Father of the Constitution
Architect of the Bill of Rights
America’s 1st First Lady
Liberty, democracy, and the ideas that inspired a nation and changed the world came alive. James Madison is the Father of the Constitution as well as the political philosophies and debates embodied in the U. S. Constitution.
With the help of a generous grant from the estate of Paul Mellon, in 2001 The Montpelier Foundation embarked on a comprehensive architectural study of the Montpelier home. A research team went to work, opening some three hundred “study units” into the house—cutting holes in walls, lifting floorboards, and chiseling through stucco and plaster. Their findings were thoroughly documented, and samples of paints, wallpapers, wood, and nails carefully cataloged. Researchers also combed through old records, some previously undiscovered, such as an 1808 architectural drawing, visitors descriptions, and nineteenth century photographs. Especially important was the itemized invoice from the builder of the 1810 expansion. The investigation lasted eighteen months, intensively examining every aspect of the home.
The Montpelier Foundation reviewed the findings with the assistance of a Restoration Advisory Committee composed of volunteer experts and concluded that the Madison home had survived largely intact and that it was possible to accurately restore the mansion to its nineteenth-century form. After reviewing the study findings, The Montpelier Foundation concluded that restoring the home was the right thing to do: restoring Montpelier would enable the life and ideas of James Madison to be preserved and presented to the public in a unique way in the very space home to the one the Madison’s created during James’ presidency, when it reflected both his entire career and his full architectural vision for his home. The Restoration Advisory Committee concurred with this decision, as did preservation agencies at the state and federal levels. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the National Park Service, and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation were all consulted, and all endorsed restoring the home. The Montpelier Foundation also consulted with the members of the family of William DuPont and received their support and encouragement. The estate of Paul Mellon again stepped in to make the dream a reality, this time pledging a grant of $20 million—$18 million of which would be used for restoration. In October 2003, the Foundation officially announced that the Montpelier mansion would be restored to the home of the Madison’s.
Restoration of the physical structure of Madison’s home was deemed officially complete on Constitution Day, September 17, 2008. However, the restoration process never really ends. Historians and curators continue to research and analyze data that gives insight into room use, furnishings, and the Madison’s lifestyle. This is evident as we look at Montpelier as it is today.
Slavery at Montpelier
Long considered a taboo subject, slavery is a paradox of America, a slave-holding nation that declared to be the world that “all men are created equal.”
These wooden frames represent six buildings that stood here when James and Dolley Madison retired to Montpelier in 1817 after his presidency. This South Yard complex – the center of the enslaved domestic servants’ lived – would have bustled with activity as they daily tended to the mansion and its inhabitants.
The Negro habitations are separate from the dwelling house both here and all over Virginia, and they form a kind of village.
Archaeologists discovered building remains after being led here by a long lost 1837 insurance map. Montpelier researchers and archaeologists continue to search documents and take oral histories of slave descendants to discover.
PAUL JENNINGS, Manservant
Paul Jennings (1799-1874) was born a slave at Montpelier two years before Madison took over the plantation from his father. At ten years old, he worked in the Madison White House most likely as a porter, footman, and waiter. He later became Madison’s personal servant at Montpelier – shaving and dressing him, accompanying him on trips, and doubtless also serving as butler or handwaiter. Jennings probably lived in own of these duplex homes. At 23, he married Fanny, an enslaved woman from a neighboring plantation, and together, they had three children. Jennings likely walked the 14-mile round trip on Sundays, the salves’ day off, to visit his wife and children.
After Maddison died in 1836, Jennings remained Dolley’s trusted servant for another 11 years until she sold him. He later worked off his freedom from his last owner, Daniel Webster.
Dolley Madison and the Women of Montpelier
Dolley was diverse, dynamic, and strong women – enslaved and free – founded, farmed, managed, and maintained Montpelier over the past 300 years.
A Level Green
The American backyard has its roots in the level green – a square or rectangular carpet of grass on the flat plane – of eighteenth century colonial estates. Montpelier’s level green was an extension of the house, an exterior living space connected to the drawing room via triple sash windows. During barbeques and other parties at Montpelier, the level green became a dance floor for what Dolley called, “frolics on my lawn.”
