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James and Dolley Madison emerge from the shadows after a restoration team rips out the embellishments later owners made to their Virginia mansion.

The president died in this room. He was feeble, nearly deaf, his fingers worthless with arthritis, his head bald, a horseshoe of gray hair dangling over his col- lar. James Madison, 85 years old, had just finished reading the manuscript of a new biography of his deceased friend Thomas Jefferson, who had lived only 28 miles from Madison’s 4,675-acre Montpelier plantation in Virginia. To the last moment, his mind—which had molded the Constitution, muscled the Bill of Rights through Congress, launched the War of 1812 and both decried and defended slavery—stayed sharp. That summer day in 1836, Madison had trouble swallowing, and a niece asked what was wrong. “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear,” Madison said. Then he dropped his head and died. In this room. This empty room. In this house. This empty house.

On September 17—Constitution Day—a celebration at Montpelier will mark the completion of a five-year, $24 million effort to restore the mansion. Specially trained artisans and craftsmen tore down additions that had been made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and uncovered long-hidden structural details that give a better sense of how the house looked during Madison’s final days. (See “Archaeologists uncover a host of secrets in a grand house,” page 48.)

Even after the architectural rebirth, Montpelier remains a profoundly eerie place. The houses and grounds of Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon are adorned with artifacts—desks and beds and chairs, slave quarters and workshops and outbuildings—creating the illusion that the great men might stroll in at any moment. Not Montpelier. There are a few Enlightenment books, first lady Dolley Madi – son’s engagement ring and snuffbox, a replica of one of her velvet gowns and displays telling in words the history of Montpelier. But no one can brush past President Madison’s iron-post bed with its damask canopy, breathe the musty scent of his 4,000 books—some sent by Jefferson from Paris—or sit at the mahogany gaming tables that Dolley scattered around the house for card-playing guests. After Madison’s death, all of these artifacts were lost to the failing agricultural slave economy of Piedmont Virginia and to the debauchery of his stepson.

In 1900, after six owners in 56 years, an heir to the DuPont fortune bought the estate with its 2,700 remaining acres. William du Pont more than doubled the size of the house and encased what survived from Madison’s era in a towering baronial mansion. Madison’s garden, avant-garde in the 19th century, was replaced by the du Ponts’ 20th-century country estate garden. The original stables, corncribs, smokehouses, slave shacks and privies were relegated to distant memory.

Not everything was lost, however. Madison’s neoclassic garden temple, among the earliest and finest of its kind in the United States, remains. So do the front portico’s pediment, doors and transom and the rear colonnade. Some of the house’s windows, wooden floors, interior doors, molding, wainscot and fireplaces are still in place, and the mountain vistas are still stunning. Archaeologists at Montpelier, which Marion du Pont Scott willed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, excavated the nearby ground to unearth the remains of Mount Pleasant, the house of Madison’s grandfather. They also recently uncovered foundations of smokehouses and domestic slave quarters. Montpelier is a work in progress. Imagining James Madison form this place is like imagining a painting by studying an empty frame.

And that’s what makes Montpelier so intriguing. Its meaning in Madison’s life and its meaning in our lives as Americans can’t be discerned from bricks and mortar and artifacts but must be found in Madison’s letters, in Dolley’s record of household goods, in the recollections of visitors, family and slaves, in craftsmen’s accounts, in biographies and in the analysis of architectural historians. Together, these sources paint a picture in the empty frame, illuminating the tension then and today between the ideal of equality and the reality of money and power, which makes some more equal than others. At Montpelier, Madison’s highest ideals and lowest realities were revealed in the material choices of his lifetime—in plaster and plank, architecture and design, art and furnishings.

Madison was 9 years old in 1760 when his father moved the family into the new mansion house, then the largest brick dwelling in prosperous Orange County. The two-story Virginia Georgian stood nestled among red-dirt fields of tobacco and grain, the long front porch facing west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, which rise nearly 30 miles away amid a landscape of rolling meadows, lush forests and boundless skies.

Madison’s father grew tobacco and operated a sawmill, gristmill, distillery and ironworks, all with the labor of some 100 enslaved African Americans. Young Madison, shy and bookish, grew to only 5 feet 6 inches. He was educated by European tutors and then sent to Princeton, then called the College of New Jersey, where he became imbued with the philosophy of John Locke and others who believed in the equality of man, the power of reason and the idea that government could reflect the will of the people. Madison also told a Princeton classmate that slavery disgusted him, a view he held all his life. A practical man who tried to find practical solutions, however, he believed that blacks and whites couldn’t live together peacefully as equals. His plan for ending slavery was to have the government pay slaveholders $600 million and then ship all 700,000 former slaves back to Africa.

During the 25 years after Princeton, Madison visited Montpelier only occasionally. His father ran the plantation, which financed Madison’s founding of the nation. He encouraged his father to curtail tobacco planting in favor of the more profitable wheat. The crop appealed to Madison’s practicality— it didn’t deplete the soil. It also appealed to his conscience—it didn’t demand so much slave labor. Anticipating that he’d someday run Montpelier, Madison kept a weather diary and studied new crop-rotation techniques and deep-furrow plowing methods. He once gave elaborate orders to Montpelier’s overseers and laborers: Construct a hog shelter, build a plow, plant Irish potatoes in the corn rows, fence a meadow and plant 200 apple trees. In instructions that sound self-deluding today but were regarded as humane then, he told the overseers of his estate to “treat the Negroes with all the humanity & kindness consistent with their necessary subordination and work.”

