Update – 4/2/2009

April 2, 2009

I want to share with you some of our plans for upcoming exhibits within the newly restored Madison mansion. Over the spring and summer we plan to move furniture and exhibit components into the mansion along with text panels which will help explain our process.

Our first major focus will be the Dining Room (M105). As of this week, we have removed the exhibit case that featured archaeology fragments of ceramics and glassware and installed two pieces of furniture. There is a dining table (a period piece with no Madison provenance) and a sideboard with purported Madison provenance, both on furniture lifts. It was a challenge to fit the furniture and lifts in the room and still leave room for a group of 20 people, but we managed to come up with arrangement that should work.

dining room table

Even though this particular set of tables does not have a Madison family provenance, the form matches the “3 folding leaf Mahogany tables” that were listed in the 1836 Inventory of the Dining Room.[1] The end sections are obviously from the same table, with the center section having been substituted at a later time. All three tables are period and similar to what the Madisons might have owned.

“in the center of the room a square mahogany table…”  -George Shattuck, Jr., 1835

“a large long and wide well polished mahogany table…” -Mary Cutts, Recollections, ca. 1850


According to the 1836 Inventory of the Madison Dining Room “2 Mahogany sideboards” (1 “old” / 1 “new”) were listed. Curatorial staff are currently conducting research on multiple sideboards with purported Madison provenance.

This particular sideboard was donated to The National Trust for Historic Preservation (Montpelier) in 1986 with a strong family history of purchase at an early Montpelier sale. At this time we do not have any record or advertisements of sales taking place at Montpelier during Madison ownership of the property, or in the post-Madison period until 1881.

A large sale took place at Montpelier in April, 1881, in which the “valuable personal property” of the recently deceased Frank Carson, occupant and brother of Montpelier’s owner, was auctioned off. A broadside advertising the sale included “a large quantity of HOUSEHOLD AND KITCHEN FURNITURE/ some very superior, Mirrors, Paintings,…a handsome portrait of President Madison, and other relicts of President Madison, one grand piano…”[2] While the broadside is unclear as to which, if any, furniture was owned by James Madison, it seems likely that the association of the sideboard with Montpelier could have easily been linked to the Madisons.

The Madisons had two sideboards in their Dining Room; the date of this sideboard places it potentially in the category of “new” sideboard. We will place photographs of the other sideboards that we are researching in the room and ask the question “which one of these do you believe may be the Madisons’ ‘old’ sideboard?”

“…on one side of the door was an old sideboard.” -George C. Shattuck, Jr. 1835

-Montpelier Curatorial Staff

1 “List of articles in Dining Room at Montpellier” and “Engravings in dining room,” July 1, 1836, box 1, folder 1831–1839, Papers of Dolley Madison, MS 18940, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
2 Madison, James. Letters and Documents at the Library of Virginia. Miscellaneous reel 4276. “Broadside announcing an auction at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia on April 13, 1881.”


Celebrity Rocks

March 19, 2009

In the early years of the new United States, Presidents and Ex-Presidents had pride of place among the celebrities that attracted public interest. The fascination with James Madison stemmed from the notable role he played in the creation of the Constitution, and his outliving all his compatriots to become the “last of the Founders.” Foreigners and American citizens alike were anxious to meet the man who served as President and beat a path to his door, and retirement did little to diminish this appeal.

Today, Montpelier is the benefactor of James and Dolley Madison’s celebrity and the open door policy that reigned in Virginia. Many who came to see the Madisons in retirement recorded their impressions of the famous pair, their hospitality, and the house and its contents in letters to friends and family or in articles in newspapers and magazines. Montpelier staff has determinedly been collecting these accounts for many years because, when considered as a whole, they offer some of the best insights into life in the Madison household after their retirement from public life. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Birthday Mr. Madison

March 12, 2009

On Monday, Montpelier will celebrate James Madison’s 258th birthday. His tombstone records his birth as March 16, 1751, however, other documents, including several in Madison’s own hand, identify his birthday as March 5, 1751. In July 1827, a Mr. Phillips of New York wrote to Madison requesting information on what day Madison was born.1 Madison replied to Phillips on July 20, 1827 stating “J. Madison, with his respects to Mr. Phillips, informs him that the date asked for in his letter of the 9th inst. is March 5, 1751”.

So when was Madison actually born? March 16 or March 5? What explains an 11 day discrepancy between the two birthdates? In fact, both of the dates are correct! At the time of Madison’s birth, Great Britain and all of her colonies, including Virginia, were using the Julian calendar, also known as the “old style” calendar. In September 1752, the Gregorian or “New Style” calendar was adopted by Great Britain. This added 11 days to the current date to bring the calendar in step with the astronomical year and changed the date of New Years.2 Therefore, anyone born after 1752 would have recorded a birth using the Gregorian calendar. So, March 5 “old style” and March 16, “new style” are in fact the same date.

