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Setting the Stage

James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, and his home was Montpelier, a 5,000-acre plantation estate located in the Piedmont of Virginia. In the late 1750s his father began building the house where Madison spent his youth. Prior to this the family lived on the Montpelier property in what was probably, at the very least, a modest frame house, typical of Piedmont Virginia architecture of the time. Montpelier remained Madisonís home throughout his adult life, although public service positions often called him away. Various public commitments included: the Continental Congress, 1780-1783; the Virginia Assembly, 1784-1787; the Federal Convention, 1787; the "new" Continental Congress, 1787-1789; the Federal Congress, 1789-1797; the Virginia Assembly, 1799-1800; secretary of state under Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809; and president, 1809-1817. Even during these periods, however, Madison spent his long vacations at home.

In 1801 Madison, as the eldest son, inherited the estate his family had developed for more than 70 years. Following his retirement as president in 1817, Madison returned to Montpelier permanently. As he had anticipated, he and his wife, Dolley (1768-1849), received many visitors during this period. In fact, it was not uncommon for them to have as many as 25 guests or more requiring both room and board. Guests were a normal part of daily life on the plantations of Virginia gentry. Slavery was also a major part of plantation life. More than 100 enslaved African Americans provided the labor that supported and maintained Montpelier. The contributions of these slaves included agricultural labor, skilled craftsmanship, and domestic service.

Although it has undergone substantive modifications by its numerous owners since Madison, Montpelierís setting, main house, and grounds reflect the Madison era and offer useful insights into the daily life of the "last founding father" and a large Virginia plantation home in the early 19th century.

 

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