Originally published 2 June 1012.
Adventure Whit is off again! This time I’m staying more local and just going away for a three-day weekend with my best friend Valarie to the Greene Mountain Inn in the Shenandoah Valley. We left early and made a special point to stop at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, on the way. We have an historical interpreter named John Douglas Hall at Gadsby’s Tavern, where I work part-time, and he portrays President James Madison a few nights a week–and all over the country and the world as well!
I honestly never realized James Madison was such an amazing person! He was incredibly smart; extremely small (5’4” and 100 lbs.); he loved, lost, and loved again; and the man studied 2000 years’ worth of world politics over the course of one winter (1786-1787) just so all Americans (“We the People”) could have a sustainable, successful government.
But we’ll start at the beginning. The land (which was once 26,000 acres!) was actually given to Ambrose Madison by King George in 1653. The Madison family was English and had political ties with the king, who wanted to grant land to his friends to encourage exploration and settling the “West.” At that time, the West was anything past the Blue Ridge Mountains—the edge of Virginia! The Madisons did very well for themselves as far as farming and trading. They dabbled in tobacco, corn, wheat, foundry, barley, rye, various animals, blacksmithing, etc. But aside from that, the Madisons valued education and knowledge.
The house itself was quite large, but it’s not all that ornate or elaborate on the outside. Certain presidents’ homes are pretty recognizable, but this one looks like a typical Southern plantation house to me, which I really liked! It’s Georgian style (symmetrical), and the original part of the house has been around since 1765. We got to walk through the original front door! James Madison was born in March of 1751, so his family actually moved here when he was about 13 or 14.
A lot of the furnishings are original to James and Dolley Madison, which I think is pretty amazing! There are even 10 beautiful red and white chairs there that were bought by Madison from Alexandria’s own… George Washington! The inside of the house is quite bright and elegant downstairs. Yellow was Dolley’s favorite color (mine and Val’s, too!), but she also liked red and green, all of which are prominent colors in her house.
Another interesting thing about the colors of the house—and actually about Dolley in general—is the fact that Dolley grew up a Quaker. She was used to having very plain things—living plainly, dressing plainly, no jewelry, no make up, no fancy dresses, and no bright colors. When she married the Anglican James Madison, she had to be “read-out” of the Quaker church, which is basically excommunication or disfellowshiping. So when she was “set free” from those restrictions, as it were, she went all out! She became the most fashionable first lady, hosted 100-person barbecues and parties, and lived a full life with exuberance. She took changes of life in stride. She was also quite the opposite of James Madison: he was quiet, introverted, reserved, and shy; she was outgoing and warm! They were quite the compliment to each other, even though he was generally sickly and 17 years older than she. But she wasn’t so sure about the match when he first asked her to marry him.
Martha Washington summoned Dolley from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon when she heard James had asked Dolley to marry him. Martha was a classy, considerate woman, so when she spoke with Dolley, she spoke in Dolley’s Quaker dialect out of respect for her. She said, “Does it be true that you be engaged to James Madison?” She also mentioned that both she and George Washington approved.
Martha and Dolley were alike in many ways. Both had been previously married, had at least one child, and were pulled into the political realm with their husbands no matter what—a commitment to either man meant a commitment to this new country. Ultimately, they did get married in September 1794.
So that’s scratching the surface of Dolley, but there’s so much more to know about her! She was a truly remarkable woman. And James Madison did well marrying her! He was actually engaged 10 years earlier. At 33, he asked a 15 year old daughter of his friend to marry him. She agreed, but just a few months later she fell in love with a 19 year old medical student and broke her engagement to Madison. Being a shy, reserved man, this had quite the effect on him. He was not, to our knowledge, involved with any other women until he met Dolley.
But he was quite the interesting man on his own. He was the first of 12 children in his family, 7 of whom lived to adulthood. (He died at 85.) As a young boy, he read a LOT. He’d already read all the books in his father’s library by the time he was 11. He was sent to boarding school until he was 16, moved back to his father’s home to study some more, then studied four years’ worth of material in just TWO years at the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University)!
What impresses me most, though, is that he spoke English and French fluently, but he could also read at least five more languages! While studying to write our Constitution, he read over 400 books in seven different languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and HEBREW! For me, that makes James Madison a scholarly stud!
Madison lived out his last years at Montpelier, mostly in his study. He had such terrible rheumatoid arthritis that he could no longer go up the stairs to his and Dolley’s bed chamber, so he needed to move to the ground floor. He read, ate, slept, studied, and accepted visitors all in that room. The servant attending him was his good friend and personal servant, Paul Jennings. Paul became a servant at age 10—and his first assignment for Madison was in the White House! Paul is the one credited with helping Dolley save the portrait of George Washington from the White House fire in 1812. He was a personal servant to James and Dolley at least until James died in 1836.
Also surprising is the house was entirely torn apart but rebuilt with the same materials in the early 2000s. You can tell that the glass windows are original because they’re spun glass—they’re wavy! The floorboards are pine, and there’s a room where you can actually see the insides of the walls to the original construction from the 1750s!
And then we went for a lovely hike and got lightly sprinkled on, which was actually quite nice on a warm day! And then it was time to drive through some storms and find our way to… the Greene Mountain Inn! Join us for an adventure in the next post!