The last Saturday of Emily’s visit, with an 80% chance of rain west of the Blue Ridge and 30% chance east, we packed up for a drive to Montpelier, near Orange, VA, about 30 minutes north of Charlottesville. This is the home of James Madison, drafter of our Constitution and our 4th president. Being supporters of persevering our history, we are members of the local trust (www.montpelier.org), which owns the property and opens it to the public. Linda said I wanted to go because I was working the day that she brought Dave & Felicia there during the summer.
Running ahead of the approaching weather, we enjoyed the scenic drive though what Madison considered the Frontier of Virginia, crossing North Mountain, passing north of Front Royal and the Blue Ridge, then traveling south along the eastern foothills of Shenandoah National Park. Bach and Vivaldi provided the soundtrack for the drive. We arrived in time for our picnic lunch before our tour.
The house tour is guided, while the rest of the grounds can be viewed on your own, including woodland trails and formal gardens. Between the house and the visitors center, seasonal archeological excavations are being
done to explore the area where slave quarters housed those who labored to run the plantation prior to various house expansions from owners of the property after Dolly Madison sold it a decade after James’ death. A few hands-on tents are set up to demonstrate various activities, which would be carried out as part of the function of a plantation in the 18th and 19th century. Of interest, three generations of Madisons lived on the property over nearly 100 years before James Madison became proprietor. How different from our own era, when we live in several locations during our lives, with few properties staying within a family for generations.
For tourists wanting to see ready-for-show historic homes and places, Virginia offers several other locations in Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello (Jefferson), and Mount Vernon (Washington) within a few hours drive. For those interested in historic restoration, Montpelier will offer an interesting vantage over the next few decades. This
property is only relatively recently turned over to The National Trust of Historic Preservation, at the wish of the last owner Marion duPont Scott. The Trust set upon major restorations, making the decision to return the house to its state from the early 19thcentury, when Madison was president. This required removing a century and a half of additions and remodeling, and beginning to explore documented and archeological evidence of out-buildings long demolished. The tour takes the
guests through most of the rooms, though only a few have complete decorations and furnishings. This may change from visit to visit, as additional funding and restoration work continues. Our docent commented that the curtains in the central parlor had only been hung the day before, adding formality and grandeur to the room, in which portraits of Madison’s peers, religious and secular themes filled the walls. Other rooms had no wall coverings or furnishings, but our
imaginations filled the setting as the docent described what might have been in that room. Rather that filling all the rooms with speculation, the researchers are combing through correspondence to determine from narratives what each part of the house contained. Unfortunately, much of the interior items were sold to pay for Dolly’s son’s debts.
On the second floor is the room where James Madison spent the winter of 1786-7 Reading through 400 volumes of history and political commentary, of which some 250 Jefferson had sent, while contemplating how to write a constitution to better organize the infant nation and protect the liberty for which it was founded.
With all of our library resources, bookstores, and internet links, how many of us would devote the winter reading even 4 such texts? With Tea Party, neo-Constitutionalists, and libertarian advocates all waving copies of the Constitution and claiming that our various levels of government are not following these rules, I wonder how many of them have Madison’s desire to protect liberty for all, or are they mostly interested in persevering the benefits they have received, while restricting others from participating in the same liberties? Then again, Madison would be the last of the Founding Fathers to die, with the practice of slavery unanswered for another generation.