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Reading 3: James and Dolley Madison at Montpelier
Many writers recalled their happy times at Montpelier and noted the great affection between James and Dolley Madison. During a busy professional trip in 1809 in which James and Dolley were separated, Madison explained to Dolley that the period of his stay would, "you may be sure...be shortened as much as possible. Everything around and within reminds me that you are absent, and makes me anxious to quit this solitude."1
Mary Cutts, Dolley’s niece, described her memories of the Madisons’ relationship when she lived for a time at Montpelier after 1817:
Mr. Madison dearly loved and was proud of his wife, the ornament of his house--she was his solace and comfort, he could not bear her to leave his presence, and she gratified him by being absent only when duty required. No matter how agreeably employed she was her first thought and instinct seemed to tell her when she was wanted--if engaged in conversation, she would quickly rise and say, ‘I must go to Madison.’ On his return from riding round the plantation she would meet him at the door with refreshment in her own hands.2
Richard Rush, a member of Madison’s cabinet, found life at Montpelier very pleasing when he visited in late 1816 as the Madisons were preparing for retirement.
I have never seen Mr. Madison so well fixed any where as on his estate in Virginia; not even before he was burnt out here [when the White House was burned in Washington during the War of 1812]. His house would be esteemed a good one for many of our seats near Philadelphia, and is much larger than most of them. The situation is among mountains and very beautiful. A fine estate surrounds him, at the head of which he appears to eminent advantage....He has the reputation of being an excellent [plantation] manager, and is a model of kindness to his slaves. He lives with profuse hospitality, and in a way to strike the eye far more agreeably, than while keeping tavern here....He was never developed to me under so many interesting lights, as during the very delightful week I spent under his roof.3
After his visit to Montpelier in 1827, Henry Gilpin described the Madisons to his father. He explained that he had been waiting in the drawing room for the Madisons to appear:
In a little while, a fine portly looking lady [Mrs. Madison], with a straw bonnet, and shawl on came in....Soon after Mr. Madison came in....Mr. Madison is quite a short thin man, with his head bald except on the back, where his hair hangs down to his collar & over his ears, nicely powdered--he has gray but bright eyes, & small features--he looks scarcely as old as he is, 74 , and seems very hale & hearty--the expression of his face is full of good humour--he was dressed in black, with breeches & old fashioned top boots, which he afterwards took off & sat during the evening in his white stockings, but the next day he had black silk on and looked very nice. Mrs. Madison slipped off to change her walking dress, & made herself quite stylish in a turban & fine gown--she has a great deal of dignity blended with good humour & knowledge of the world.4
In 1865 Paul Jennings recalled his last days with Madison:I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey [a female house slave] brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis said, ‘What is the matter, Uncle James?’ ‘Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.’ His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of the candle goes out. He was about eighty-four years old, and was followed to the grave by an immense procession of white and colored people.5
Questions for Reading 2
1. How would you describe James? Dolley? their relationship? How did Mary Cutts regard her aunt’s relationship with James Madison?
2. How did Richard Rush contrast Madison at home with Madison at the White House? Why is this significant?
3. How did Henry Gilpin describe the Madisons? How does this description compare with others?
4. What do you think Madison meant when he said, "Nothing more than a change of mind"? How are his last words symbolic of his life’s work?
1James Madison to Dolley Payne Madison, August 7, 1809, Lucia B. Cutts, ed., Memoirs and Letters of Dolley Madison (Boston, 1886), 66-67.