In which the author reminisces on previous presidential house visits. This post chronicles my third presidential house visit in 2008.
I have always felt a special kinship with James Madison. When I was in fourth grade and stuffing my brain with presidential trivia, he was one of the most memorable presidential superlatives— the smallest president at 5’4” and 100 pounds. At the time, 5’4” seemed tall. I was just about 4’7” at the time, completely average, and hating it. I wanted to be as tall as a president. During the next year, I hit a massive growth spurt and started inching toward the magic number. Finally, in the middle of fifth grade I hit 5’4”; I was the same height as James Madison, and I was officially tall. Nine years and four inches later, I still don’t picture James Madison as a small man. He is forever linked in my mind to the moment I no longer felt average.
After visiting Monticello, my mom and I were looking at those town maps for kids to scope out other things to do in the area. I noticed Montpelier, home of James Madison, was quite close to Monticello. Even factoring in the weird scale of those maps, it couldn’t be more than ten minutes away, so we decided to pay it a quick visit.
After a half hour winding through the Virginia countryside, I took a closer look at the map and noticed there was a small note on the road leading to Montpelier that said 30 miles of road had been cut out (I later found out this same journey took Thomas Jefferson eight hours by carriage). By that time, we were almost there anyway, so we decided to just keep going. We arrived at Montpelier just in time for the last tour of the day. We watched a short instructional video detailing the history of the Madison family and the various alterations made to the house over the years.
Then it was on to the house itself, which turned out to be completely void of furniture and decorations. After Madison’s death, his wife Dolley could no longer afford the house, so she sold it to a Richmond merchant named Henry W. Moncure. The house exchanged hands several times until it was eventually bought by the duPont family in 1901. Its final owner, Marion duPont Scott, lived in the house until 1983. She re-landscaped, redecorated, and rebuilt Montpelier to suit her tastes. This included adding a racetrack to the grounds, completely changing the facade, and decorating the house in a gaudy art deco style. When she died in 1983, she willed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the long restoration process began.
Standing in the middle of the dining room at Montpelier, I could feel my righteous anger rise in full force. I couldn’t help but feel it was a form of sacrilege. The home of someone as important to our nation’s founding as James Madison should have been carefully preserved and cared for, not changed utterly as Montpelier was. To the Marion duPont Scott’s credit, she too felt that Montpelier ought to be a “historic shrine” to James Madison, and put such a stipulation in her will. Still, I couldn’t help but feel something sacred had been violated.
Because of the unfinished nature of Montpelier, on the tour of the house we got a crash course in historic preservation. We were shown how they peeled back layers of paint until they determined which layer was from the Madison time period. The tour guide shared with us how they used letters and diary entries to determine door and furniture placement.
Stripped down to its barest elements, the house felt spacious and light. Even though it was undecorated, Montpelier still gave a visitor the sense of the Madison hospitality. You could imagine Dolley giving lively dinner parties in the large dining room and picture James writing at his desk in his office, trying to formulate a plan for a new government. No matter how many hands Montpelier has passed through, it still maintains the spirit of the Madisons.
Outside on the grounds was a small temple where Madison would take breaks and think about various republics and democracies of the past. Standing there, James Madison was not a small man; he was an intellectual giant, quietly contemplating how to create a more perfect union.