For people whose lifetimes spanned the transition, birthdates on their tombstones are often recorded with the suffix “O.S” following the date. A prime example of this practice is Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone at Monticello. It records that Jefferson was born April 2, 1745, O.S. and died on July 4, 1826.3 Madison’s own tombstone marks his birthday as March 16, 1751, but this obelisk was not placed on Madison’s grave until September 1857, more than twenty years after his death.


Madison's tombstone

In an autobiographical sketch Madison prepared late in his life, he wrote,”James Madison was born on the 5th of March, (O.S.) 1751. His parents James Madison & N. Conway Madison resided in the County of Orange in Virginia. At the time of his birth they were on a visit to his mother, who resided on the Rappahannock, at Port Conway in the County of King George.”4

Regardless of which calendar you consult, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” was born 258 years ago Monday. As part of Montpelier’s annual celebration of Madison’s birthday, the United States Marine Corps will place a Presidential wreath at Madison’s tomb, in recognition of Madison’s role in the early history of the Marine Corps.5 Remarks will be made by William C. diGiacomantonio, the Associate Editor of the First Federal Congress project, and a new mural “James Madison Introducing the Bill of Rights, June 8, 1789” by artist William Woodward will be unveiled at Montpelier’s Visitor Center.

In celebration of Madison’s birthday, admission to Montpelier is free for all visitors on March 16.

– Montpelier Curatorial Staff

1 N. Phillips to James Madison, July 9, 1827, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.
2 The change from Julian to Gregorian was a complex one; for more information see this page from the Connecticut State Library.
3 http://www.monticello.org/reports/life/old_style.html
4 Autobiography; with notes and chronological list, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.
5 For more information, see the State Department history of the Barbary Wars.

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.

Language of Love

February 14, 2009

Today is Valentine’s Day, and while the first commercially printed valentines weren’t available in the United States until the mid-1800s, the association of February 14 with romance can be traced back to the 15th century.[1] As a diversion, we thought we would share a bit of eighteenth century romantic language.

The following is not from a letter between James and Dolley Madison – they loved each other, but spent very little time apart, leaving future generations with only a handful of correspondence. Rather, this is taken from a letter sent to Dolley Payne Todd in 1794, during the period when James Madison was courting her. The letter was written by her cousin, Catherine Coles.

“…now for Madison he told me I might say what I pleas’d to you about him to begin, he thinks so much of you in the day that he has Lost his Tongue, at Night he Dreames of you & Starts in his Sleep a Calling on you to relieve his Flame for he Burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed & he hopes that your Heart will be calous to every other swain but himself he has Consented to every thing that I have wrote about him with Sparkling Eyes…” [2]


[1]For more information on the early celebration of Valentine’s Day, see the work of Henry Ansgar Kelly on Chaucer and Valentine’s Day.
[2]Catharine Coles to Dolley Payne Todd, June 1, 1794.  Papers of Dolley Madison, Various Accessions, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. Transcription from Thomas A. Mason, Robert A. Rutland, and Jeanne K. Sisson, eds., The Papers of James Madison, vol. 15 (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 342.

Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part One

February 11, 2009

During the recent inaugural ceremonies for America’s 44th president, Barack Obama, there was much discussion in the media regarding the peaceful succession of power evident in this and every American inauguration. It may be difficult for those of us living in the twenty-first century to understand, but in the eighteenth century the idea that one leader (let alone an elected leader) would peacefully turn over the leadership of a nation to another leader was a radically new idea.

The generation of Americans who founded the United States was unsure that their “experiment” would work. However, the first transitions went well, and by James Madison’s inauguration in 1809 this peaceful succession became something to commemorate. Artists like Thomas Gimbrede began to produce prints depicting these players on this new World stage. In 1812 Gimbrede sent Madison a version of his new print.

 Grimbrede engraving

Madison and his wife Dolley were well aware of their place in this newly formed government. In 1804, the Madisons began collecting portraits of the presidents, beginning with one of then-president Thomas Jefferson, under whom James was serving as Secretary of State, as well as one of George Washington. By the early 1820s they had also acquired portraits of John Adams, our second president, and James Monroe, our fifth. Many visitors to Montpelier noted these portraits were displayed in the Drawing Room of the house, including one who observed that they were all “hanging together in a corner of the room” (“Mr. Madison. (Extract of a Letter),” Salem Gazette (Salem, MA), 11/20/1835).

As part of the restoration of Montpelier, the architectural research team mapped all of the nail holes that survived in the plaster of the Drawing Room–the only room in the mansion to retain its original plaster. Using this physical evidence in conjunction with visitor descriptions, the curatorial department determined that the presidential portraits were displayed on the wall to the right as one enters the room.

arrangement of portraits

The size of the known portraits and the length of the wall indicated that no more than three portraits could have been hung in a row. The physical evidence supported this possibility, as there were nail holes evident that could have been used for the nails to hang three portraits. In addition evidence of a nail hole right below the cornice suggested another location from which an additional portrait could have been hung. Given that Gimbrede sent Madison a version of his print several years before the Madisons retired to Montpelier, the combined evidence suggested that in a portrait group of presidential portraits the one of George Washington would be raised higher than the others to give it prominence and to suggest his elevated station as the first president.

Notably, the Madisons chose not to hang James’ portrait in the middle of this presidential grouping. They instead hung it along side of his wife Dolley on the opposite wall. Perhaps suggesting a certain sense of humility, this choice most certainly indicates the Madisons’ wish to be presented alongside of one another to the many visitors they entertained.

Madison portraits 

to be continued…

Image credits: Thomas Gimbrede print “American Star,” Library of Congress. The paintings illustrated are copies of those believed to have originally been owned by the Madisons including: Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, Clarkson University; Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull, National Portrait Gallery; Portrait of James Monroe by John Vanderlyn, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The original portraits of James and Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart are owned respectively by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and The White House. Montpelier Drawing Room photographs copyright Montpelier Foundation.


January 29, 2009

We are pleased to announce that Lynne Dakin Hastings has joined Montpelier as Vice President for Museum Programs. Prior to coming to Montpelier, Lynne was Curator of Historic Interiors for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, responsible for overseeing the arrangement and preservation of more than 200 historic spaces, as well as consultant for special projects in the Historic Area. She formerly was the Chief Curator and Cultural Resources Specialist for the National Park Service at Hampton National Historic Site, near Baltimore, Maryland for many years, initiating the research, planning and implementation of interiors restoration, collections management, archival collections and library, archaeological surveys, grant funded research and acquisitions, and collaboration with non-profit foundations. As VP for Museum Programs, Lynne will coordinate the Archaeology, Curatorial and Education departments, keeping projects focused, involving the appropriate staff and consultants, and helping the team to reach consensus. We are very excited that she is here!

Inaugurations and Mrs. Smith

Last week, our nation celebrated the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States with all of the pageantry and celebrations reserved for such an occasion. Many people do not realize that 2009 also marks the bicentennial of Madison’s Presidency and the first Inaugural Ball.

The Madison’s Inaugural ball took place at Long’s Hotel, located one block from the Capitol building in Washington. Four hundred tickets were sold, costing $4 a piece. The ball would have been the highlight of the year for Washington’s high society.

Margaret Bayard Smith, one of Dolley Madison’s lifelong friends, attended the ball and described Dolley’s entrance:

“Madison’s March was then played and Mrs. Madison led in by one of the managers and Mrs. [Anna] Cutts and Mr. Madison, she was led to the part of the room where we happened to be, so that I accidently was placed next to her. She looked a queen. She had on a pale buff colored velvet [dress] made plain, with a very long train, but not the least trimming, and beautiful pearl necklace, earrings, and bracelets. Her head dress was a turban of the same coloured velvet and white satin (from Paris) with two superb plumes, the bird of paradise feathers. It would be absolutely impossible for anyone to behave with more perfect propriety than she did. Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. It seems to me that such manners would disarm envy itself, and conciliate even enemies”1

Margaret Bayard Smith’s letters and diaries are an invaluable source of information for scholars who study Washington in the early 19th century. Mrs. Smith’s husband was the editor of the National Intelligencer, the premier Washington D.C., newspaper, so the Smiths knew many of the most important politicians in Washington. The Smiths also visited Montpelier on several occasions; Mrs. Smith’s letters provide valuable clues regarding room use and furniture at Montpelier.

For example, in August of 1809, she described arriving at Montpelier and being ushered into the Dining Room,

“It was near five o’clock when we arrived, we were met at the door by Mr. M who led us in the dining room where some gentlemen were still smoking segars [sic] and drinking wine. Mrs. M. enter’d the moment afterwards, and after embracing me, took my hand, saying with a smile I will take you out of this smoke to a pleasanter room”2

Later in that same passage, Mrs. Smith called Dolley Madison “kindness personified”. The two women were already friends by the time of the 1809 visit, but as First Lady and the mistress of Montpelier, Dolley was a gracious hostess to people she barely knew. The letters written by visitors, especially those like Mrs. Smith, provide us with glimpses of the way the rooms at Montpelier were furnished and used.

1 Margaret Baryard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 61-62.
2 Ibid., 81.