Accessibility links

He's Not Quite Forgotten, But His Home Almost Is


Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Virginia, is one of that state's most-visited attractions. Monticello's appeal is understandable: Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, founded the University of Virginia, and served as the nation's third president.

But just up the road near the town of Orange is another grand presidential home that's practically ignored. Its occupant was also among the nation's founders and one of its seminal thinkers and writers.

The place is called Montpelier. It was the home of James Madison, Jefferson's friend, secretary of state, and successor as president. But Madison's wife, Dolley, was the celebrity in the family.

She was such an effervescent hostess that, years later, companies lined up to use her name and image. There were Dolley Madison snack cakes and ice cream and popcorn, even Dolley Madison thermometers.

Never mind that James Madison – a small, unimpressive-looking man – wrote most of the U.S. Constitution and its vital first ten amendments, called the "Bill of Rights." Good thing he has a university named after him, or he'd be all but forgotten.

After Dolley's death in 1849, the Madisons' Virginia estate – with its peach-colored mansion in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains – passed through seven different families. When the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired the house in 1984, there was not much furniture left to display for visitors. The families had taken it with them.

The trust uses the estate as an architectural laboratory. Its archaeologists have poked through the ruins of the slave quarters, the blacksmith shop, and the fancy ice house that looks like a Greek temple.

The estate is open to tours as work progresses to unearth a fuller story of Dolley Madison, the bon vivant, and Old What's-His-Name, the Father of the Constitution.

XS
SM
MD
LG