For my first visit to Montpelier, the Virginia plantation of James and Dolley Madison, I chose a birthday weekend: the Constitution Day Celebration. It is one of the most festive days of the year for the plantation. James Madison, after all, was the chief architect of the Constitution and its ardent supporter. It was here, in his lifelong home, where Madison contemplated the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, among other achievements.
In retrospect, coming here on such a grand occasion was a rash decision: the grounds were probably more crowded than usual, and the mansion tours felt rushed. On the bright side, the entry fee was reduced, and we did get to see all the high school students floating excitedly in historic garb, playing 18-century games and going about their 18-century chores.
My enjoyment of the place was a bit tempered. Montpelier is not quite at the level of other grand presidential mansions, like George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It is still being rebuilt to its 18th-century identity, much of the furniture and grounds still being sought out and recovered. Dolley Madison’s son from the first marriage, the boy I first encountered at the Todd House in Philadelphia, grew up a debtor and an alcoholic. The mansion was eventually left to him, as the Madisons had no other children. Sold shortly after James Madison’s death, the plantation went on to change hands, its look and texture changing with them, many times over. This place still feels transient, unfinished, its habits not yet settled, un-streamlined.
Upon arrival–the plantation is much larger than I’d imagined, even if most of the area is open lawn–we parked by the visitor’s center and reserved a 1 o’clock tour: Slavery at Montpelier (well worth an additional charge). This was a 2-hour journey through the mansion’s kitchen, wine cellar, and grounds, including a short drive (in our own cars, so park close to the visitor’s center) outside the plantation to the Gilmore Cabin, a freedman’s farm, and the 1910 Montpelier train depot, restored to its segregated condition (it was chilling to see how matter-of-fact this once was–and not that long ago).
The story begins in 1723, when James Madison’s grandfather Ambrose “patented” this land and sent slaves and indentured servants to wrestle cropland from a mountain, boulder by boulder. It took nearly a decade for the plantation to emerge. Ambrose brought his family here in 1732, by then, “an owner” of 29 men, women, and children. He died the same year. Three slaves–Dido, Turk, and Pompey–were accused of his poisoning, Pompey hanged. Ambrose’s wife, James Madison’s formidable grandmother Frances, inherited the estate, made it profitable, and kept on Dido and Turk. What was the real story of Ambrose’s death? We can’t know, but the names “Dido,” “Turk,” and “Pompey” reappeared among enslaved children in Montpelier for many generations.
By the time James and Dolley Madison came into ownership of the plantation in 1801, 109 people were enslaved in Montpelier, many living and working closely with the Madisons. Today, phantom slave quarters arise by the mansion. Having first met Dolley Madison in Philadelphia as an extraordinary woman, a well-read Quaker who was raised to abhor slavery, it was dispiriting to imagine her here, the illustrious “Queen of America,” doing what her husband did: live comfortably but contrary to their stated ethics. James Madison wrote that slavery was “a blot on our republican character” but did not free any one of his slaves. In fact, most of them were sold off after his death to cover debts, families torn apart, lifetimes of service and promise, as with Madison’s body servant, the extraordinary by all accounts Paul Jennings, betrayed.
Stories of individual slaves–so few remembered, considering how many people lived out their lives here–take center stage during the tour: like the story of Anthony, the only slave who ran away from Montpelier. Anthony’s brother, Billey, was Madison’s body servant in 1770s and accompanied the future President to the Continental Congress in 1780. In a 1783 letter to his father, Madison wrote that he was reluctant to bring Billey back to Montpelier: exposed to the concept of freedom, Billey’s mind was “too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slave in Virga [sic.]”.
Madison sold Billey in Philadelphia, where Billey eventually bought his own freedom after seven years of servitude, took the last name of Gardner, and became a merchant. It is unknown if Billey was able to communicate with his family in Montpelier, but his departure must have left an impression on Anthony, who escaped in 1786. He was recaptured and brought back to Montpelier, only to escape again. Anthony was not “recovered” after his second escape. Maybe he survived and made a better life for himself, although the possibility of that is slim: the inhospitable Blue Ridge mountains surrounding the plantation were dangerous both because of their wilderness and because of roaming gangs who captured those Black people who could not prove their freedom and sold them further south. The rolling view of the Blue Ridge mountains was not a view of possibility to Montpelier’s enslaved community.
Paul Jennings was another Montpelier slave who bought his freedom. Jennings left an account of the President and Dolley, unfalteringly complimentary, in his A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, the first published memoir about the life in the White House. Jennings accompanied Dolley and the President to Washington:
“When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful condition from either mud or dust. The city was a dreary place.”
Jennings was with Dolley when she famously saved George Washington’s portrait, not quite as dashingly as sometimes recounted, from the fires of 1812:
“It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington… and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Suse (a Frenchman, then door-keeper…) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the president’s party.”
And Jennings was with Madison when he died:
“I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey [, Dolley Madison’s enslaved lady’s maid,] brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, ‘What is the matter, uncle James?’ ‘Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.’ His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out. He was eighty-four years old, and was followed to his grave by an immense procession of white and colored people.”
Eventually settling in Washington DC as a free man, Jennings became an abolitionist: Taught to read and write by Madison so he could assist the ailing President, Jennings later forged freedom papers for runaway slaves and supported impoverished Dolley, “a remarkably fine woman,” with his own money at the end of her days.
A mile from the plantation is home of another extraordinary man who was once a slave in Montpelier: George Gilmore. Born in 1810, Gilmore left the plantation as the Confederacy fell and settled with his wife and children in the abandoned Confederate Army camp, eventually building this cabin and buying the land it stood on:
Restored to its 19th-century condition, this is the only remaining restored freedman’s cabin in Virginia. The wood is original–the roof and walls still bear ax marks left by Gilmore.
Built according to specifications of the slave homes in Montpelier, Gilbert doubled the size of his family’s living quarters and died a landowner in 1905. The cabin and the land stayed in the family until 1920. Gilbert’s descendant, a young woman in the area with her husband, was in our group–a moving experience for her and for us.
Just up the road from the cabin is the Montpelier train depot, built in 1910 by the DuPonts, who owned Montpelier then (they were rich enough to build themselves a train station). Virginia’s laws at the time stipulated that the depot be segregated. Both waiting areas are now restored, bearing announcements of the time, including of the sale of George Gilmore’s cabin and land at public auction in 1920. “We tend to shy away from our past…we should face up to it, live with it, otherwise it will live with you, and haunt you, and distort you, for all of your days,” said John Hope Franklin, a historian, speaking at the Montpelier Slave Descendants Reunion in 2007. These words now appear by the depot’s segregated entrances.
Back at the plantation, festivities were in full swing, with music, food, and even a hot air balloon. I hope the crowds piling into the mansion learned at least a little about the life of Montpelier beyond its famous one-time owners.
But I am glad these were not all the images I left with from that day.
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