But Madison had more than Montpelier on his mind in those years. After a stint in the Virginia legislature and the Continental Congress, after leading the call for a new Constitutional Convention, he isolated himself at Montpelier for six months to ponder the shape a new American government should take. In the winter and spring of 1787, the nation we take for granted today was first imagined. Because if Jefferson, with his Declaration of Independence, was the poet of the American Revolution, Madison was its political scientist. With his mild voice and powdered hair, black coat, stockings and buckled shoes, Madison hardly seemed to resemble the fellow Jefferson called the “greatest man in the world.” But he presciently saw that the Founding Fathers’ challenge was to create a government that could mediate between battling factions while working toward a vision of the public interest.

Madison, who spoke to the convention more than 200 times, recognized the young republic’s conflicting diversity in wealth, religion and business—the pluralism that had made the Baron de Montesquieu argue that democracy couldn’t work in a giant nation. Madison saw these sprawling, brawling factions not as a hindrance but as an asset; with so many competing interests, none could ever gain the upper hand. Then came the practical Madison’s seminal contribution: He designed a constitution that separated and dispersed federal power in legislative, executive and judicial branches and between state and federal governments—the American system of checks and balances.

By 1797 Madison had also brokered the Bill of Rights through Congress and served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. At Jefferson’s urging, he’d reluctantly responded to essays published by their archenemy Alexander Hamilton that touted the president’s power to make foreign policy without congressional input. Madison defended the shared power between the executive and legislative branches, writing under the name Helvidius (after an ancient Roman senator, Helvidius Priscus, who was condemned to death for taking a stand against imperial prerogative). Madison was so famous that Jefferson believed the presidency was his for the asking. Instead, Madison left politics. He and Dolley, married in 1794, shipped their belongings including their Louis XVI bed, Parisian carpets and Windsor chairs—not to mention 20 bundles of nails—from Philadelphia to Montpelier. Madison, with the help of his friend Jefferson, was about to play architect on the mansion house.

He ordered a mountain of nails from Jefferson’s plantation nailery: 50,000 fourpenny nails, 50,000 sixpenny, 20,000 tenpenny. Through Jefferson, Madison later purchased locks, door hinges and Bohemian windowpanes. Unlike Jefferson, Madison was no architectural savant. And there was nothing impulsive about him. He enlarged Montpelier by building a 30-foot mirror-image addition to the house and adding a centered front portico with four Tuscan columns. Montpelier’s design was again practical—no fascinating Jeffersonian gadgets such as dumbwaiters or revolving-door passages that sent food to the dining room.

In tune with Jefferson’s tastes and the Classical Revival, Madison transformed the Georgian exterior of his father’s mansion into the Federal style. Madison’s portico columns, which he designed himself, weren’t tall enough to stand in perfect classical proportion to Montpelier’s height, but the porch did include classical touches popularized by Andrea Palladio and others: podium, plinths, columns, entablature and pediment. Hidden behind the elegant entrance to the practical Madison’s new mansion was a simple duplex that allowed his mother and father to live there along with himself and Dolley and not drive one another crazy.

Madison’s tastes were French, as were Jefferson’s and those of other rabidly anti-British antimonarchists. But the results weren’t egalitarian. After the French Revolution in 1789, Madison had bought furniture, curtains, silverware, wineglasses and even napkins from the beleaguered French nobility, making his purchases through James Monroe, a Virginia neighbor and future president, then a diplomat in Paris. At Montpelier, Madison hired a French gardener, who earned then the enormous salary of $700 a year. Dolley was a Parisian fashion plate, and Madison’s palate ran toward Madeira, which handwritten invoices show was shipped to Montpelier as many as 20 cases at a time.

After Jefferson became president in 1801, Madison left Montpelier and became secretary of state to help battle what the two saw as Hamilton’s oligarchic forces, which had shifted power from farmers to Eastern bankers and stock speculators. For 15 years, James and Dolley were again only occasional visitors to Montpelier. She became the first grande dame of Washington society. He followed Jefferson as president and presided over the thumping of England in the War of 1812. Madison left office in 1817 with the nation’s pride and his popularity supreme.

Home went the Founding Father—to a renovated Montpelier. During Madison’s presidency, workers had been busy recasting his house on a grander scale to reflect his new statesman-politician-philosopher status. He abandoned his amateur efforts at architecture and hired James Dinsmore, Jefferson’s craftsman builder, who added two one-story wings, a rear colonnade and two indoor basement kitchens, one at either side of the house. The remodeled interior had large elegant rooms for the hordes of visitors Madison anticipated, while the privacy of Madison, Dolley and Madison’s widowed mother was maintained in the rest of the house.

