James Madison's Montpelier

The American state of Virginia is sometimes called the Mother of Presidents. Eight American Presidents were born there. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. The Virginia home of President James Madison -- Montpelier (mont-PEEL-yer) -- is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Montpelier is a huge property in the middle of Virginia's farm country. The property covers more than one-thousand-one-hundred hectares of land. Montpelier is about one-hundred-thirty kilometers south of Washington, DC. The Madison home is a short drive from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. It also is only about forty-five kilometers from Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson.

James Madison was the fourth President of the United States. He is known as the Father of the American Constitution. Mr. Madison wrote the first plan for union of the new nation. He also was mainly responsible for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

This year, Americans are observing the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of James Madison's birth. He was born at Port Conway, Virginia, on March Sixteenth, Seventeen-Fifty-One. Young James grew up in Orange County, on 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. James Madison's father built the main house at Montpelier in about Seventeen-Sixty. The family moved there a short time later.


James Madison was the oldest child in a family 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. James completed his college education in just two years. He stayed in New Jersey almost one year longer for independent studies.

James Madison returned to Montpelier in Seventeen-Seventy-Two. He was unsure of his future. He considered and then rejected positions in law, religion or business.

Tensions between Britain and its American colonies increased in the early Seventeen-Seventies. This is about the time that James Madison's political activism began. He served in local government before being elected to Virginia's first House of Delegates. There he helped to write a new state constitution.

Mr. 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. Mr. Madison successfully proposed the creation of 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 explaining the strength of the proposed Constitution.

After the Constitution was approved, Mr. 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 the political party known today as the Democratic Party.


While in Congress, James Madison met a young woman named Dolley Payne Todd. Her husband had died from yellow fever the year before. Mr. Madison proposed marriage to the young woman a short time after they met. They were married on September fifteenth, Seventeen-Ninety-Four.

Dolley Madison often seemed larger in life than her famous husband. James was a small, quiet man. His wife was best known for her friendliness and for organizing large parties. Their marriage lasted forty-one years. But they had no children. James Madison left Congress in Seventeen-Ninety-Seven. He and Dolly retired to Montpelier. The retirement did not last long, however. Thomas Jefferson became President in Eighteen-Oh-One. Mr. Jefferson appointed his friend James Madison as Secretary of State. Mr. 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 American government 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.

However, there were some problems. Secretary of State Madison failed to force France and Great Britain to honor the rights of Americans on the high seas. Trade relations with these nations was the government's biggest problem when James Madison became President in Eighteen-Oh-Nine.

President Madison served for eight years. He led the United States through the War of Eighteen-Twelve. British troops invaded the country and burned Washington. The war ended in Eighteen-Fifteen with an American victory.

President Madison's second term in office ended in Eighteen-Seventeen. He and Dolley returned home to Montpelier. The former President remained active and interested in politics. He founded a group to help free slaves and transport 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. His wife Dolley died thirteen years later. They are buried on the property.


Today, Montpelier is a peaceful place. However, it has experienced many changes over the years. Two hundred years ago, the Madisons had about one-hundred slaves. Some worked in the fields or on the grounds. Others did housework.

In Seventeen-Sixty, Montpelier's main building started as an eight-room home. It had four rooms on the first floor, and four on the second floor. James Madison made two major additions and structural changes to his father's home. He built private areas for family use. He also united 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 it was bought by William and Annie duPont 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 was opened to the public in Nineteen-Eighty-Seven. Last year, an independent group called the Montpelier Foundation accepted responsibility for the property.


This music was recorded at Montpelier a few years ago. One of the instruments, the crystal flute, belonged to President Madison.


Today, James Madison's Montpelier includes more than one-hundred-thirty buildings, a large flower garden and farmland. Some trees on the grounds were alive when James Madison was alive. The James Madison Landmark Forest includes eighty hectares of wooded land near the back of the property. It is recognized as the best example of an old-growth forest in central Virginia.

In March, Montpelier launched a year-long celebration of the life of James Madison. The main building now has two rooms with furniture used by the Madisons and other objects from the period. In another room, visitors can see a film about the President's life.

In April, family members of slaves who once worked at Montpelier gathered for their first meeting ever. The visitors could see where the former slaves are buried. Plans are currently being made for the observance of Constitution Day, a national holiday in September. Officials are inviting members of the United States armed forces to Montpelier to honor the Father of the Constitution.


This program was written and produced by George Grow. Our studio engineer was Keith Holmes. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.