The Tour of Montpelier with James and Dolley Madison
December 2018, my friend (Dave) and I visited Montpelier, the plantation home of James Madison in Orange County, Virginia. The trip was enjoyable, but at that time Montpelier allowed no photos of the interior of the mansion. This was very disappointing.
We returned to Montpelier in June of 2019 after finding out we could now photograph the inside of the home. By this time, I was well into my science fiction graphic novel project about Madison. This visit allowed me to capture some lovely interior background photos for my project.
This post focuses on the interior of Montpelier. I’ve added a little extra flavor by adding James and Dolley with dialogue to some of the photos as if we had visited them. I Photoshopped “modernity” background items out of some of the images, i.e., security cameras, air vents, perimeter roping, etc. to make it look more like Madison’s time. Click on the “Before” image links to see the original photos.
Some of the images of James and Dolley are in my Sci-Fi graphic design project. See the links at the end of this post for more scenes from that project.
We arrived at the home of the “Great Little Madison”, a beautiful home indeed. We asked the Madison’s beforehand if we could have a private tour of their home with no other guests, family members, or slaves present. They agreed to let us have a private visit.
Ain’t we special.Before Image
We walk up to Mr. Madison’s front portico. We look west and see the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia as Madison may have viewed them, minus the DuPont race track of course.Before we enter the home, we hear a call from Madison’s Temple situated a little distance from the home’s north wing.Before Image
We walk toward the temple and see the “Great Little Madison” beckoning. He greets us as he adds ice to his water jar. Underneath the temple is Madison’s ice house. He keeps ice for drinks and ice cream all summer long for himself and his many visitors. One of his favorite foods is ice cream. We ask him if we could have some of his ice cream. He said that perhaps we could try one of Dolley’s favorite flavors, oyster. He also notes that asparagus is also a popular flavor1. I tell Mr. Madison that in our time Baskin Robbins has thirty-one flavors of ice cream and oyster and asparagus are not on the list. But oh well, I guess anything is good with enough sugar added.
We walk up to the house and onto the portico to the entrance of Mr. Madison’s home. Much of the glass in this door is the original glass from Madison’s time. I ask Mr. Madison if it is true that he and Dolley foot race on this portico and does Dolley really give him “piggy-back” rides? Mr. Madison grins and laughs, “Yes, it is true.”2Mr. Madison takes us straight into his drawing-room. Here he introduces us to his wife, Dolley. In this room, he and Dolley entertain many guests with as many as 20 people staying with them for weeks.3 One 4th of July they had nearly 100 guests. We again thank them for running everyone else off so we could have this private tour with them.
Seeing Dolley standing beside James reinforces just how short James really is. Madison is indeed little at 5’4″ and roughly 110 lbs. Dolley is taller, bigger, and stronger than he.
I read that Madison has been described as a very shy, reserved, and “gloomy, stiff creature . . . who has nothing engaging or even bearable in his manners – the most unsociable creature in existence.”4 However, as we get to know Dolley and James, the other aspects of what I read about him are true as well. As he gets to know us, his personality opens up, and a “wicked sense of humor”5 emerges. His conversation, as one niece recalled, moves “from brilliant mirth through to brilliant mirth.” A British diplomat found him a “jovial and good-humored companion.” Another source calls James “an incessant humorist” who “set his table guests daily into roars of laughter over his stories and whimsical ways of telling them.”6
Dolley is indeed everything that I had read about her, a real social butterfly. She is known “more for warm cheer and high spirits than for incisive wit. She is, as her niece said, ‘a foe to dullness.'”7Before Image
Dolley and James walk over to another area of the drawing-room near the entrance and show us portraits of them when they were younger. They quickly remind us that not much had changed since their youth and they were still as playful as ever with the same youthful affection toward one another.
I inform Dolley that I had asked James if it were true that they run foot races outside. Dolley laughs, challenges me to a foot race and says, “Madison and I often run races here.” Just as I had read about the Madisons, they “sometimes romp and tease each other like two children.”8 Dolley says, “Madison and I still have as much fun as we always did.” She seizes her little husband’s hands, draws him upon her back, and they go around and around the drawing-room.9
My friend Dave and I laugh as we’ve read about the Madisons’ playful behavior, but we were shocked as we didn’t expect them to be this playful. I told Dolley since you have this much energy perhaps I will challenge you to that foot race.
