Fourth President of the U.S., an architect of the Constitution, co-founder of the Democratic-Republican Party–James Madison’s credentials cement him in American history. Madison’s Montpelier estate still stands tall today, and employees at the property worked tirelessly for years to restore it and make it appear as authentic as possible.
Montpelier keeps artifacts over 200 years old, such as a love letter penned by James Madison and a functioning grandfather clock. Within its walls lies artifacts from the enslaved community, old bedrooms, and an engraving of the Declaration of Independence. Take a peek into the history of Madison’s Montpelier estate.
One finding is a significant art piece created out of bricks from the excavated estate.
James Madison Grew Up On Montpelier
From the moment James Madison was born on March 16th, 1751, he lived on the Montpelier estate. The oldest of twelve children, he grew up on his father’s tobacco plantation that spanned 2,650 acres. Back then, they called the estate Mount Pleasant.
Madison remained on the plantation until he left for the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age 18, although he would inherit it later in life. The property made him the most substantial landowning citizen in Virginia.
Madison had a stepson who only caused him trouble. Keep reading to see his room.
John Payne Todd’s Room, The Troublesome Stepson
John Payne Todd was Dolley Madison’s son from her first marriage and James Madison’s stepson. Madison adopted Todd at age two, and kept him in this room, recently rebuilt to appear as accurate to historical accounts as possible.
Because of his supposed alcoholism, Todd only contributed to Dolley’s poverty after Madison’s death. She even sold Montpelier in a vain effort to cover Todd’s debts. He repeatedly ended up behind bars for gambling and shooting incidents, requiring his parents to bail him out.
Madison’s 4,000 Book Library
The library in Montpelier contained over 4,000 books that Madison collected throughout his life. The volumes ranged from pamphlets, printed speeches, fiction, science textbooks, history books, religious literature, and international treaties. Studying this collection helped Madison prepare and draft the current Constitution.
His lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson may have influenced his vast collection. Jefferson sent him many books, such as two trunks full of volumes in 1786. Madison later told his friend that these books were “perfectly to my mind.”
Two-Hundred-Year-Old Love Letter
This clipping comes from a later sent from Madison to Dolley during the few times that the couple left each other’s side. The clipping reads, “Y[ou]rs with constant affection – James Madison, August 9th, 1890.” That hair belongs to Madison and came with the letter, a common practice during the time.
During 1809, Madison finished up his role as Secretary of State, in which he acquired the Louisiana Purchase. He had just stepped into the presidential office before he wrote this letter.
The Madison Temple’s architecture reflects Roman classicism, a subject near and dear to James Madison’s heart. But the structure also performed a purpose. The Temple covered the Madisons’ 24-feet-deep ice well that supplied the plantation with cold drinks and Dolley’s famous ice cream throughout the year.
Ice wells during this period remained beneath the earth and were usually marked by a single hatch. Instead, Madison designed a gazebo structure above the wells. The Temple’s roof was red during Madison’s era, although today it needs to be repainted to maintain that historically accurate appearance.
George Gilmore: A Former Slave To Madison
If you visit the enslavement sites, or “South Yard” at the Montpelier estate, you may come across George Gilmore’s cabin. In 1810, Gilmore was born into slavery at Montpelier, and this cabin chronicles his story of him and his family rebuilding their lives after Emancipation.
Gilmore built the cabin in 1873, when he was a tenant on the family’s property. But upon Dr. James Ambrose Madison’s death in 1901, Gilmore bought the property and 16 acres of land. He lived there with his wife Polly and their three children.
Madison Owned Over One Hundred Salves
Over 17 years of archaeological digging appear in this mosaic, entitled “E Pluribus Unum” by Rebecca Warde. The bricks once belonged to the living quarters of hundreds of enslaved men, women and children residing at Montpelier. The title mirrors the traditional motto of the United States–“Out of many, one.”
Across many plantations, slaves created these bricks to add to the housing’s structure. Today, the art piece adds to the estate’s “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibition, which demonstrates the humanity and identities of Madison’s slaves.
The South Yard: Home Of Madison’s Slaves
“South Yard” was the name the living cabins of Madison’s slaves. Despite juggling thoughts of antislavery throughout his life, Madison owned slaves until his death. Many of his slaves were literate, such as Paul Jennings, who became the first emancipated slave to write a memoir about his experiences: A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.
Madison entrusted his slaves to his wife, asking that she not sell them without their consent. She did not comply with his wish. Through tours of Montpelier’s South Yard, you can learn more about their experiences at the estate.
This Clock Has Survived Since 1773
Around 1773, James Madison Sr. displayed this grandfather clock in his estate. Over 200 years later, it still works. The clock was produced by Thomas Walker of Fredericksburg, Virginia, out of iron, brass, and steel. It still stands in Madison’s Mother’s old room.
Until the twentieth century, these clocks were the world’s most accurate timekeeping devices. The more expensive clock at the time, it includes eight-day movement, which means that it only has to be wound once a week as opposed to daily.
Changes Made By The du Pont Family
In 1901, William and Annie du Pont bought the Montpelier estate. They made some design changes that remain in the estate but did not exist during Madison’s time. Mainly, they brought in some Art Deco style decorations and doubled the number of rooms up to 55.
