Location: Orange, Virginia, 28 miles north of Charlottesville
The first time we visited Monticello on a Lewis & Clark research trip, we wanted to pay a visit as well to Montpelier, the equally grand home of James Madison and his fabulous wife Dolley. At that time, the home was closed for an extremely extensive renovation. But on our most recent trip to Virginia, the home had reopened, providing a fascinating, multi-faceted look at the “Father of the Constitution” and a terrific example of historical restoration.
James Madison’s career is inexorably intertwined with that of his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, Madison, who was eight years younger than Jefferson, became much more than a protege to the “Sage of Monticello.” He became a close personal friend and a political alter ego, often using his calm insight and deep understanding of government to save Jefferson from his own more radical tendencies.
When he became president in 1801, Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State, with a standing if secret order to be on the lookout for additional territory into which the new nation could expand. Jefferson already foresaw that the United States would dominate the North American continent, though he believed the expansion would take several centuries rather than mere decades. Nonetheless he was ready to get started, with his top priority being the purchase of New Orleans from the French, which would give Americans much better access to the world’s sea lanes.
As detailed in our earlier post on James Monroe (Lewis & Clark road trip: Ashlawn-Highland), what began as a negotiation with Napoleon’s government for New Orleans turned into the fire sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million — over one million square miles of land. The Louisiana Purchase gave Jefferson legal cover to fulfill a dream he had harbored for decades: to send explorers west on a scientific and diplomatic mission to discover and map the western part of the continent and negotiate alliances with the Indians that would give America entree into the world fur trade and access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, whatever Jefferson’s critics then and now might care to say about him, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of thinking small.
As Jefferson personally oversaw the preparations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for the Expedition, Madison had little involvement with the launch of the historic exploration. In fact, his wife Dolley took a more active role. As her niece Mary E.E. Cutts later recalled, Dolley had a huge heart, and believed that Lewis & Clark “could never could return from that land of savages.” Determined to supplement the miserly congressional appropriation of $2500 for equipment, she organized the ladies of Washington and conducted a fundraiser to provide the Expedition with sack cloth, candle wax, lamps and lamp oil, cooking spices, canned goods, dried goods, writing materials, clothing, and silver cooking utensils.
It would be interesting to know whether Meriwether Lewis remembered Dolley’s kindness on July 28, 1805. In what is still one of the more remote and beautiful spots in Montana, the Missouri River divides into three mighty streams, and Lewis named one of them after the Secretary of State, writing:
In pursuance of this resolution we called the S. W. fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s River in honor of 〈that illustrious personage〉 Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison’s River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin’s River in honor of Albert Gallitin [Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury].
the two first are 90 yards wide and the last is 70 yards. all of them run with great valocity and thow out large bodies of water. Gallitin’s River is reather more rapid than either of the others, is not quite as deep but from all appearances may be navigated to a considerable distance. Capt. C. who came down Madison’s river yesterday and has also seen Jefferson’s some distance thinks Madison’s reather the most rapid, but it is not as much so by any means as Gallitan’s.
According to Dolley’s niece, when Lewis returned to Washington in December 1806, he returned the surviving silver service to Dolley and regaled the ladies with tales of “hair breath escapes and marvelous adventures,” along with “as many specimens as they could bring from so far off in the wilderness!” Lewis’s memos to Dolley’s husband also give a flavor of the expenses the Expedition had incurred (the final cost of the Lewis & Clark Expedition ended up being about $39,000):
“One Uniform laced Coat, one silver Epaulet, one Dirk, and belt, one hanger and belt, one pistol and one fowling piece, all private property in exchange for Canoe, Horses and c. for public service during the expedition – $135.”— Meriwether Lewis to James Madison, March, 1806
In spite of Dolley’s excitement about the Expedition, it appears that her husband was not nearly as enamored with Lewis as she or his mentor Jefferson. When Madison became president in 1809, he was less than supportive of Lewis’s efforts in his new and difficult political job, that of governing the huge territory he had heroically explored. The essential conflict is articulated in our novel To the Ends of the Earth by none other than our old friend James Wilkinson:
“Well, if you are not angry about it, then I am, sir!” Wilkinson smacked the table with his hand. “President Madison cares nothing for your fame. To him, your entire expedition—what do you call it, you’re so clever with names—the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery? Only the greatest feat of exploration ever attempted on this continent—” He paused in mid-sentence and fixed Lewis with a disconcerting look. “Well, in Madison’s petty mind, it was a colossal waste of money.”
“That’s because he doesn’t understand what we discovered. When the expedition journals are published, he’ll see that it wasn’t a waste—”
“But that’s not the point!” Wilkinson cut him off. “The point is, Madison has no vision for what this country could be! But you do, Lewis, and so do I.”
The most fascinating part for me of visiting Montpelier was learning about the home’s incredible restoration. The Madisons lived an opulent and genteel lifestyle with over 100 slaves, but following James’ death in 1836, Dolley fell on hard times. Her only son, Payne Todd, was an alcoholic wastrel who had spent time in debtor’s prison. Dolley had already put up the mansion as collateral to pay Payne’s debts. She lost everything, and was forced to depend on friends for their kindness until her death in 1849 at the age of 81.
After going through several owners, the house was acquired in 1901 by the duPont family, which remodeled it beyond recognition and used the property for their competitive equestrian pursuits. When Marion duPont Scott died in 1983, she donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with the money to restore it to the Madison era. After a protracted court battle with several heirs, the work began in 2003. The architects were surprised and delighted to find that some 80% of the original Madison home was intact beneath the duPont renovations. The structural renovation was completed in 2008 and work is underway to restore the interior to the appearance it would have had in Madison’s day.
We had a wonderful time in the home and gardens, along with a great lunch in the cafe. Montpelier is a very enjoyable stop for any history buff and illuminates a very human side of one of the Founding Fathers and his unforgettable wife.
More great reading: James Madison’s Montpelier (blog)