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The Madisons at Montpelier

The Madisons at Montpelier: Reflections on the Founding Couple

Ralph Ketcham
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    The Madisons at Montpelier
    Book Description:

    Restored to its original splendor, Montpelier is now a national shrine, but before Montpelier became a place of study and tribute, it was a home. Often kept from it by the business of the young nation, James and Dolley Madison could finally take up permanent residence when they retired from Washington in 1817. Their lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson predicted that, at Montpelier, the retiring Madison could return to his "books and farm, to tranquility, and independence," that he would be released "from incessant labors, corroding anxieties, active enemies, and interested friends."

    As the celebrated historian Ralph Ketcham shows, this would turn out to be only partly true. Although the Madisons were no longer in Washington, Dolley continued to take part in its social scene from afar, dominating it just as she had during Jefferson's and her husband's administrations, commenting on people and events there and advising the multitude of young people who thought of her as the creator of society life in the young republic. James maintained a steady correspondence about public questions ranging from Native American affairs, slavery, and utopian reform to religion and education. He also took an active role at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30, in the defeat of nullification, and in the establishment of the University of Virginia, of which he was the rector for eight years after Jefferson's death. Exploring Madison's role in these post-presidential issues reveals a man of extraordinary intellectual vitality and helps us to better understand Madison's political thought. His friendships with figures such as Jefferson, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette--as well as his assessment of them (he outlived them all)--shed valuable light on the nature of the republic they had all helped found.

    In their last years, James and Dolley Madison personified the republican institutions and culture of the new nation--James as the father of the Constitution and its chief propounder for nearly half a century, and Dolley as the creator of the role of "First Lady." Anything but uneventful, the retirement period at Montpelier should be seen as a crucial element in our understanding of this remarkable couple.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3047-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. 1 Return to “Books and Farm, to Tranquility and Independence”
    (pp. 1-47)

    James madison, with dolley at his side, left washington for the last time on April 17, 1817. He was sixty-six; she was forty-nine, and they had been married twenty-three years. Their retirement began when, with all their trunks of belongings, they stepped on board an early version of a steamboat docked at Potomac Wharf. As the boat pulled away from the Federal City and made the forty-nine-mile voyage down Chesapeake Bay, one passenger said that James “was as playful as a child, talking and jesting with everyone on board.” He was like “a School Boy on a long vacation.” His...

  5. 2 Continuing Public Involvement
    (pp. 48-98)

    In june 1824 an itinerant bookseller, samuel whitcomb, commented on two Virginia customers he had recently visited:

    Mr. Madison is not so large or so tall as myself and instead of being a cool reserved austere man, is very sociable, rather jocose, quite sprightly, and active.

    … [He] appears less studied, brilliant and frank but more natural, candid and profound than Mr. Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson has more imagination and passion, quicker and richer conceptions. Mr. Madison has a sound judgment, tranquil temper and logical mind. … Mr. Madison has nothing in his looks, gestures, expression or manners to indicate anything...

  6. 3 “I May Be Thought to Have Outlived Myself”
    (pp. 99-145)

    Increasingly as the twenty years in retirement stretched out, however, attention to public affairs and even to cherished educational projects gave way to the perennial concerns of old age: health, reminiscence, and reflection at the loss of lifelong associates. To an earnest plea in 1834 that he speak out against Jackson’s war on the Bank of the United States, against nullification, and against the spoils system, Madison replied that those evils seemed to thrive despite his known opposition to them and that, in any case, the public had “the habit now of invalidating opinions emanating from me by a reference...

  7. 4 “The Last of the Great Lights of the Revolution Has Sunk below the Horizon”
    (pp. 146-176)

    Through 1835 and 1836, in madison’s own metaphor, the candle of life in the old man at Montpelier sputtered toward its socket. Dolley Madison wrote that “my days are devoted to nursing and comforting my sick patient,” while a visitor observed that “her devotion to Mr. Madison is incessant, and he needs all her constant attention.” In February 1835, in a visit that found both James and Dolley in a period of better health and experiencing a winter respite from the sometimes burdensome parade of company, Harriet Martineau, the English novelist and writer already well-known at Montpelier, came for three...

  8. POSTSCRIPT: Dolley Madison, 1836–1849
    (pp. 177-182)

    Dolley madison spent the summer after her husband’s death at Montpelier, responding to visits and letters of condolence and pursuing publication of the already gathered and edited volumes of James’s papers. She made an unfortunate decision to put this publication largely in the hands of undependable Payne Todd, who failed to negotiate a contract with any commercial publishers, despite spending months traveling to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston seeking one. Hoping to realize $100,000 from the publication, a royalty no publisher seemed willing to guarantee or even discuss, Dolley instead sold three volumes of papers—including the Notes on the...

  9. Source Notes
    (pp. 183-188)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-192)
  11. Index
    (pp. 193-200)