The du Pont’s also built barns, stables, and other equestrian buildings within the estate. The last du Pont owner, Marion duPont Scott, died in 1983 and left the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This group worked for years to restore Montpelier to a look closer to Madison’s era.
The Cedars Of Lebanon
James Madison kept up a four-acre garden which still stands today. At the entrance sits two Cedars of Lebanon. Accounts suggest that the Marquis de Lafayette gifted four of these trees to Madison during his visit in 1824, although two of them have fallen since then. Tests from 1995 indicate that the two remaining trees date back to the early 1820s.
Along with the trees, Madison reportedly gardened flowers, shrubs, vegetables, and fruit trees. Evidence suggests that initially, the French gardener Bizet designed the garden arrangement. Today, the garden blossoms with flowers ranging from irises to peonies.
James Madison’s Intact Wax Seals
James Madison left some personalized wax seals in his estate, many of which remain nearly complete. The seals would label letters with Madison’s initials and the Latin phrase “veritas non verba magistri,” which translates to “truth: not the word of teachers.”
Archaeologists at the Montpelier estate have also uncovered Madison’s larger bottle seals likely used for wine. Madison’s father, James Madison Sr., also left some preserved seal stamps in the estate. You can distinguish his as spelling the “J” in James closer to an “I.”
How similar are the woods to Madison’s era? Very.
Nelly Conway Madison’s Wing Of The House
Nelly Conway Madison, James Madison’s mother, had her own wing of the Montpelier estate complete with a dining room and kitchen. In this recreation of her room, you can find her desk, tea set, and even a reproduced cap that she wears in a Charles Peale Polk portrait from 1799.
Nelly Madison lived until her late nineties and passed away only seven years before Madison himself died. Despite having twelve children (six of which survived until adulthood), Nelly kept her health intact and memory sharp throughout her final days.
Montpelier’s Untouched Two Hundred Acre Woods
James Madison’s 200-acre forest, often called “the Big Woods,” has remained relatively untouched since Madison lived at the estate. In 1987, the U.S. Department of the Interior labeled it a National Natural Landmark due to the exceptional age and height of the trees, mainly consisting of poplar, hickory, and oak.
Horticulturist Sandy Mudrinich, who monitors the forest’s safety, says that it “is pretty much what Madison would have seen back in the early 1800s when he brought his wife, Dolley, and young family.” Today, you can hike several different trails through the woods to experience them as Madison did.
Parisian China Descended From Royalty
James and Dolley Madison acquired their 231-piece set of porcelain china from Paris, 1806. The original owner was Fulwar Skipwith, a U.S. Consul General, a descendant of King Edward I and William the Conqueror. The Madisons used these dishes until around April 1814, when they were likely brought to the President’s House to entertain guests.
The picture features a tureen most commonly used for soups and stews. Since food could not be refrigerated, dried or smoked meats such as beef, pork, and venison likely made up much of Madison’s diet.
Dolley And James Madison Life-Sized Statue
In 2009, artist Ivan Schwartz dedicated his life-sized sculpture “Dolley and James Madison” to Montpelier. The statue portrays the couple as they would have lived in the backyard of their estate. Schwartz went through extraordinary measures to represent historical accuracy, from the posing to the shoes to the clasp on Dolley’s necklace.
Dolley’s supportive pose is significant in that she defined the roles of the First Lady. She began the tradition of public outreach by directing an orphanage for young girls and hosted the first-ever Inaugural Ball.
The Last Portrait Of James Madison
In July of 1833, James Barton Longacre sketched the last known portrait of James Madison. He created the illustration for his book, The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. At the time of the portrait, he was 82-years-old. He would die three years later from congestive heart failure.
A copy of this graphite drawing remains in the Montpelier estate today. Dolley Madison reported that the artist “succeeded very well” in capturing James Madison’s likeness.
Madison’s Declaration of Independence Engraving
An engraving of the Declaration of Independence hangs in the Montpelier Entrance Hall. Historians estimate that James Madison owned at least three paper copies of the Declaration, although his family dispersed all of these copies upon his death. None of them have been found.
Up until 1818, Americans could only see the Declaration in print, not an engraving. In 1819, Madison bought this engraving from John Binns, publisher of the newspaper The Democratic Press. Binns only created 200 copies of these engravings, and all but a few have become lost.
Thomas Jefferson’s Final Gift To Madison
On July 4th, 1826, Thomas Jefferson passed away at age 83. Jefferson and Madison had remained close friends throughout their lifetime. One of Madison’s servants recorded that after his presidency, Madison would visit Jefferson twice a year for a couple of weeks. Upon his death, Jefferson left his walking stick to his old friend.
Madison received the walking stick made with rhinoceros horn, gold, and wood “with all the feelings due” to a friendship that he “revered and loved when living and whose memory can never cease to be dear to me.”
James Madison’s Final Resting Place
When James Madison died in June of 1836, his family buried him on his Montpelier estate. On the day he died, Madison was eating breakfast with his family, but found it hard to swallow. His niece asked him what the matter was, and he only said, “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear” before dropping dead of heart failure.
Madison’s grave still stands in Montpelier’s Madison Family Cemetery, just a short walk from the Visitor’s Center. He was one of the last Revolutionary War members to pass away.