“the first thing that should present itself to the sight, should be an open level Piece of Grass.”
Americans have had a longstanding love affair with the backyard barbeque and the Madison’s were no exception. Between 1816 and 1835, Montpelier’s level green became associated with Fourth of July barbeques and summer parties, like many backyards today. In a letter to her sister, Anna, Dolley described Montpelier’s Independence Day celebration 1816.
“Yesterday we had 90 persons to dine with us at one table – fixed on the lawn, under a thick arbour – The dinner was profuse & handsome – and the company very orderly … I am less worried here with the hundred visitors than with 25 in W[ashington] … I wish you had just such a country home as this, as I truly believe it is the happiest and most independent life.”
An Intentional Landscape
The flat plane before you was not there when the Madison’s originally built the house, but was created by filling in the naturally rolling topography for the purpose of entertaining on the presidential scale.
Archaeological excavations in the backyard have revealed a complicated history of landscaping. Evidence suggests that during Madison’s final extension of the mansion, the rich top soil in the backyard was panned off and saved for reuse after the leveling. Fill for creating the rear lawn was obtained from cutting a hill down closer to the formal garden as well as rubble debris from repairs made to the house in 1809.
“Mrs. Madison soon fell in to the Country customs. Barbecues were then at their height of popularity. At these feasts in the woods were alive with guests, carriages, horses, servants and children – for all went – often more than a hundred guests”
In the early nineteenth century, the herculean task of moving hundreds of tons of earth was accomplished by enslaved men and women using picks, shovels, wheel-barrows, and horse-drawn carts over many grueling months, all so the Madison’s could have their level green to frolic on.
“a paradise of roses and flower”
“At some distance from the house was the garden laid off in the shape of a horseshoe … It was a paradise of roses and other flowers, to say nothing of the strawberries, and vegetables.”
The Madison era garden was larger than when you see within the brick wall. Rather than strictly ornamental, it was partially a formal garden, and partially a kitchen garden where a ready supply of fresh herbs, fruits, nuts and vegetables were maintained by free and enslaved workers.
James and Dolley Madison were enthusiastic gardeners and both spent time tending prized plants. Madison cultivated an energetic interest in exotic plant species, particularly those from the western territories and shared samples with friends. Dolley regularly made gifts of fresh vegetables and preserves from Montpelier.
Filling the Pantry
The lifestyle of the Madison’s, and the large numbers of people they entertained, required significant quantities of produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables were served in season, and surplus produce was grown purposefully to be stored in root cellars, pickled, brandied, dried, or preserved for the cold months.
Enslaved workers provided the bulk of the work expertise that made possible James and Dolley’s legendary hospitality. Gardeners worked year round: planting, weeding, and plowing and fertilizing in the winter.
Madison’s terrace garden was designed by French émigré gardener Charles Bizet and sculpted by enslaved assistants who turned a gentle sloping hill with a natural hollow into a series of semi-circular falls bisected by a ramp. The terraces were columned with fruit trees, creating an allusion to Greek amphitheaters and at the northern entrance was a flat semi-circular area extending into the backyard, reminiscent of Pliny the Younger’s hippodrome.
Madison Family Cemetery
“The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.” James Madison, Advice to My Country, 1834
Is the understood resting place for two of America’s most remarkable people: James and Dolley Madison
When the last Founding Father died in 1836, Dolley, together with friends, family, and slaves, paid loving respect. Pubic tribute came two months later, when John Quincy Adams delivered a passionate oration celebrating the man who had formulated the Constitution and sponsored the Bill of Rights. After the death of her cherished James, Dolley moved to Washington, D.C., where she resumed her role as the city’s leading hostess. When she died in 1849, nearly penniless, all of Washington turned out for her state funeral. This rare honor acknowledged the legacies of both Madison’s and their profound role shaping our nation.
James Madison Education
At age 12, Madison’s father sent him to Donald Robertson’s school in King and Queen County. There Madison studied arithmetic and geography, learned Latin and Greek, acquired a reading knowledge of French, and began to study algebra and geometry. Madison never forgot his teacher, later acknowledging “all that I have been in life I owe largely to that man.”