Dolley says, “Madison and I never take ourselves seriously as we have the presence of younger relatives staying with us most of the time. This house is so full of people; we’ve learned to let ourselves go and have fun.”10
“Two of Dolley’s sisters, Lucy and Anna lived with them for periods that stretched for years, along with their eight children. Dolley’s brother settled near Montpelier with his eight offspring, as did several of James’ siblings. The nieces, nephews and other kin (over 50 between James and Dolley) were legion.”11We then ask the Madisons if we can take a close up shot of them with the camera. They both happily agree when we tell them what a camera is. I tell them I can’t wait until we get back to the future and let people see this!We step outside of the drawing-room into the south hall. Mr. Madison shows us all the paintings he has on the walls.“Montpelier is a showplace. In line with Madison’s belief that “art must teach,” the house is adorned with 125 paintings—European landscapes and paintings of biblical scenes; Gilbert Stuart oil portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Dolley; portraits of the great explorers Cortez, Magellan, Columbus and Vespucci and sculptures of the classical deities Apollo and Venus.” 12Mr. Madison then takes us into his mother (Nelly’s) room. Here he tells us about the clock in the room. The clock was purchased in 1773 by his father James Madison Sr. Mr. Madison informs us that this clock is an eight-day clock. It only has to be wound once a week instead of daily. Thomas Walker of Fredericksburg, Virginia produced the clock.13 Mr. Madison is well pleased to hear that his father’s clock is still working 200 years later.Before Image
Mr. Madison shows us a small table in the corner. He tells us that this was his table when he was a young boy. When his father finished building Montpelier and was moving all the furniture in, Madison himself moved this table into the new house.Madison shows us his mother’s dining room. Madison’s mother Nelly who is in her 90’s, is visiting with relatives today and cannot join us.Dolley and James take us to their dining room. We have a meal with them at their table. Mr. Madison cheerfully offers us some of his most excellent wines and breaks out several vintages. During our meal, Mr. Madison “maintains a steady stream of anecdotes and stories.”14 “Mr. Madison is the chief speaker…He speaks of scenes in which himself had acted a conspicuous part and of great men, who had been actors in the same theatre…Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, John Adams, Jefferson, Jay, Patrick Henry and a host of other great men are spoken of and characteristic anecdotes of all related. It is living History! Only the presence of a stranger could make this entertaining, interesting and communicative personage…mute, cold and repulsive.”15
This was quite refreshing as I still expected the quiet, shy, and reserved Mr. Madison that he portrayed to the public. Much to my surprise, James and Dolley are quite fun to be around.
James and Dolley are thrilled when we tell them that their original dining room table and clock sitting on the mantle are still at Montpelier over 200 years later.Before Image
Later, Dolley shows us her downstairs bedchamber and library. She also shows us her pet parrot, Polly. Polly suddenly blurts out a vulgarity. Dolley tells the parrot, “Hush!” Dave and I wonder where the parrot learned that kind of language, hopefully not from Dolley.
Dolley then tells us that sometimes Polly will dive-bomb and attack people. Once Polly bit James when he tried to stop Polly from attacking a visitor. Polly bit Madison’s finger to the bone. Dolley tells us that Madison handled it stoically and later laughed about it.16Before Image
Mr. Madison takes us into his downstairs bedchamber. He tells us that he and Dolly sleep downstairs now due to his failing health. His arthritis makes it difficult to climb the stairs. Mr. Madison stands there, looking at his bed and telling us about the furniture in the room. Knowing we were from the future and being the inquisitive man he is, he asks about his future and what we know about it. Even though he sincerely inquires we cannot bring ourselves to tell him that he will die in this room someday. I can’t look the little man in the eyes and do it. I just can’t.Before Image
After viewing Madison’s downstairs chamber, the Madisons take us upstairs. Dolley is delighted to show us her son, Payne Todd’s room. Payne Todd was from her first marriage to John Todd.
Dolley dotes on her son, even though he has and still does disappoint her. Todd prefers the lower classes, gambling, drinking and has incurred much debt of which the Madisons are struggling to pay. Mr. Madison was forced to mortgage Montpelier to pay for Payne’s debts.
When speaking of Payne, Dolly says, “His heart is good, and he means no harm.”
We can’t bear to tell Dolley that Payne will continue to financially drain them and after Madison’s death will continue to bankrupt her.
