Restoring Madison's Home, And His Legacy

Montpelier, James Madison's family home
** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE **A watercolor by an unknown artist circa 1830 shows Montpelier, James Madison's ancestral home, in it's original state in Montpelier Station, Va. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation, James Madison's Montpelier)
AP/Montpelier Foundation

President James Madison was born 257 years ago today. And now, after a long period of relative obscurity, a re-birth of interest in his life is well underway. Rita Braver brings the Madison story home:

This is not your ordinary remodeling project, because this is not your ordinary house.

It is Montpelier, where founding father James Madison, the fourth president of the United States - known in his time as the "Father of the Constitution" - lived with his wife Dolley.

Michael Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, said that George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello have focused public attention on those presidents' roles in shaping America. But Madison's house was sold after his death - and removed from public view. In a way, so was Madison

"I think one of the reasons he is not well known is that his home has been lost to America for a century and a half," Quinn said. "It has been a privately owned home until 23 years ago."

In 1984 its owner, Marion duPont Scott, gave it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Over eight decades the duPonts had doubled the home's size, turning it into an elegant country estate.

The first step in Montpelier's reconstruction was, in fact, destruction - half the house was torn down, the rest gutted. Then came the hard part: putting the Madison house back together again.

But the folks at Montpelier are not just restoring a presidential home; they are also reviving a presidential legacy.

"He was recognized as the man who made the Constitution come about," Quinn said. "He really brought the creative ideas that made the Constitution succeed."

But, says Quinn, even in his own time Madison's lack of physical presence (he was around five feet four and sickly) could obscure his brilliance.

"He was a slight fellow," Quinn said. "And in fact, one very noted observer said he had never seen so much mind in so little matter."

The Madisons were part of Virginia's landed gentry. James graduated from what is now Princeton, and was elected to the Second Continental Congress and later the new House of Representatives, where he pushed through the enduring safeguards of American civil liberties:

"Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives," Quinn said, "and it took a great deal of effort on his part to get it passed."

Madison was considered a great writer who even wrote for George Washington.

"When Washington became president, well, he had to deliver the most important inaugural address in history," Quinn said. "Who did he turn to? The man that he thought was the best writer, James Madison. Well, he delivered the speech to Congress, and Congress was duly impressed and decided they had to reply. And who did they turn to write the reply? The new member of Congess, James Madison!

"It doesn't end yet: The president was so taken by Congress's answer, he decided, 'I have to respond!' And he called on Madison."

Also duly impressed was a beautiful Philadelphia widow named Dolley Payne Todd, 17 years younger than Madison.

"Dolley jotted off a note to her closest girlfriend saying, 'I am to be introduced to the great little Madison tonight,'" Quinn said.

They were married in 1794 and soon after, Madison left Congress to take his wife home to Montpelier.

Mark Wegner, who is in charge of the difficult task of restoring the house, showed Braver. the drawing room. "This is the room that you would have been shown into if you'd come to Montpelier as a guest. This is the only room where the Madison-era plaster survives."

Historical accounts told Wegner that James and Dolley hung pictures of their friends in this room, but exactly where? Wegner said 200-year-old nail holes provided the answer:

"They sheared this white coat off and then mapped all of these holes and began to match these holes to the fasteners on surviving Madison paintings. And so they think they know where each of these works of art hung."

A silhouette of the original Madison mantlepiece in this room provided the design for a reproduction.

A lot of the reconstruction involved detective work. "We have a very good paper trail on this house," Wegner said. "But you quickly get to the end of what documents will tell you. So at that point the house itself becomes the star witness."

Inside one old wall, workers were surprised to find a rat's nest with these remarkable items: a small piece of a letter in Madison's handwriting, a scrap of wallpaper from the period, and some red fabric - possibly from curtains or furnishings. Also, a small candle snuffer.