After further study with a private tutor at Montpelier, Madison enrolled in college at the College of New Jersey (today known as Princeton University), earning a bachelor’s degree in 1771. He continued his education at Princeton through the next winter, studying Hebrew and ethics. Madison overworked himself in order to complete two years of coursework in one. In poor health, he returned to Montpelier, where he continued to read on a variety of topics, particularly law.
James Madison’s Reading List
James Madison’s personal library grew to over 4,000 volumes by the time of his death. His collection, voluminous by period standards, necessitated several storage spaces throughout Montpelier. Mary E. E. Cutts described Madison’s Old Library as filled with “plain cases, not only round the room, but in the middle with just sufficient room to pass between, these cases were filled with books, pamphlets, paper, all everything of interest to our country before and since the Revolution.” Much of Madison’s preparation for the 1787 Constitutional Convention required exhaustive reading and research, and he spent the months prior in deep study, pulling ideas from authors and philosophers represented in his growing library.
Nearing the end of his life, Madison planned for the dispersal of his personal collection of books to friends, family, and institutions. In particular, he outlined a gift of what ultimately numbered 431 books and a financial bequest to benefit the University of Virginia’s growing library, which he oversaw as rector. Caught in the mounting conflict over the dispersal of Madison’s estate, it took nearly twenty years for the books to arrive at the University. The remaining volumes in Madison’s collection were sold in June 1854 on the steps of the Orange County Court House to satisfy stepson John Payne Todd’s outstanding debts. The University’s collections of Madison’s books were destroyed during the catastrophic Rotunda fire on October 27, 1895. While it is a tragedy that Madison’s books were lost to fire, sale, and history, what remains is the insight he gained from those volumes, which provided the intellectual foundation of American constitutionalism and lives on today. When possible, Montpelier has acquired Madison’s original volumes for its permanent collections.
James Madison’s Career
At his inauguration, James Madison, a small, wizened man, appeared old and worn; Washington Irving described him as “but a withered little apple-John.” But whatever his deficiencies in charm, Madison’s … wife Dolley compensated for them with her warmth and gaiety. She was the toast of Washington.
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled at Philadelphia, the 36-year-old Madison took frequent and emphatic part in the debates.
Madison made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the Federalist essays. In later years, when he was referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison protested that the document was not “the off-spring of a single brain,” but “the work of many heads and many hands.”
In Congress, he helped frame the Bill of Rights and enact the first revenue legislation. Out of his leadership in opposition to Hamilton’s financial proposals, which he felt would unduly bestow wealth and power upon northern financiers came the development of the Republican, or Jeffersonian, Party.
As President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Madison protested to warring France and Britain that their seizure of American ships was contrary to international law. The protests, John Randolph acidly commented, had the effect of “a shilling pamphlet hurled against eight hundred ships of war.”
Despite the unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which did not make the belligerent nations change their ways but did cause a depression in the United States, Madison was elected President in 1808. Before he took office the Embargo Act was repealed.
During the first year of Madison’s Administration, the United States prohibited trade with both Britain and France; then in May, 1810, Congress authorized trade with both, directing the President, if either would accept America’s view of neutral rights, to forbid trade with the other nation.
Napoleon pretended to comply. Late in 1810, Madison proclaimed non-intercourse with Great Britain. In Congress a young group including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, the “War Hawks,” pressed the President for a more militant policy.
The British impressment of American seamen and the seizure of cargoes impelled Madison to give in to the pressure. On June 1, 1812, he asked Congress to declare war.
The young Nation was not prepared to fight; its forces took a severe trouncing. The British entered Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capitol.
But a few notable naval and military victories, climaxed by Gen. Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans, convinced Americans that the War of 1812 had been gloriously successful. An upsurge of nationalism resulted. The New England Federalists who had opposed the war–and who had even talked secession–were so thoroughly repudiated that Federalism disappeared as a national party.
In retirement at Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states’ rights influences that by the 1830’s threatened to shatter the Federal Union. In a note opened after his death in 1836, he stated, “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”
The Montpelier is A NATIONAL TRUST HISTORIC SITE.