I almost want to tell Dolley that she needs to cut the financial umbilical cord before it’s too late.Before Image
Dolley and James now show us their master bedroom. They proudly stand by their bed, another piece of furniture that survives to this day at Montpelier. They both used this bed for years until James health began to fail and he moved downstairs to his new bedchamber. The bed now serves as a guest bed for their close friends. Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Marquis de Lafayette have all stayed in this bedroom when visiting the Madisons.Before Image
In this same bedroom is a fireplace mantle decorated with the goddess of fertility. How ironic that James and Dolley’s bedroom mantle was decorated with this goddess as they were childless. Many of James’ political enemies took shots at him, his manhood and his ability to lead because he was childless. Because of Dolley’s physical beauty and personality, medical thought of Madison’s day was that women of this nature ran too “hot” sexually and caused infertility in their husbands.
What would Mr. Madison think if we told him Dolley was just too hot for him to handle? Oh well, we didn’t ask.Before Image
Mr. Madison then takes us across the hall to his library. Madison grins as this is one of his favorite rooms for reading, research, and study. He tells us about how he spent months in this library “studying many centuries of political philosophy and histories of past attempts at republican forms of government” in preparation for the 1787 Constitutional Convention.20
We thank Mr. Madison for all of his efforts he put into the Constitution. He says, “I initially opposed the Bill of Right as I thought they were unnecessary and potentially harmful as the Constitution’s separation of powers already adequately protect personal freedoms. I later came to believe that the amendments might ingrain certain freedoms into the national consciousness and ‘be a good ground for an appeal whenever the government overstepped its bounds.” 21
He continues, “It was a nauseous project, but I took the lead in getting it through the legislative process.22 By what you tell me about your current political atmosphere they are truly needed.”
Mr. Madison shows us his library bookshelves lined with books. He has over 4000 books. He has read them all. We tell him that people in our time would be able to read more if TV, movies, video games, and social media didn’t distract them.
Madison asks, “What are TV, movies, video games, and social media?
“Mr. Madison, you really don’t want to know.”
In addition to English, Mr. Madison learned Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.Mr. Madison takes us outside on the roof of the south wing of Montpelier. The sun is bright, and Madison wears his top hat. We were able to see the beautiful view of his Montpelier plantation from the roof.Before Image
We had a fun-filled day with the Madisons, but regrettably, we have to say goodbye and head back to the future. It is so hard to say goodbye to this little political genius.
Before we leave, I ask Mr. Madison if I can have my picture taken with him. He obliges as he finds photography most interesting. I tell him that it is so “cool” to have a president of the same height. I also tell him we have had forty-five presidents and that he still holds the position of being the shortest president. I thank him again for the most wonderful Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees us.
I also tell Mr. Madison I wrote a Scifi graphic novel about him. When I explained to him what that is, he just shakes his head and can’t believe how “whacked” Americans have become.
All instances of James’ and Dolley’s faces in the above images were taken from the following two portraits. Facial angles, facial expressions, and facial modifications were made using Adobe Photoshop, 3D Face Reconstruction from a Single Image via Direct Volumetric CNN Regression and FaceApp.
This post is the first of a new series of posts entitled Intimate Historic Tours.
For my four part SciFi graphic novel project on James Madison see:
Part I, Playing with James Madison – The Making of a Character for image sources, tools and tutorials.
Part III, James Madison – UFOs over Montpelier
Part IV, James and Dolley Madison, A Romance
Sources & References:
1Howard Dorre. “8 Things James Madison Loved” https://www.ploddingthroughthepresidents.com/2016/02/8-things-james-madison-loved.htmlWalt Harrington. “Ghosts of Montpelier” https://www.historynet.com/ghosts-of-montpelier.htm
3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,14David O. Stewart. “The Surprising Raucous Home Life of the Madisons” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-raucous-home-life-madisons-180954205/
13“PHOTOS: Inside James Madison’s Montpelier Estate” https://www.pastfactory.com/history/photos-inside-james-madisons-montpelier-estate/
15Ralph Ketcham. “Madisons at Montpelier: Reflections on the Founding Couple” University of Virginia Press, 2011.
16Presidential Pet Museum. “James Madison – Dolley’s Parrot” http://www.presidentialpetmuseum.com/james-madison-dolleys-parrot/
17,18Presidential History Blog. “Dolley Madison’s Heartache: Payne Todd” https://featherfoster.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/dolley-madisons-heartache-payne-todd/
19Jacquelynn A. Lyon. “The Pen and the Petticoat: Gendered Slander Against Dolley Madison in the Early American Republic” https://scholar.colorado.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2700&context=honr_theses
20″“The Life of James Madison” https://www.montpelier.org/learn/the-life-of-james-madison
21,2210 Things You May Not Know About James Madison https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-james-madison
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