Montpelier Gets a Facelift

I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, from VOA Special English.

This week, we tell about James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. And we take you to his home, called Montpelier.

James Madison is known as the "Father of the United States Constitution." Madison wrote the first plan for unifying the new nation. He also was the one mainly responsible for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights.

His home, Montpelier [mont-PEEL-yer], is about one-hundred-thirty kilometers south of Washington, D.C. It covers more than one-thousand-one-hundred hectares of some of America’s most beautiful land.

Montpelier is in the middle of farm country in Virginia. It is a short drive from the Blue Ridge Mountains. It also is only about forty-five kilometers from Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president.

In October of this year, the Montpelier Foundation, an independent group, announced plans to restore the home of James Madison. The American businessman Paul Mellon left twenty-million dollars for the project in his will. Paul Mellon died in nineteen-ninety-nine, at the age of ninety-one.

The foundation says the gift is probably the largest ever made by a single provider to a historic property. A government program called Save America’s Treasures will supply one-million dollars. And the Montpelier Foundation will raise additional money.

The project is to repair and beautify the home inside and out. The restoration project will make the home more like it looked in the eighteen-twenties. The new look will include the removal of areas built in the nineteen-hundreds. The restored home will have twenty-two rooms instead of fifty-five.

James Madison was born in Port Conway, Virginia, on March sixteenth, seventeen-fifty-one. He grew up in Orange County, at the Madison family home at Montpelier. James Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose Madison, first settled the land in seventeen-twenty-three.

James spent the first nine years of his life in a house built by his grandfather. His father built the main house at Montpelier in about seventeen-sixty. The family moved there a short time later.

James Madison was the oldest of twelve children. He was educated at home and at schools in Virginia until he was eighteen years old. Then he attended the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton University. He completed his college education in just two years. He stayed in New Jersey one more year for independent studies.

James Madison returned to Montpelier in seventeen-seventy-two. He was not sure what he would do for his future. He thought about becoming a lawyer, a clergyman or a businessman. But he decided against all those jobs.

As Madison thought about his future, Britain and its American colonies were becoming increasingly angry with each other. This period, the early seventeen-seventies, was about the time James Madison began his political activism. He served in local government. Then he was elected to Virginia’s first House of Delegates. There he helped to write a new state constitution.

Madison represented Virginia at the Second Continental Congress during the American War of Independence. After the war, he attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in seventeen-eighty-seven.

Madison thought the United States should have a strong central government. He led efforts in Virginia and other states to approve the proposal. He helped write The Federalist, a series of reports that explained the proposed Constitution.

The Constitution was approved. Madison continued as a leading member of the new federal government. He was elected to the first Congress. He led the fight to approve the first ten amendments to the Constitution – the Bill of Rights.

A few years later, he and Thomas Jefferson formed a political party. It is known today as the Democratic Party.

While in Congress, James Madison met a young woman, Dolley Payne Todd. Her husband had died of yellow fever the year before. Madison proposed marriage a short time after they met. They were married on September fifteenth, seventeen-ninety-four.

James Madison was a small, quiet man. But Dolley Madison was known for her friendliness and for organizing large parties. They were married forty-one years, until he died. They had no children. But they raised Dolley’s son by her first husband.

James Madison left Congress in seventeen-ninety-seven. He and Dolley retired to Montpelier. But the retirement did not last long. Thomas Jefferson became president in eighteen-oh-one. Jefferson appointed his friend James Madison as secretary of state. Madison served as America’s top diplomat for eight years.

The Jefferson presidency was a period of growth for the new nation. In eighteen-oh-three, the United States agreed to pay France about fifteen-million dollars for a huge piece of land. This agreement was called the Louisiana Purchase. It increased the area of the United States by one-hundred percent.

There were, however, some problems. Secretary of State Madison could not get France and Great Britain to honor the rights of Americans on the high seas. James Madison became president in eighteen-oh-nine. Trade relations with the French and British became his government’s biggest problem.

President Madison served two terms, eight years in all. He led the United States through the War of Eighteen-twelve. British troops invaded the country and burned Washington. The United States won the war in eighteen-fifteen.

His second term ended in eighteen-seventeen. James and Dolley Madison returned home to Montpelier. The former president remained active and interested in politics. He had many slaves at Montpelier. Now, he founded a group that sought to free the slaves in the United States and return them to Africa. He also took part in Virginia’s constitutional convention in eighteen-twenty-nine.

James Madison died at Montpelier on June twenty-eighth, eighteen-thirty-six. He was eighty-five years old. Dolley Madison died thirteen years later. They are buried on the property.

In seventeen-sixty, the main building at Montpelier, in Virginia, started with eight rooms. It had four rooms on the first floor and four on the second.

James Madison made two major additions to the building his father built. He also made structural changes. He built private areas for family use. He combined existing rooms to create larger, public spaces for dinners and parties.

Dolley Madison sold Montpelier to a friend in eighteen-forty-four, eight years after her husband died. The property had five other owners before William and Annie duPont bought the land in nineteen-oh-one.

The duPonts enlarged the main building to its present size. Their daughter, Marion duPont Scott, added two large tracks for horse racing. The home remained in the duPont family until nineteen-eighty-three. Then it was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Montpelier opened to the public in nineteen-eighty-seven. The Montpelier Foundation accepted responsibility for the property.

Today, James Madison’s Montpelier faces changes. But not everything will change. There will still be many buildings, a large flower garden and farmland. Some trees on the grounds were alive when Madison was alive. The James Madison Landmark Forest includes wooded land near the back of the property. It is recognized as the best example of an old-growth forest in central Virginia.

With its new restoration, Montpelier should stand for many years to come – an honor to James Madison and the country he loved.

We leave you now with music recorded at Montpelier a few years ago. One of the instruments, the crystal flute, belonged to President Madison.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and George Grow. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States, on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.