The Madisons at Montpelier: Reflections on the Founding Couple (review)
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The Madisons at Montpelier: Reflections on the Founding Couple. By Ralph Ketcham. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 200. $23.95 cloth)

Ralph Ketcham begins his book at the end of James Madison's presidency with the retired president and his wife sailing away from Washington, D.C., in high spirits, envisioning a fresh life of bucolic contentment at Montpelier, the Virginia plantation established by his grandfather and the mansion house that they had recently expanded and redesigned. Numerous concerns, however, quickly intruded upon them there, and Ketcham makes these intrusions part of his thesis. The Madisons' retirement, Ketchum argues, did not play out according to picturesque and pastoral themes found in Virgil's Georgics that the couple read and hoped to emulate. Rather, they remained engaged in public affairs, an engagement that has come to exemplify American presidential retirement. While Dolley Madison maintained ties to Washington's social scene, James Madison sustained an "intense and effective defense of the Constitution against nullifiers, secessionists, and sectionalists." Ketcham's biography is meant to reveal how, above all, Madison "cherished the Union because only the positive power it released could bring the justice necessary to fulfill the legal and moral equality of humankind." For Madison, argues Ketcham, only liberty "could open to humans the opportunities due their limitless potential and their capacity for self-government." Dolley's noteworthy role as 'First Lady' established, according to Ketcham, "a style and civility for American public life that provided a social basis for the republicanism she shared with her husband." In retirement, the Madisons "lived lives that kept the nation mindful of its principled origins, and through their connections and visitors, especially the young people," writes Ketcham, "they pointed hopefully toward a fulfilling future in the Union" (pp. 73, 176). [End Page 391]

A variety of real-life struggles conspired to cast the Madisons' retirement into life patterns familiar to us today. Debt, mortgages, bad weather, poor harvests, financial reverses, lost political battles, illness, bodily aches and pains, deaths in the family, and the corrosive problems of slavery scoured away any hopes for trouble-free days after enduring a turbulent presidency. John Payne Todd, Dolley Madison's son from her first marriage, drained away precious capital from the farm through gambling, drinking, and imprisonment. Bad weather ruined crops. The grain market collapsed. The future of farming looked bleak for a man who believed in agriculture as the essence of a successful republic. Madison also suffered stiffening fingers, then bouts with influenza and fevers, and finally limited mobility and confinement to bed or chair. Through sickness, Madison struggled against unruly University of Virginia students as he sought to perpetuate Jefferson's legacy. Only pleasant visits with family and friends lessened the hardness of his "retired" life.

Such retirement, however, also included President Madison striding again into the political arena. Madison rode down to Richmond to campaign to abolish slavery and expand the franchise in Virginia when the commonwealth revised its constitution in 1829-30. His failures to revive republican virtue among his fellow Virginians and fulfill the liberalizing spirit of the American Revolution contributed to a growing sense of decline in his twilight years. Most important of all, slavery lingered at Montpelier, debilitating the plantation's productivity, troubling him over his reliance on enslaved labor, and providing visitors ample opportunity to recall the unfinished business of the revolution and criticize President Madison, as Lafayette did, as a half-hearted advocate of liberty. As for his own legacy, Ketcham draws our attention to Madison arranging his papers for future historians.

Previous biographers, Ketcham included, have explored this time interval in the Madisons' lifetime. Gillard Hunt, Drew McCoy, Catherine Allgor, and Irving Brant all examined the Madisons, promising a complete Madison portrait, but as the Madisons have become [End Page 392] an armature for political history or serve as emblems of the early American republic, that is difficult. When considering the lives of the Madisons, scholars in general have appropriated the inner world at Montpelier for discussions of national narratives.

Ketcham also makes similar connections, but he goes further to give us more facets of life at Montpelier. What is...