IT MUST HAVE BEEN AN ODD SIGHT. Former president James Madison—83 years old, hobbled with rheumatism and half deaf— sprawled across an easy chair in a black silk dressing gown, his cold arthritic hands encased in gray gloves, his head propped on a pillow and topped with a warm white cap. Meanwhile, his visitor—Harriet Martineau, 32, a British writer who was herself half deaf—sat by the arm of his chair, pointing her ear trumpet toward his lips so she could catch every word uttered by the “father of the Constitution.”
A strange scene, no doubt, but somehow it worked, and Madison and Martineau conversed happily for the better part of three days, discussing politics, literature, religion, the founders and the vexing issue of slavery. After she departed, Martineau recorded her memories of Madison in a witty and entertaining book with a deadly dull title: Retrospect of Western Travel.
Among the most influential British writers of her day, Harriet Martineau made her name in the early 1830s by performing a seemingly impossible feat: For two years, she wrote a book a month, each one explaining the ideas of a political or economic philosopher—Tomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith—and the books became so popular that they made her widely famous and comfortably affluent. A reformer, a feminist and an abolitionist, she sailed to America in 1834 to make a sociological study of the young republic.
Martineau arrived in New York, traveled through the state and then headed south, charmed by “the sweet temper and kindly manners of Americans.” In Philadelphia she toured schools and a prison. In Washington she watched debates in Congress and met Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun. She dined at the White House, where President Andrew Jackson was entertaining congressmen who, she noted, all had surnames beginning with J, K or L, and she concluded that Jackson was working his way through Congress alphabetically. A few days later, she attended a funeral in the Capitol, where a lunatic tried to shoot Jackson and failed only because his pistol misfired.
While she was in Washington, Martineau received a letter from James and Dolley Madison inviting her to visit Montpelier, their Virginia plantation. She accepted eagerly— Madison was a man “whose political philosophy I deeply venerated,” she wrote—and she arrived at his home with her traveling companion, Louisa Jeffrey, on February 18, 1835.
“It was a sweet day of early spring,” she recalled, and Montpelier was “neat and even handsome,” with a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge. Dolley Madison welcomed the visitors warmly. Still vivacious at 66—17 years younger than her husband— Dolley impressed Martineau. “She is a strong-minded woman, fully capable of entering into her husband’s occupations and cares and there is little doubt that he owed much to her intellectual companionship.”
Dolley escorted Martineau to the sitting room where her husband spent his days. Suffering from severe arthritis, the former president was also tormented by financial woes. In 1817 he’d left the White House poorer than when he’d arrived. Mismanaged by Madison’s stepson, Montpelier was losing money, and Madison kept it going by selling land and slaves. But he still possessed a brilliant mind and delighted in good conversation.
“His voice was clear and strong, and his manner of speaking particularly lively, often playful,” Martineau wrote. “His relish for conversation could never have been keener.”
They talked all day and long into the night, and the next day they arose and did it again. They discussed politics, of course, and Madison told stories of the founding fathers, recalling the aged Benjamin Franklin being carried into the Constitutional Convention in a sedan chair but still managing to express his views. With regard to literature, Madison predicted that American writing would thrive because the country possessed “an immense number of educated sons of men of small property who will have things to say.” On the topic of church and state, Madison said he was “perfectly satisfied” that his country had proven that religion could thrive without the support of government. Of education, Madison said he believed that women should have the same schooling as men, and he quoted an acquaintance who told him that “well-educated women in his settlement turned with ease and pleasure from playing the harp to milking the cows.”
One subject kept coming up— slavery. “He talked more on the subject of slavery than any other,” Martineau wrote, “acknowledging without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged.”
Madison had owned slaves all his life—108 in 1802—but he’d sold many of them in recent years, including a dozen the week before Martineau’s arrival. Like his friend and fellow Virginian Tomas Jefferson, Madison found slavery incompatible with democratic ideals, but also like Jefferson, he neither freed his own slaves nor worked to end the “peculiar institution.”
“He observed that the whole Bible is against negro slavery,” Martineau wrote. Madison supported the American Colonization Society, which shipped black people to Liberia to establish their own free colony there, although he admitted to Martineau that his slaves had no desire to make the trip. The black population was increasing faster than the white, he lamented, and so “the negroes must go somewhere.”
An abolitionist disgusted by what she’d seen of American slavery, Martineau found Madison’s belief in colonization illogical. “He did not assign any reason why [slaves] should not remain where they are when freed.”
It must have been an awkward conversation because several slaves constantly hovered in the room, attending to their owner’s needs, and they were no doubt listening. Martineau did not reveal whether she argued with Madison about slavery. Probably not. She was his houseguest, after all, and she deeply admired the man and the republican government he’d done so much to design.
And he was a delightfully charming host. On the afternoon of her second day at Montpelier, the mail arrived with its assortment of letters and newspapers. “He gayly threw them aside, saying he could read the newspapers every day and must make the most of his time with us,” she recalled. “He asked me, smiling, if I thought it too vast and anti-republican a privilege for the ex-presidents to have their letters and newspapers free, considering that this was the only earthly benefit they carried away from their office.”
The next morning, Madison arose in fine spirits and joked with Martineau about strangers who came to visit him, “saying that some were taxes and others bounties.” Apparently, Martineau was a bounty: They talked for another couple of hours, discussing America’s troubled relations with France and England, before she departed for an appointment in Richmond.
As she left, Madison invited her to visit again but she never got the chance. She returned to England and Madison died in June 1836.
She wrote of him fondly, describing him as a “virtuous statesman” and a “wonderful man of eighty-three” with “an uncommonly pleasant countenance.” Madison withstood the pains and indignities of old age, she theorized, because of his strong faith that the democratic system he’d helped create would last forever. “Madison reposed cheerfully, gayly, to the last, on his faith in the people’s power of wise self-government.”
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.