Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
4th President of the United States, 1809-1817
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James Madison's Temple
James Madison's Temple
Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

Montpelier was the home of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, for 76 years.  Madison was a brilliant political philosopher and pragmatic politician.  When he was elected president in 1809 he was already recognized as the “Father of the Constitution.”  With his mentor and friend, Thomas Jefferson, he had founded the Democratic-Republican Party.  As president, his efforts to keep the peace between Britain and the new nation were unsuccessful.  The resulting War of 1812 ended indecisively but was regarded by most Americans as a “Second American Revolution.”  His term ended with a period of intense nationalism.

James Madison was born in 1751 in King George County, Virginia, where his mother was visiting her family.  They soon returned home to Montpelier, which had been in the Madison family since 1723.  The family’s first home appears to have been a modest frame dwelling located about a half a mile south of the existing house.  James Madison's father probably had the earliest part of the present house built in the 1760s.  At the time, it was the largest brick dwelling in Orange County, reflecting the family's high status in the community.  The original two-story brick house consisted of two rooms on either side of a central hall.

Although Madison always considered Montpelier his home, he was often absent.  His active participation in State and national politics began at the time of the American Revolution.  He helped frame the Virginia Constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly.  Madison was instrumental in the calling of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he served on key committees and was a tireless advocate of a strong central government.  His Virginia plan was the model for much of the Constitution.  He also played a critical role in shepherding the document through the Continental Congress.  From 1787 to 1788, Madison along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of essays that were a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution.  Later published in book form as The Federalist, the essays continue to be studied as classics in political theory.  In later years, however, when people called him the "Father of the Constitution," Madison always protested that the document was not "the off-spring of a single brain," but "the work of many heads and many hands."

Possessions of the Madisons on display
Possessions of the Madisons on display
in the Joe & Marge Grills Gallery in the Visitor Center
Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

As a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1789 to 1797, Madison helped frame and pass the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the new Constitution.  During these years, he lived in Philadelphia, then the capital.  He met and married Dolley Payne Todd there in 1794.  In 1797, they returned to Montpelier where they lived with his parents.  Between 1797 and 1801, Madison added a new matching wing to the north end of the house.  The two-story, side-hall plan addition provided a separate household for James and his wife, including a dining room and chamber downstairs and two chambers upstairs.  His parents continued to live in the old house.  Probably with advice from his friend, Thomas Jefferson, James added a large two story front portico of four Tuscan columns under a Classical pediment.  The portico unified the two-part house and gave it its visual focus.  James Madison inherited Montpelier upon his father’s death in 1801, but his mother continued to maintain a separate household in the original house.

Uncovering a wall painting
Uncovering a wall painting
including sassafras leaves
Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

Madison became Jefferson’s secretary of state in the same year and moved to Washington.  Seven years later, he was elected to succeed his friend and mentor as president.  During his first term, Madison was enmeshed in the difficulties stemming from the Napoleonic Wars and trade relations with Britain and France.  The British seizure of American ships, cargoes, and seamen on the high seas led the “War Hawks” in Congress to call for military action.  Madison asked Congress to declare war on June 1, 1812.  Not prepared for war, the young nation took a severe trouncing.  The British captured Washington, burned the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings, and forced the government to flee the city.  The war ended in a stalemate with the signing of the inconclusive Treaty of Ghent in 1815.  A few notable victories, climaxed by General Andrew Jackson's triumph at New Orleans, convinced most Americans that the War of 1812 was gloriously successful, resulting in an upsurge of nationalism.

When Madison retired from office in 1817, he returned to Montpelier.  Changes to the house by this time included the addition of one-story wings at each end of the building to provide bedchamber suites for Madison’s wife and widowed mother.  Exterior changes added a new central main entrance and harmonized the details of the two parts of the main house.  Interior spaces were substantially reconfigured.  Madison continued to be involved in public affairs during his 19 year retirement.  He died in 1836 at the age of 85.  He and his wife lie buried in the family cemetery on the grounds. 

Dolley Madison sold Montpelier in 1844.  Subsequent owners made many changes to the house and grounds. The family of William duPont, which owned the property from 1901, bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984, which now maintains it as a historic house museum. The National Trust established an independent, nonprofit foundation, The Montpelier Foundation, which assumed the management of Montpelier in 2000. In 2003, the foundation launched a painstaking five-year restoration to return the house to the way it looked when James and Dolley Madison lived there in the 1820s.

Plan your visit

Montpelier, located four miles west of Orange on State Rte. 20 in VA, at 11407 Constitution Hwy. Montpelier Station, VA. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  It is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open to the public November–March from 9:30am to 4:30pm and April-October from 9:30am to 5:30pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.  In addition to guided tours of the house and self-guided audio tours of the grounds, quarterly and weekend themed tours are offered for no additional fee. Visit the Montpelier website or call 540-672-2728 ext. 140 for more information.

Montpelier is the subject of an online lesson plan, Memories of Montpelier: Home of James and Dolley Madison. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. Montpelier has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Montpelier is also featured in the National Park Service Journey Through Hallowed Ground: Route 15 through Virginia's Piedmont Travel Itinerary.

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