Update July 16, 2009

July 16, 2009

New Furniture in the Drawing Room

Last week we installed a pair of card tables in the Drawing Room (M108) that have excellent Montpelier provenance. Card playing, backgammon, and other games were popular pastimes during the late 18th and early 19th century. Several visitors recalled seeing games being played during their visit with the Madisons. During his 1816 visit, Baron de Montelzun mentioned games of chess being played at Montpelier.1 In an exchange of letters between Dolley Madison and her sister Anna Payne Cutts in the spring of 1804, they mention playing Loo, a card game similar to the modern game of Hearts.

The tables were purchased at an undated Montpelier sale by a local family who lived at a neighboring plantation. In the mid 20th century, the tables were separated when one was sold. Both tables maintained their Madison provenance and were brought together for display here at Montpelier after it was confirmed that they were a matching pair. As part of our research, wood sampling was conducted on the tables, indicating they were made in New England based on the types of wood used. It is possible that these tables were shipped to Virginia or were acquired by the Madisons in Philadelphia, a port city with a thriving furniture trade. One of the tables was graciously donated to Montpelier by Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Thompson, and the other is currently on loan to us. We are thrilled to be able to display them together in situ.



New Document in the Grills Gallery

There is a new document now on display in the Grills Gallery in the Visitors Center here at Montpelier. It is an undated memorandum from Dolley Madison to a Mr. Zantzinger; a shopping list of household and personal items for him to purchase on her behalf. The many interesting items include “two [large] Looking-Glasses”, “100 yds best carpeting,” various types of clothing, and “one dozen fanciful but cheap snuff boxes.”

This is not the only time the Madisons made purchases through an agent or friend. In the 1780s, James Madison sent requests for books to his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris. Shortly after his 1794 marriage, Madison asked his friend James Monroe, then Minister to France, to acquire household goods for him, among which were French carpets and yards of red and green silk intended for curtains for two rooms. Later in their married lives Dolley begins to order goods on her own, not just through her husband. The Zantzinger order is an example of this as is a quite similar order Dolley commissioned in 1810 from merchant and US Commercial Agent in Bordeaux William Lee.2

The Zantzinger memorandum gives us an idea of Dolley’s tastes, and her budget. She wants nice looking glasses and good carpet, but only as fine as can be purchased for $100 each. This was not a spending spree; Dolley was instead a savvy shopper who set a limit on the lengths to which she, or her agent, should go to acquire fashionable decorations for the house. Although she does not set an upper limit for the “print of the bust of N. Bonaparte” listed, she does quote Zantzinger the price that the print was selling for “some months since;” she did at least have an estimate for how much it should cost.

Who was Mr. Zantzinger? His identity is far from apparent in the memorandum, and he was not a regular correspondent with Dolley. There are a few possibilities, two of which seem most promising:

  • The first is the Philadelphia merchant firm of Kepple and Zantzinger. Although the memorandum does not appear to date from the period when the Madisons were living in Philadelphia, they may have kept in touch with useful connections in that city. The firm of Kepple and Zantzinger would have had at least one Mr. Zantzinger in it.
  • The second possibility is one William P. Zantzinger, supercargo, mentioned in a 1819 Supreme Court case. A supercargo is “An officer on a merchant ship who has charge of the cargo and its sale and purchase” ([italic]American Heritage Dictionary), so this Zantzinger would have been in a position to make purchases for the Madisons.
  • Of course, it is possible that William P. Zantzinger was somehow related to the Zantzingers of the merchant firm in Philadelphia; in a letter to a friend written in Tripoli, Dolley Madison’s brother mentions having met “Mr. Zantzinger Supercargo of a vessel from Philadelphia” while in Italy.[note: John Coles Payne to Boyd, May 25, 1807, Private Collection] Merchant firms in the late 18th and early 19th centuries sometimes included extended families – fathers, sons, cousins, nephews – so a supercargo from Philadelphia could be related to a Philadelphia firm.

The memorandum helps us to better understand Dolley Madison’s taste, the limits of her pocketbook and her desire to acquire certain goods in France. But, it also raises further questions about the Madisons’ patterns of consumption, who they used as agents for long-distance shopping and how they made those connections.


We hope that you can come and see this document and other Madison items in our Grills Gallery.

1 Moffatt, L. G. and J. M. Carriere “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” Virginia Historical Magazine, July 1945
2 Mary Lee Mann, A Yankee Jeffersonian: Selections from the Diary and Letters of William Lee of Massachusetts Written from 1796 to 1840, Cambridge, MA, 1958, p. 133.


Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part Two

February 25, 2009

In 1833 New York publisher George P. Morris embarked upon the publication of another print depicting the presidential succession. Writing to James Madison on April 13,[1] Morris informed him that he was producing a “Splendid National Engraving.”  He hoped the former President would allow him to borrow one of his portraits in order that it might be engraved by Asher B. Durand for inclusion in the image. Madison, however, informed Morris that his wife Dolley, “to whom the portrait belongs,” had some aversion to the loan of his portrait by Gilbert Stuart on account of previous problems with the shipping of the work.[2] Intent on having Madison’s portrait, Morris sent Durand to Montpelier that fall, where he painted a new portrait of Madison.[3]

Since Gimbrede’s print was created in 1812, there had been three additional presidents peacefully sworn into office–James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. Morris’s presidential group was more emblematic than Gimbrede’s earlier effort. In his depiction the portraits were grouped around a mirror displayed over a pier table, with Washington’s portrait once again given pride of place at the top of the grouping.

The presidents of the United S... Digital ID: 807923. New York Public Library

Although not immediately obvious, the engraving shows the portraits as hung on the wall of a room or hall, the other three walls being evident in the reflection in the mirror. Also reflected in the mirror is a statue of a woman, holding a pole topped by a Phyrgian cap. Since Roman antiquity this cap had served as a symbol of liberty, and therefore the statue is meant to personify Liberty. Thus, the depiction suggests that the portraits of the presidents are displayed in the “hall of liberty.”

Other symbols in the engraving demonstrate the nature of American liberty. On the skirt of the table is found an unusual symbol.


Depicting a spiral club with lightning bolts and wings, this ancient symbol has long been understood to represent the thunder and lightning of Zeus (or Jupiter to the Romans), the king of the Gods in classical mythology.

Char de Jupiter. Digital ID: 1622965. New York Public Library

Therefore the symbol represents supreme power as well as military might. Often used during the French Revolution, the symbol was appropriated by Napoleon to demonstrate his ultimate authority over the French people.

However, here in the hall of American worthies, it is the power of words which has secured authority, and therefore continued liberty, as demonstrated by the quill pen which rests on the top of the table. The rose which accompanies it is perhaps meant to suggest that, unlike previous governments which had relied on military might to secure and hold power, this American liberty is gentle.

Morris promised Madison that he would send him a early proof impression of the engraving, which was intended for his publication, the New-York Mirror. Whether this print ever arrived at Montpelier, or hung on its walls, is not currently known. However, Madison’s own display of the presidents in the Drawing Room was a constant visual demonstration of the power of liberty secured through the pen.[4]

1 George P. Morris to James Madison, April 13, 1833, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
2 James Madison to George P. Morris, April, 1833, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
3 This portrait is now in the collection of The New-York Historical Society
4 For more on Madison’s Drawing Room arrangement, see Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part One.