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The Madisons at Montpelier

Reflections on the Founding Couple

Ralph Ketcham

Publication Year: 2009

Restored to its original splendor, Montpelier is now a national shrine, but before Montpelier became a place of study and tribute, it was a home. Often kept from it by the business of the young nation, James and Dolley Madison could finally take up permanent residence when they retired from Washington in 1817. Their lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson predicted that, at Montpelier, the retiring Madison could return to his "books and farm, to tranquility, and independence," that he would be released "from incessant labors, corroding anxieties, active enemies, and interested friends."

As the celebrated historian Ralph Ketcham shows, this would turn out to be only partly true. Although the Madisons were no longer in Washington, Dolley continued to take part in its social scene from afar, dominating it just as she had during Jefferson’s and her husband’s administrations, commenting on people and events there and advising the multitude of young people who thought of her as the creator of society life in the young republic. James maintained a steady correspondence about public questions ranging from Native American affairs, slavery, and utopian reform to religion and education. He also took an active role at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30, in the defeat of nullification, and in the establishment of the University of Virginia, of which he was the rector for eight years after Jefferson’s death. Exploring Madison’s role in these post-presidential issues reveals a man of extraordinary intellectual vitality and helps us to better understand Madison’s political thought. His friendships with figures such as Jefferson, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette--as well as his assessment of them (he outlived them all)--shed valuable light on the nature of the republic they had all helped found.

In their last years, James and Dolley Madison personified the republican institutions and culture of the new nation--James as the father of the Constitution and its chief propounder for nearly half a century, and Dolley as the creator of the role of "First Lady." Anything but uneventful, the retirement period at Montpelier should be seen as a crucial element in our understanding of this remarkable couple.

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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title page

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xii

The immediate opportunity and impulse for writing this book come from the spectacular restoration of the Montpelier mansion to its appearance as it was during the years of the Madisons’ retirement there, 1817–36. In the hands of several owners from the time of Dolley Madison’s sale of Montpelier in 1844 ...

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1. Return to “Books and Farm, to Tranquility and Independence”

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pp. 1-47

James Madison, with Dolley at his side, left Washington for the last time on April 17, 1817. He was sixty-six; she was forty-nine, and they had been married twenty-three years. Their retirement began when, with all their trunks of belongings, they stepped on board an early version of a steamboat docked at Potomac Wharf. ...

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2. Continuing Public Involvement

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pp. 48-98

Whitcomb further observed that Madison took many newspapers and, much more than Jefferson, remained well informed on current issues. In fact, from the moment he left Washington, James Madison remained an active elder statesman, fully abreast of public affairs and in close touch with the nation’s political leaders. Dolley maintained the same interest. ...

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3. “I May Be Thought to Have Outlived Myself”

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pp. 99-145

Increasingly as the twenty years in retirement stretched out, however, attention to public affairs and even to cherished educational projects gave way to the perennial concerns of old age: health, reminiscence, and refl ection at the loss of lifelong associates. To an earnest plea in 1834 that he speak out against Jackson’s war on the Bank of the United States, ...

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4. “The Last of the Great Lights of the Revolution Has Sunk Below the Horizon”

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pp. 146-176

Through 1835 and 1836, in Madison’s own metaphor, the candle of life in the old man at Montpelier sputtered toward its socket. Dolley Madison wrote that “my days are devoted to nursing and comforting my sick patient,” while a visitor observed that “her devotion to Mr. Madison is incessant, and he needs all her constant attention.” ...

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Postscript: Dolley Madison, 1836–1849

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pp. 177-182

Dolley Madison spent the summer after her husband’s death at Montpelier, responding to visits and letters of condolence and pursuing publication of the already gathered and edited volumes of James’s papers. She made an unfortunate decision to put this publication largely in the hands of undependable Payne Todd, ...

Source Notes

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pp. 183-188


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pp. 189-192


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pp. 193-200

E-ISBN-13: 9780813930473
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813928111

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 804845813
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Madisons at Montpelier

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Subject Headings

  • Madison, James, 1751-1836 -- Last years.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • Madison, Dolley, 1768-1849.
  • Orange County (Va.) -- Biography.
  • Montpelier (Va. : Estate).
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