Big House, Up Close: Montpelier in Orange, VA

Montpelier is the gorgeous VA home of our fourth president, James Madison and his wife, Dolley. The home and surrounding plantation were established in the 1700s by James Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose. Montpelier has now been restored and is a popular historic and cultural site to visit in Orange, VA, welcoming over 125,000 people annually.

Montpelier and the Madisons

Ambrose Madison was a well-known planter who gained the 4,675 acres where Montpelier would evolve in 1723. He owned enslaved people who cleared the land and began to build the tobacco plantation before he arrived. With him came his wife, Francis, and three children including the eldest, James, Madison Sr., later to be the father of President Madison. After Ambrose’s death, Francis ran the plantation with 20 slaves and her son James when he came of age. James Madison, Sr. helped the estate to grow to include a distillery, blacksmith operation, and neighborhood store.

James Madison, Sr. and his wife Nelly Conway welcomed their son James into the world in 1751. Prior to around 1799, Montpelier was called Mount Pleasant. James Madison (he’ll now be referred to as Madison) was an avid student who was schooled at home until attending Donald Robertson’s school in King and Queen County. He attended the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton) and was their first graduate student. The Montpelier site explains that he studied “Latin, Greek, natural philosophy (science), geography, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, speech[,]debate…Hebrew, political philosophy, and even a little law.”

Madison served in the Confederation Congress, the House of Representatives, and as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson. He became president in 1809. He is often referred to as the father of the Constitution, along with key contributors Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and John Adams. He also conceived of the Bill of Rights and believed the Constitution would need to be consistently amended over time. Constitution Laws.com explains that “alongside Alexander Hamilton – [he] was renowned for his contribution to the authorship of the Federalist Papers.” These papers call for the ratification of the Constitution and describe and extort the importance of many key principles of the constitution, including Madison’s central theories of government by choice and checks and balances.

Above is Madison’s library at Montpelier, where he perused many books of history and political theory, some on loan from Jefferson, which inspired his vision for the new democratic republic. Women, Native Americans, slaves, and even free people of color were excluded from this new vision. While Madison wrote extensively on freedom and expressed a personal conflict over slavery in speeches and letters, he was a slave owner and his household and lands were primarily run and cared for by enslaved people.

In 1794 Madison married Dolley Payne Todd. She was a widow who lost her first husband and one child to Yellow Fever. Her second son, John Payne Todd, came with her when she moved to Montpelier, leaving behind her Quaker community to marry Madison. The Montpelier site describes Dolley Madison as a

“natural diplomat, brilliant social connector, and affectionate companion,” who “knew that people with conflicting viewpoints and opinions could come together peaceably in a drawing room or around a dinner table…”

Dolley Madison lived until 1817 and James Madison lived to 1836. Here’s one of Madison’s most famous quotes in support of education:

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Visit Montpelier

In 2000, The Montpelier Foundation formed, “with the goal of transforming James Madison’s historic estate, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, into a dynamic cultural institution.” The property was restored between 2003 and 2008 to recreate the early 1800s-era home for the public to enjoy. In 2003 Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution was formed, which offers many Constitution-centered programs and experiences. Montpelier archaeological projects are constantly ongoing, and the foundation has focused on involving the descendants of enslaved peoples in uncovering and preserving the plantation’s complex history. Below, a South Yard project is underway, wherein archaeologists are uncovering part of a chimney flue.

Montpelier offers a wide variety of tours, including the Signature Tour, Madison & the Constitution Tour, Dolley Madison & The Women of Montpelier Tour, Discovering Montpelier: A Family-Friendly Tour, Montpelier’s Enslaved Community, In the Ground & In the Lab: Archaeology Tour, Adult Group Tour, Meet the Madisons Tour,  Private Tour, and several outdoor Walking Tours.

Montpelier is a brick, Gothic-Revival Georgian-style home, with classic columns and a symmetrically balanced design.

It has a spacious front porch, as in common in many Southern plantation estate homes, and the view from it is magnificent.

The Montpelier house tour is an immersive and fascinating trip through time full of visual delights. Check out the stylish 19th-century style wallpaper in this bedroom:

Montpelier’s Facebook page explains that,

“Closets of the kind we see in Montpelier could be considered status symbols because eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses did not always incorporate storage spaces in their architecture.”

You can also see James Madison’s mother’s apartment on the house tour, where she would often be found reading or knitting, and where she lived until she was 98 (below).

The current seasonal hours into November are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is estimated that guests should set aside two to three hours to fully enjoy the Montpelier experience, including the indoor tours, outdoor exhibits, trails, garden, and grounds.

Julia Travers

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