Situated in the rolling mountains of the Piedmont region of Virginia, Montpelier has been home to pioneers and Presidents, slaves and millionaires, plowing mules and world champion racehorses. The land, the house, and some of the most important American history tie them all together and us to them. Montpelier is a monument of massive proportions.
In 1732 Ambrose Madison, his wife Frances, and their three children came to this land, rough wilderness at the time, began to tame it, and named it Mount Pleasant. He brought with him horses and mules and twenty-nine slaves to do most of the work, clearing, tilling, plowing, and planting to turn a 4,000-acre forest into a thriving tobacco plantation. The only thing thirty-six-year-old Ambrose lacked was a life long enough to accomplish it: six months after arrival he was dead, poisoned by another man’s slave and two of his own.
His widow and eldest son James picked up nobly, managed the estate, and improved it, buying more slaves and establishing the tobacco and other crops. In 1749, having inherited the family properties and renaming it “House Home,” James Madison married Nelly Conway, who gave birth to their firstborn son March 16, 1751—another James, future President of the new nation he would help to sculpt and Father of its most important founding document, the United States Constitution.
James, Jr., spent all of his early childhood at the spot he would later call Montpelier, learning the manners of a colonial gentleman and growing in his love of land, horses, freedom, people, and growing things. When he was in his early teens, his father built a new house a half a mile away from the old homestead, the two-story brick structure that provided the nucleus of the Montpelier mansion we know today.
After two years of classical tutoring at home and five in Virginia’s Tidewater, Madison studied at Princeton under University president John Witherspoon, future signer of the Declaration of Independence. He returned to the family seat in 1771 one of the best-educated up-and-coming statesmen in all of the thirteen colonies, just in time to take his place as Thomas Jefferson’s protégé in the Virginia legislature. The two were lifelong friends as well as compatriots. Jefferson, whose architectural and agricultural wonder Monticello was only thirty-five miles from Montpelier, advised Madison on home and garden in addition to law: the signet entry and garden temple are Jeffersonian touches to Madison’s Montpelier.
Through all of America’s formative years, Madison, only five-foot-two and never weighing more than a hundred pounds, was a giant among founding-father giants, hand-crafting Virginia’s Constitution, guiding the toddling United States in the struggle to form hers, pungently persuading the country to adopt it, and then defending a strict interpretation of its (or at least his) intent. In 1794, at age forty-three, Congressman James Madison married twenty-six-year-old widow Dolley Payne Todd. Three years later he took her home to Montpelier, and, never ceasing to build a new nation, began immediate construction on additions, expansions, and embellishments to his family home.
The house his father had built was already the largest brick structure in the county. To this Madison now added the Tuscan portico that so grandly sets off the home as well as single-story flat-roofed extensions on either end of the house to provide extra room for the newlyweds—James, Sr., died in 1801, but Madison’s mother enjoyed life at Montpelier until her death in 1829. Later, when he was President, the couple added a major drawing room and two wings on either end of the house.
The two retired to Montpelier in 1817 following Madison’s presidency and enjoyed the busy life of the plantation for several years. Madison had many who worked for him, including a good number of slaves, but he was jealous of tending his own grapevines and nursing his own horses and dogs when they were down. Leaving a legacy the country would never forget, the Father of the Constitution, author of the Bill of Rights, Secretary of State at the Louisiana Purchase, and two-term President, died at his beloved Montpelier in 1836. He had lived eighty-five full years, most of them right where he was born and died. Dolley Madison moved to Washington, D.C., shortly after her husband’s death. Due to enormous family debt—most of the founding fathers spent their family fortunes in giving life to a struggling new country—she was forced to auction off Montpelier furnishings she had collected through the years, and in 1844 she sold Montpelier itself.
Montpelier, however, remains a monument to the Madisons and to their unfathomable contribution to their country to this day. After changing hands repeatedly through the latter part of the nineteenth century, the estate served as home to millionaire heiress Marion duPont and her family for over eight decades in the twentieth, becoming under her equine expertise a center for internationally-renowned champion horse breeding, training, and racing. Today, at her bequest, Montpelier is in the hands of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has restored the mansion to its original 1822 appearance and conducts tours of the home and grounds year-round for the American people, the wealthy heirs of one of the nation’s foremost families.