James Madison was born at the residence of his mother’s parents, at Port Conway, Prince George County, Virginia, but before long he was taken to his father’s house, Montpelier, which was the first brick house built in Orange County. And Montpelier continued to be his home to the day of his death. Much of his life was spent in Washington, but his heart was always turning to the old Virginia plantation where he had spent his boyhood, and he took advantage of every possible opportunity to go there for a longer or shorter visit.
The distance to Shadwell, where Thomas Jefferson lived as a boy, was only thirty miles, but these two who were to have such a large place in the early history of America, did not meet until Madison was seventeen years old. Then lost time was made up. For many years the road between Montpelier and the home of Jefferson became quite familiar to the friends.
In the years before he went to college Madison roamed at will over the twenty-five hundred acres of the Montpelier estate. He walked and rode, he hunted and fished, he learned to take delight in the quiet scenery of that beautiful Blue Ridge country. His tutor, who lived on the estate, was his companion on his expeditions.
It was probably due to this outdoor life that his health was so much better in Virginia than it was at the College of New Jersey (Princeton College). Soon after he graduated in 1771 he returned to Montpelier, somewhat broken by reason of overwork and lack of exercise. To a college friend in Philadelphia he wrote rather pessimistically :
” I am too tired and infirm now to look for extraordinary things in this world, for I think my sensations for many months have intimated to me not to expect a long or a healthy life, though it may be better for me after some time; but I hardly dare expect it, and therefore have little spirit or elasticity to set about anything that is difficult in acquiring and useless in possessing after one has exchanged time for eternity.”
He was right in thinking that he was not to have a healthy life, but he was wrong in thinking it was to be neither long nor eventful. For more than sixty years after he wrote the letter from which quotation has been made, he was energetic and devoted in the service of his country. In May, 1776, he entered the Virginia Convention, thus beginning the career that led him to eight years in the White House. And after he retired from the Presidency much of his time and thought was given to the affairs of the nation. During all these years the thought of his Virginia home gave him new strength in the midst of his tasks.
That home meant more to him than ever when, in September, 1794, he entered the doors of Montpelier with his bride, Dorothy Todd, the young Philadelphia widow whom he had married at Harewood, Virginia.
The estate was still the property of Mr. Madison’s father, and both his father and mother continued to live there. Before long the house was enlarged. The rooms so long occupied by the old people were made a part of the new mansion.
The two families lived together in perfect harmony. The father lived to see his son President of the United States, and the mother was ninety-eight when she died. William O. Stoddard, in his ” Life of James Madison,” says that ” she kept up the old-fashioned ways of house-keeping; waited upon by her servants who grew old and faded away with her. She divided her time between her Bible and her knitting, all undisturbed by the modern hours, the changed customs, or the elegant hospitality of the mansion house itself. She was a central point in the life of her distinguished son, and the object of his most devoted care to the end of her days.”
For Mr. and Mrs. Madison, real life at Montpelier began in 1817, after the close of the stirring period in the White House. They did not have much opportunity to be alone, for guests delighted to come to them, and they liked to have others with them, yet they managed to secure a wonderful amount of joy out of the years spent ” within a squirrel’s jump of heaven,” to use Dolly Madison’s expressive phrase.
Among the guests were intimate friends like Jefferson, who was almost a member of the family. Lafayette, too, found his way to the estate, while Harriet Martineau told in her ” Recollections ” of her pleasant sojourn there. Frequently strangers who were on the way to the Virginia Hot Springs took the five-mile de-tour merely to reach Montpelier, and they were always made welcome.
The dining-room was large, but there were sometimes so many guests that the table had to be set out of doors. Mr. Madison wrote in 1820 of one such occasion : ” Yesterday we had ninety persons to dine with us at our table, fixed on the lawn, under a large arbor. . . . Half a dozen only staid all night.”
After a visit to her parents that was broken into by the presence of guests, a daughter of the house complained to her husband that she had not been able to pass one sociable moment with her father. His reply was sympathetic : ” Nobody can ever have felt so severely as myself the prostration of family society from the circumstances you mention. . . But there is no remedy. The present manners and ways of our country are laws we cannot repeal. They are altering by degrees, and you will live to see the hospitality of the country reduced to the visiting hours of the day, and the family left to tranquillity in the evening.”
When the steward saw that Madison would not curb these guests, he began to cut down on the fodder for the horses, but when the hospitable host learned of this he gave orders that there should be no further attempts of this sort. He realized that he was living beyond his income, but he saw no help for it. He longed for more time in his library or for riding or walking about the estate.
The time came when walks had to be taken on the veranda; health was failing rapidly. He was not able to oversee the farm as he had long been accustomed to do, but depended on others. In 1835 Mrs. Madison wrote to her daughter : ” My days are devoted to nursing and comforting my sick patient, who walks only from the bed in which he breakfasts to’ another.” Still later she wrote : ” I never leave my husband more than a few minutes at a time, and have not left the enclosure around our house for the last eight months.”
When the owner of Montpelier died, on June 28, 1836, he was buried in the cemetery on the estate. Mrs. Madison spent a few lonely years in the old home, but the property was finally sold to satisfy the debts of her wayward son, Payne Todd. She was sometimes in actual want before she died, but Congress provided for her relief by buying for twenty-five thousand dollars the Madison letters and other papers.
She lived until July 12, 1849, and her body was finally laid by the side of that of her husband. William Dupont, the present owner of Montpelier, has enlarged the house by the addition of a second story to the wings. So the house that was built in 1760 by James Madison, Sr., and was enlarged by James Madison, Jr., has entered on a new bra of hospitality.