TwHP Lessons

Memories of Montpelier:
Home of James and Dolley Madison

[Cover photo 1]

(Cover photos by Beth Boland)


eflecting back on her many visits to James and Dolley Madison’s plantation home, Dolley’s longtime friend, Margaret Bayard Smith, described the Montpelier she had grown to love:

...among the hills [at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains]..., is the paternal estate of Mr. Madison. Naturally fertile, but much improved by his judicious care, a comparatively small part is kept under cultivation, the greater part being covered with its native forests. A large and commodious mansion, designed more for comfort and hospitality than ornament and display, rises at the foot of a high wooded hill, which, while it affords shelter from the northwest winds, adds much to the picturesque beauty of the scene. The grounds around the house owe their ornaments more to nature than art, as with the exception of a fine garden behind, and a widespread lawn before the house, for miles around the ever varying and undulating surface of the ground is covered with forest trees.¹

Smith was not alone in her sentiment about Montpelier. In the early 19th century countless visitors expressed a great sense of pleasure in the place and in the people who lived there. They quickly understood how deeply James Madison (1751-1836) was rooted in his family estate. His grandparents had settled Montpelier in the early 1730s. In the late 1750s Madison’s father began building the house where Madison grew up and to which he returned permanently following his retirement as president in 1817. Madison enjoyed the opportunities and met the responsibilities of education and public service associated with the wealthy Southern gentry to which he belonged. Ultimately, he took part in the most crucial years of our nation’s development. His greatest contribution was his service as "Father" of the Constitution.

¹James B. Longacre and James Herring, eds., The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans (New York: Herman Bancroft, 1836).


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay region

Determining the Facts: Readings
 1. Daily Life at Montpelier
 2. Slavery at Montpelier
 3. James and Dolley Madison at Montpelier

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. Illustration 1: Montpelier, c. 1836
 2. Photo 1: Montpelier, 1994
 3. Photo 2: Montpelier, 2012

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Researching the Madisons
 2. Slavery and Freedom
 3. A Historic Place in Your Neighborhood
 4. Preservation or Restoration? A Great Debate

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This lesson is based on Montpelier, one of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Montpelier has also been designated a National Historic Landmark.



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