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Reading 1: Daily Life at Montpelier
Margaret Bayard Smith, a friend and admirer of the Madisons, made several trips to Montpelier from her home in Washington, D.C. One visit was recorded in this letter:
August 4th , Montpelier, Wednesd. even.
Mary Cutts, Dolley Madison’s niece, lived at Montpelier for a time in her youth after Madison’s retirement in 1817. Her memoir of her life there contains detailed descriptions of daily life:
[Mr. Madison’s] house was the resort of the distinguished men of the time; foreigners, tourists, artists and writers failed not to visit himself and Mr. Jefferson....
Mrs. Madison soon fell in with the Country customs. Barbecues were then at their height of popularity. To see the sumptuous board spread under the forest oaks, the growth of centuries, animals roasted whole, everything that a luxurious country could produce, wines, and the well filled punch bowl, to say nothing of the invigorating mountain air, was enough to fill the heart...with joy!... At these feasts the woods were alive with guests, carriages, horses, servants and children--for all went--often more than an hundred guests. All happy at the prospect of a meeting, which was a scene of pleasure and hilarity. The laugh with hearty good will, the jest, after the crops, "farmer’s topics" and politics had been discussed. If not too late, these meetings were terminated by a dance.2
Congressman George Ticknor described his impressions in a letter written during his December 1824 trip to Montpelier with congressman and famous orator Daniel Webster:
We were received with a good deal of dignity and much cordiality, by Mr. and Mrs. Madison, in the portico, and immediately placed at ease....
We breakfasted at nine, dined about four, drank tea at seven, and went to bed at ten; that is, we went to our rooms, where we were furnished with everything we wanted, and where Mrs. Madison sent us a nice supper every night and a nice luncheon every forenoon. From ten o’clock in the morning till three we rode, walked, or remained in our rooms, Mr. and Mrs. Madison being then occupied. The table is very amble [ample] and elegant; and somewhat luxurious; it is evidently a serious item in the account of Mr. M’s happiness, and it seems to be this habit to pass about an hour, after the cloth is removed, with a variety of wines of no mean quality.3
After first visiting Monticello (Jefferson’s Virginia plantation home), Margaret Bayard Smith brought her family along when she made another of her visits to Montpelier in August of 1828. The party was caught in a sudden rainstorm and became disoriented in the heavily wooded countryside:
Having lost ourselves in the mountain road which leads thro’ a wild woody track of ground, and wandering for some time in Mr. Madison’s domain, which seemed interminable, we at last reached his hospitable mansion....We drove to the door. Mr. M. met us in the Portico and gave us a cordial welcome. In the Hall Mrs. Madison received me with open arms and that overflowing kindness and affection which seems part of her nature. We were first conducted into the Drawing room, which opens on the back Portico and thus commands a view through the whole house, which is surrounded with an extensive lawn, as green as spring; the lawn is enclosed with fine trees, chiefly forest, but interspersed with weeping willows and other ornamental trees, all of the most luxuriant growth and vivid verdure. It was a beautiful scene! The drawing-room walls are covered with pictures, some very fine, from the ancient master, but most of them portraits of most distinguished men....The mantelpiece, tables in each corner and in fact wherever one could be fixed, were filled with busts, and groups of figures in plaster, so that this apartment had more than the appearance of a museum of the arts than of a drawing room. It was a charming room, giving activity to the mind, by the historic and classic ideas that it awakened.4
Questions for Reading 1
1. Who were some of the people who visited Montpelier? Why did they come? How did they describe Montpelier’s main house and natural surroundings? the Madisons? daily life?
2. What kinds of activities did the Madisons provide for their guests?
3. Do the accounts allow you to visualize the house and the grounds of Montpelier? Which account is most helpful?
4. Why would historians consider these documents important?
1Gaillard Hunt, ed., The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 81-82.