners before the DuPont family bought it in 1901. It went through further changes almost doubling the size.
The last owner, Marion DuPont Scott, died in 1983 leaving Montpelier to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Montpelier opened its doors to the public in 1987, and in 2000 The Montpelier Foundation became steward of the property. Throughout the building, there are exposed parts of the walls and ceilings. They are doing an incredible amount of historical architectural research on the house and they plan to restore the house to the period when James and Dolly lived here. Restoring Montpelier will involve the removal of the additions made by the DuPont's in the early 20th century as well as all other changes made between 1844 and 1901. Currently, it is a 55-room mansion that will be reduced to the 22 rooms that were here when the Madison's lived here. Some of the changes will include the removal of the pink stucco siding that you see here and return to the red brick finish that was on Madison's house (you can see small square parts where they have already removed the stucco to see what is underneath). Also, the original configuration of the portico will be restored. The staircase will be enlarged to enclose the bases of the four columns. They will also put on green window shutters that were once on the house. The wings to each side are going to be reduced (they will remove the second floor). There will be major changes on the inside too. Dolly Madison's red bedroom was made into a kitchen by the DuPont's. It will be interesting to return in five years to see what it looks like (click here for an idea).
Madison's grandfather Ambrose Madison moved to the Virginia frontier in 1723 and bought almost 5,000 acres of land to farm tobacco. He sent his slaves to clear the land and build a house. Ambrose and his family moved into their new home, which they called "Mount Pleasant", in 1732. After Ambrose' death, his wife ran the plantation until James Sr. could take over. In 1749, James Sr. married Nelly Conway, who in 1751 gave birth to James Jr., the future president.
James Madison is considered one of the most intellectual of our founding fathers, but he was not a healthy man. He was also our shortest president at five feet, four inches. During the American Revolution, Madison was not healthy enough to serve in the army so he served in the government instead. ultimately being elected to the Continental Congress. After the war was over, Madison realized that our government was not strong enough under the Articles of Confederation. He set out to put down a plan for a better system.
In 1787, Madison took his new plan to Philadelphia as a Virginian delegate to the new Constitutional Convention. His hard work in the convention would be his shining moment and ultimately earn him the title, "Father of the Constitution." Madison proposed the three branches of government (with a system of checks and balances) and a bicameral congress with both houses having representation based on population (this would later be changed to satisfy the small states in that one house - the senate - would be based on equality). The Constitution would be signed four months later on September 17, 1787 and ratified by the states the following year. Madison was so quiet and soft-spoken that all of his proposals were put forth by friends of his.
During Washington's administration Madison helped write the "Bill of Rights." He married a widow, Dolly Payne in 1794 and retired from political life three years later. Madison was furious with the Alien and Sedition Act of 1797 which he felt violated everything the country stood for. His close friend Thomas Jefferson, who also was very much opposed to it, ran for president and won in 1800. Jefferson appointed Madison as his secretary of state. Eight years later, with Jefferson's support, Madison became the country's fourth president.
Right from the start of his administration, there were problems with Great Britain who were violating American shipping. Spurred on by "War Hawks" in Congress who had ulterior motives of taking Canada, Madison declared war on Britain in what would become known as The War of 1812. Though to many Federalists in Congress, it was called, "Mr. Madison's war.”They went back and forth along the Canadian border until 1814 when Britain turned its full attention to America. Madison was forced to evacuate Washington D.C. as the British captured the capital. Later they set fire to some of the government buildings, like the executive mansion.
The British were stopped shortly afterwards at Baltimore. The British tiring of the war and the Americans realizing they couldn't win, both decided to end it. A one-sided victory at New Orleans a few weeks after the peace treaty gave Madison and American some satisfaction. He finished his second term and then in 1817, he retired to his home in Montpelier. He lived for almost another 20 years. Despite owning a large plantation, Madison never acquired a lot of wealth.
Doesn't our nephew Damian looked thrilled sitting there on the brick wall surrounding the family cemetery. You can really tell how much he enjoys visiting presidential gravesites with his aunt and uncle.
In 1836, Madison had become so sick with rheumatism that he was unable to leave his bedroom for six months. His doctor was the same one that took care of Thomas Jefferson in his last days ten years earlier. The doctor told him he could give him drugs that could keep him alive until the Fourth of July. He declined and thus would die six days short of the fourth and would not share the same death date as John Adams (1826), Thomas Jefferson (1826) and James Monroe (1831) who all died on July 4.
On the morning of June 28, while eating breakfast with his family, a piece of food became lodged in his throat. He then slumped over and died at the age of 85. An Episcopalian priest said the funeral service while friends, family and about a hundred slaves looked on. After her husband’s death, Dolley went to live in Washington D.C. until her death in 1849. Unfortunately, because of poor financial decisions of her nephew, she was forced to sell Montpelier.
Madison is buried in a family cemetery on the grounds of his plantation (looking at Debbie & I in front you can judge how big the obilisque is). It's about a quarter-mile walk along a path from the main house. It recently underwent a renovation. The smaller white monument behind Madison's (in the picture) is for his wife Dolley. Dolley had one of the largest funerals in the history of Washington D.C., but she was not originally buried at Montpelier. She was laid to rest at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. and didn't join James at Montpelier until 1858. Within walking distance is the slave cemetery. Madison had hoped to free all of his slaves upon his death, but his finances were so bad, he was unable to.
Near the cemetery is the excavations of Ambrose Madison's house, "Mount Pleasant". This was James Madison's childhood home. Archeologists, along with students from James Madison University, are excavating the site. It was late in the day when we were there, so the entire site was covered in blue tarps.
Here are some webpages of interest: