Update July 2, 2009

July 2, 2009

Court Records Research

In an earlier post, we explained the concept of “provenance,” and how we use it here at Montpelier. Tracking down an object’s provenance often requires documentary research. In this post, we would like to expand on a type of research we touched on in our last post – documentary research with court records, and how it is helping us better understand the Madisons and their lives at Montpelier.

Court records provide us with a unique approach to comprehending the Madison family through legal transactions. We utilize probate records such as wills, inventories and accounts of estate sales for many Madison family members to create a better understanding of what each person inherited, owned, bought and sold. We then build on this knowledge by examining the records of lawsuits for Orange County, Virginia which are housed at several repositories across the state, including the Orange County Courthouse, the Library of Virginia, and the State Record Center.

These records are spread across several courts, for example, courts for different jurisdictions, such as county and district. Making this a bit more difficult are changes to the structure of the court system itself as the 19th century progressed. Since we want to collect all information possible for James and Dolley Madison, his parents, her son John Payne Todd, and other close family members, we are systematically going through the records of each court in chronological order. It is a slow process, but more thorough than relying just on indexes or making random searches on years of suspected activity. While we are specifically interested in mentions of furniture and interior decoration in our current research, we record all cases for future reference. We have uncovered many court cases that have helped shed light on the history of the Madisons, their changing financial status, the individuals with whom they did business, their slaves, and so much more.

One interesting case involved Dolley Madison and a merchant named Thomas Vial. He brought suit against her for nonpayment of accounts, submitting as evidence a list of all the items she had purchased from him in 1842 and 1843. This list provides us with information on what types of beverages and food she purchased. It also raises more questions for us: Did Dolley buy items from Mr. Vial in other years? If so, were her purchases for entertainment or for the everyday management of the household? Do any records of Thomas Vial’s business survive? In this manner, court documents can provide answers as well as questions that will hopefully lead to further discoveries.

 Orange County Courthouse

The Fourth of July

Although July 4 was not designated as a federal holiday for almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence was signed and drafted, it was considered by some a day of celebration from the very first anniversary. The way people chose to celebrate varied from place to place, some holding big parties and others holding prayer meetings.

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1809, citizens of the town of Pittsfield, Vermont, chose to celebrate the anniversary of American Independence by writing a letter to their President, James Madison. That letter now belongs to the Library of Congress, and you can see and read it for yourself.

The language of the letter is more formal, and certainly more flowery, than most people today would use, even when writing to the President. The underlying message, on the other hand, still applies today. While these citizens of Pittsfield voted for James Madison, and wanted him to succeed, they closed their letter by celebrating the “Sovreign Lord” of the United States: the People.


Update May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009

Constitutional Exhibit

Now open in the south wing room of the house (M118), which is accessible from the back yard, is our exhibit “James Madison: Architect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights”.









Those of you who visited Montpelier prior to April, 2009, may have seen the exhibit in our Education Center. The exhibit is self-guided, with commentary available on the audio tour. The exhibit describes James Madison’s role in the development, writing, and implementation of two of America’s most important documents – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In addition to text, the exhibit uses images and excerpts from historical documents.










The room is arranged so that you can view the exhibit at your leisure and utilize the chairs.  We hope our visitors will discuss the exhibit, the Constitution, or James Madison with each other.  In the future we would like to have staff lead discussions with our visitors that would include topics relevant to how the Constitution affects us today.










The shutters continue to be hung. This week they are installing more shutters on the front of the house20090514-2cs





Gene Lyman stamps the top of a shutter.

Since the shutters and their fittings are handmade, each shutter only fits in one window of the house. Thus, both window and shutter are assigned an identifier code.  Stamping the shutters allows them to be removed to be repainted or fixed and then be returned to their correct location.

In Honor of Mother’s Day

May 8, 2009

What better time than Mother’s Day to consider how the design and furnishings of Montpelier reflected the presence of the matriarch of the Madison family – James Madison’s mother Nelly Conway Madison – and how one family accommodated two generations under the same roof. Montpelier was built by James Madison senior in the 1760s to house his immediate family. In 1797 when James, Jr. took a temporary hiatus from politics and moved home with his bride Dolley, father and son added a two-over-two room duplex with a side passage to house the younger couple. When, following his father’s death, James junior enlarged and remodeled the building once again, he did the opposite carving out a suite of rooms on the first floor for his widowed mother.

Nelly Conway Madison was a remarkable woman. She oversaw the domestic management of her husband’s plantation, gave birth to twelve children, helped to educate them, and lived to age 98. In recognition of the important role she played in the Montpelier community and to illustrate the inclusion of two households under one roof, Mrs. Madison’s Best Room (M112) is one of four rooms which have been singled out for refurnishing.

Mrs. Madison’s “apartments” encompassed two rooms from the 1763 house and two rooms and storage areas in the adjacent wing James junior added between 1809 and 1812. Visitor James Paulding remembered that this wing was “appropriated to the mother of Mr. Madison then upwards of ninety years of age. The Old Lady seldom joined the family circle but took her meals by herself, and was visited everyday by Mr. & Mrs. Madison…”[1]

Our challenge will be to show how different Nelly Madison’s apartments were from the rooms occupied by her son and daughter-in-law. Even when empty, her Best Room shows a fondness for the past retaining features from the 1760s era house including a high wainscot which lines the walls and the British-made sandstone fireplace surround with its weighty egg and dart carving.


Read the rest of this entry »


April 17, 2009

After our last update, we were asked: what is “curatorial research” and how do Montpelier’s researchers go about figuring out whether an object belonged to the Madisons or not. Curatorial research can be very involved, but let’s start with “provenance” and continue from there over the next few posts.

So what exactly is provenance? You may have heard the term if you have visited a museum, watched “Antiques Roadshow” or “History Detectives”, or collect antiques. A good definition for “provenance” is, “a history of who owned an object”. As you can imagine, at Montpelier, we are very interested in objects that were previously owned by James and Dolley Madison; one way to describe these pieces is to say that they had “Madison provenance”.

Figuring out an object’s history often starts with finding out how the current owner acquired it. From there, many times we can work backwards from one owner to the next – and, if we are lucky, we may be able to trace the piece all the way back to James and Dolley Madison. For some objects, we are able to easily determine provenance because others have already documented it or a clear chain of ownership exists. For other pieces there are gaps in the chain of ownership. Our goal then becomes filling in the gaps. Read the rest of this entry »

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.