It was a huge project. The carpentry bill alone came to $4,229 at a time when it cost $25 a year to house, clothe and feed a slave. Dinsmore, two other craftsmen from Monticello and, no doubt, slaves from Montpelier worked for four years. New triple-hung European windows in the style Jefferson had popularized in this country caught the light, as did the fan and the Venetian doors. The renovation added egg-and-dart and ogee moldings, 600 feet of flooring and 95 feet of cornice. When Madison was done, the center of Montpelier rose 26 feet high and ran 88 feet long and 33 feet wide with a 35-by-22 foot one-story wing on each end. The portico spanned 49 feet.

On the north front lawn was a final touch, Madison’s garden gazebo perhaps patterned on the Temple of Venus at Versailles. Beneath the structure, Madison dug an icehouse that provided his guests with ice cream and cool drinks all summer. James and Dolley knew how to throw a party. As many as 20 guests at a time stayed for days or weeks, all at Madison’s expense. As the retired American equivalent of king and queen, the distinguished couple were beset by courtiers—family, friends, diplomats, politicians, power brokers and wanna-bes. Madison might talk of the government’s duty to protect people holding unpopular beliefs, his commitment to freedom of the press or the imbecility of Southern secession from the Union. As one guest wrote in 1828, “Mr. Madison was the chief speaker.”

Montpelier was a showplace. In line with Madison’s belief that “art must teach,” the house was adorned with 125 paintings—European landscapes and paintings of biblical scenes; Gilbert Stuart oil portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Dolley; portraits of the great explorers Cortez, Magellan, Columbus and Vespucci and sculptures of the classical deities Apollo and Venus. In Madison’s four-acre back garden, his French gardener tended pear, apple, peach, cherry, plum, fig and crab-apple trees that mingled with grape arbors, blueberry and strawberry patches, jonquils, daffodils, lilies, tulips, peonies, hollyhocks, roses and lilacs. Under his portico, Madi – son kept a telescope for surveying his domain, and he took daily rides on his horse Liberty.

Montpelier’s architecture, artwork and gardens were meant to inspire a sense of the nobility of mankind—and, no doubt, to portray Madison as he wished to be seen. At Montpelier, Madison achieved the neoclassic ideal: He was the image of a Renaissance man living amid the serenity of natural and man-made beauty.

But with the opening of the West, the value of Virginia Piedmont property dropped to nearly nothing. The U.S. banking system collapsed. Crop prices fell. Madison’s neighbors including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe went bust. His stepson’s boozing, womanizing and gambling cost Madison $40,000 in his lifetime. On top of that, he had more slaves than his worn-out land needed, and two-thirds of them were too young, old or sick to work. The system that had financed his family for five generations was now costing him dearly. The French gardener retired to France.

Madison had hoped to free his slaves in his will, but he didn’t. Black muscle, which could be sold to the Deep South’s cotton plantations, had become Piedmont slaveholders’ only liquid asset. Madison refused to breed slaves for the auction block but, to save Montpelier from ruin, he did sell slaves to masters the slaves had approved. He believed he had no choice.

Madison’s friend Edward Coles had freed his own slaves, taken them to Illinois and bought them land. He begged Madison to do likewise, saying the act would finally prove that he believed what the American Revolution had proclaimed 50 years earlier: All men are meant to be free. Madison refused. He feared that some of his slaves couldn’t survive on their own. He feared for the financial security of Dolley, whose Virginian father had gone bankrupt after freeing his slaves and moving to the North. Maybe Madison also couldn’t imagine living without artwork, lavish entertaining and fine Madeira. Guests to Montpelier reported that their host was in despair over the “original sin of the African trade.” Nevertheless, Montpelier— along with Mount Vernon and Monticello—kept its slaves.

In his last years, Madison was so broke that even the Bank of the United States, which he had rechartered as president, refused him a $6,000 loan. When the statesman dropped his head and died in 1836, much of Montpelier was mortgaged. Soon, Dolley’s son began hawking Madison’s paintings, letters and furniture to pay his gambling debts. Dolley sold Montpelier, returned to Washington and lived in genteel poverty until she died. What happened to Madison’s slaves? They were probably bought and sold for three more decades. While Congress purchased Madison’s Constitutional Convention notes and many of his papers, nearly everything else at Montpelier was sold helter-skelter, artifacts lost to history. Eventually, William du Pont buried Madison’s house in his own grand creation. But without du Pont, Montpelier could easily be gone.

Today the honchos at the National Trust and the Montpelier Foundation are trying to turn Montpelier’s perceived weaknesses into advantages. Montpelier doesn’t have many tangible artifacts that will wow visitors. Tours instead delve into the mind of Madison and the generations of family privilege at Montpelier that created him. The guides talk unapologetically about the human and economic realities of slavery for slaves and owners. Montpelier will not be another museum of artifacts but a memorial to Madison’s ideas, ideals and failings, which will remind us of the timeless and timely lessons of great reach and limited grasp.

So, is the story of Madison and Montpelier a triumph or tragedy? Both, no doubt. “If men were angels,” Madison once wrote, “no government would be necessary.” And if men were angels, no laws and institutions would be necessary to restrain their selfishness; no ideals would be necessary to inspire their selflessness.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.