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Exploring Virginia: James Madison's Montpelier

Updated on September 10, 2011

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the historic home of the 4th president of the United States, James Madison. Open to the public, the newly restored home and grounds are a must-see for visitors and residents of Northern Virginia.

James Madison Jr.
James Madison Jr. | Source
Dolley Payne Todd Madison
Dolley Payne Todd Madison | Source

At Home with the Madisons

James Madison was one of the most important founding fathers of the United States. In addition to serving as the 4th president of the United States, he was also the author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and responsible for organizing the Constitutional Conventions that made these documents law. Madison was a short, small man who loved books, writing and philosophy. He was Thomas Jefferson's best friend and played a large part in securing Jefferson's election, as well as George Washington's election. Under Jefferson he served as Secretary of State and initiated the Louisiana Purchase. During his own presidency Madison faced the country's first war, the war of 1812, and proved that a democracy could wage and win war without suspending the freedoms of it's residents.

Dolley Madison, James Madison's wife, was also an important figure. A Quaker widow with a young son, she was courted by Madison through friends as he was too shy to approach this vivacious beauty himself. The Madisons were the first residents of the White House, and Dolley's tenure as First Lady set the precedent for how a First Lady should behave - with great class and kindness but not like a queen. Dolley was responsible for saving many treasures in the White House before it was burned by the British army in 1814, including the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Fashionable and charming, her presence as James' wife was an integral part of his presidency.

James Madison was raised on the plantation at Montpelier, and owned a large community of African-American slaves. Not much is known about the treatment of the slaves at Montpelier but archaeological evidence shows that they lived close to the main house and were provided with their own cemetery. Paul Jennings, a long time manservant to the Madisons was later owned and freed by Daniel Webster and he had many positive things to say about James and Dolley - but the fact remains that the Madisons were not abolitionists and they did believe in the continuance of the institution of slavery.

Montpelier | Source
Statue of the Madisons in the backyard
Statue of the Madisons in the backyard | Source

Montpelier, the Mansion

Montpelier was Madison's tobacco plantation, located near the town of Orange, VA. The mansion building was constructed by Madison's father, James Sr., and additions were added by the president twice in his lifetime. The current incarnation is the mansion as it was when Madison retired.

Constructed of brick, the main part of the building is two stories, with an east and west portico to either side. Madison, with help from Jefferson, engineered several conveniences into the house such as windows that slide into the casement to allow air flow to cool the house in the summer, and shorter, wider stairs that were easier for Dolley to climb with arthritic knees. The roofs of each portico were bordered with Chinese railings creating an outdoor terrace that looked out on the dramatic Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and a thick forest to the east. The mansion tour explains in detail what each room in the house was used for and also shows where Madison wrote the Constitution, and where he died.

After Madison's death the family fell on hard times. Dolley left the care of the estate to her son Payne Todd, whose mismanagment and alcoholism necessitated selling most of their possessions and then Montpelier itself. In 1901 the duPont familiy purchased the plantation and added 33 rooms to the original building. A fan of race horses, the duPonts also added race track, stables and horse paths throughout the grounds. In 1983 the house was left to the National Trust and a $24 million dollar restoration began in 2000. The duPont's additions were removed and the house restored to the era of the Madison's retirement, using archaelogical evidence and historical documents as a guide. The artifacts and furnishings in the house have been painstakingly recollected from where they had been sold and efforts are ongoing to acquire as many Madison possessions as possible.

Walkway to the Landmark Forest
Walkway to the Landmark Forest | Source
Thoroughbred Racing Horses
Thoroughbred Racing Horses | Source
James and Dolley Madison's Graves
James and Dolley Madison's Graves | Source

The Grounds

Aside from the mansion tour there is much to be seen at Montpelier:

  • Visitor's Center with exhibition spaces, gift shop and cafeteria
  • Hands-on Tent and Cooking exhibit
  • Annie duPont Formal Garden
  • Archaeological lab and display with hands-on displays
  • Madison Family Cemetery and Slave Cemetery
  • Farm Complex and Thoroughbred Racing Retirement Stables
  • James Madison Landmark Forest
  • 1910 Train Depot

Montpelier offers both a guided tour of the mansion and a self-guided audio tour. Hands-on exhibits for adults and children are offered in most buildings and in tents on the grounds. A short walking path runs through the forest and there are horse trails throughout the plantation.

Travel Information

Montpelier is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

  • November to March - 9 am to 4 pm
  • April to October - 9 am to 5 pm
  • Other activities on the grounds start at 9:30 or 10 am and may end earlier than closing.


  • Adults: $16
  • Children 6-14: $8
  • Children under 6: No charge
  • Friends of Montpelier: No charge
  • National Trust Members: $8
  • Special Adult and Children tours and tours for large groups are also available.


  • No food, drink or photography inside the mansion
  • Leashed dogs allowed outdoors, service animals only inside buildings
  • Yield to horses on the property
  • Smoking permitted only in designated areas


Submit a Comment

  • ajwrites57 profile image


    5 years ago from Pennsylvania

    kestrana, interesting hub. Love James Madison. Didn't know he a tourist homestead like Jefferson and Washington. (Just did hub on Washington.) You can really see the similarity of the construction of Madison's house compared to Jefferson's. Thanks for sharing! :o)

  • kestrana profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Virginia

    Yep, I was there Labor Day weekend. As soon as we got to the house for the mansion tour it started pouring rain, lightning and thunderstorming. When we exited the house after the tour everything was misting and a scattered light rain was still falling. My pictures of the flowers in the garden are really cool (at least imho :]) covered with dew and fog. My husband and I were disappointed because they didn't allow photography in the house but that isn't listed on their website or in the brochure. But we got some free ice cream for taking a survey about our trip.

    All my "Exploring X: ___" hubs are places I have been. It has been a great way to combine my love of travel, photography and writing in one place.

  • Jeff Poirrier profile image

    Jeff Poirrier 

    7 years ago from Washington

    Very interesting. Sadly, I missed this spot on my trip to D.C. last year. Its cool you visited the site personally (I'm assuming you did since the pictures are yours). I can't stand all the regurgitated "tourism" hubs published on hubpages where authors have never even physically been to the destinations in their articles! Voted up.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Your excellent writing and beautiful photos bring to life the 4th president of the U.S. You make it easy to enjoy reading history (a subject I hated in high school and college :-)). Rated up!


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