Montpelier is a stunning property, nestled away in a beautiful, “obscure corner” of Orange County, Virginia, but its pastoral visage belies the complexity of its operations. The Montpelier Foundation is actually quite an intricate organization, with many different departments, including research, collections, visitor services, archaeology, and many more. Sometimes at historic sites like this, coordination and cooperation between departments can be difficult, and individual fiefdoms can vie for visibility or stature, but Montpelier seems to always overcome such difficulties.
On a recent Saturday, a colleague, Patrick Campbell and I were scheduled to provide a group tour for 30 teachers and educators taking part in a seminar at the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution. The night before, bad weather delayed the arrival of the featured scholar, so Program Director Raquel Suarez spent time with the group, welcoming them and querying them about what kind of experience they were looking for on the next day’s tour. In an email late that night, Raquel let us know that because many of the participants had been to Montpelier for seminars in the past and had been on our regular tour of the Mansion, they indicated that what they were looking for was something a little out of the ordinary.
As Raquel explained, “one of the things that really stuck out was how much of “Madison the person” they wanted to know about- more about: his personality and who he is as an individual and not just the lofty man who wrote the constitution.” She asked if we would “be able to give some anecdotal stories that highlight his human aspect? His sense of humor? His concern for Dolley and his stepson? How he was writing to himself when he was writing on behalf of Congress and GW (George Washington)? Stories like these that give a glimpse of his humanity?”
Foot Races and Piggy Back Rides
As interpreters, Patrick and I are always digging deeper into the materials and resources available to us from the Foundation, and as a result of our own, independent inquiries, so I knew that we would be able to highlight anecdotes that satisfied this request, but as I made the 40 minute drive to the Montpelier campus, I had a vague recollection of a letter that Madison had written to his stepson John Payne Todd that I thought would nicely demonstrate the very humanity Raquel had spoken of. Unfortunately, I did not have the details firmly enough in mind to highlight it on that day’s tour, and as it was a Saturday and most of the non-interpretive staff was gone for the weekend, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to locate the information I had in mind.
Luckily, when I arrived, Senior Museum Technician Jenniffer Powers was already on site, as she was on call for the weekend. As I know she works with our Collections department, I thought Jennifer might be able to help, and after briefly describing what I was looking for, I went off to prepare for the day’s tour. Ten minutes later, when I returned to her office, I found her carefully cradling the original letter in her gloved hands, with a printout of the text for me to use on the tour.
Patrick and I met and split up the group at the Center for the Constitution and began our tours, and as we went on, I sprinkled in more than the usual number of anecdotes that would speak to “Madison the person”. I mentioned evidence of Madison’s frugality when describing the odd, mustard colored doors on the front portico, apparently the ‘primer’, or base color used when preparing to paint plain wooden doors with the treatment known as “Faux Graining” (or false wood). I explained how he declined his friend Jefferson’s suggestion and saved the expense of raising the ceilings a foot or more to accommodate the installation of a true Palladian window over the portico’s beautiful center doors, and so match the window above. Instead he used an elegant but more practical and cost effective fanlight. I referenced stories about how James and Dolley had foot races with each other on the Portico and the front lawn, and how Dolley was known to give the diminutive Madison piggy back rides.
Let the worst be known
All of those stories provide insight into Madison the man, not the icon, but it was in Payne Todd’s room that Jenniffer’s efforts helped me make an even greater connection with the group on my tour.
John Payne Todd was Dolley Madison’s only surviving child from her brief marriage to the attorney John Todd Jr. of Philadelphia, who perished during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, along with his infant son, Payne’s brother. As a child of privilege and the stepson of the Father of the Constitution, Payne Todd benefited from the best of everything, attending private schools in Maryland, and learning to play cards from Baltimore resident Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister-in-law. He was known to be a charming young man, and an accomplished pianist with a love of art and the theater.
Despite these advantages, Payne Todd grew up to be a wastrel: an alcoholic and a degenerate gambler. During the 1820’s, Payne spent time in New York and Philadelphia gambling, drinking, and running up significant debts. As a result, he would twice be sent to debtor’s prison, eventually forcing Madison to sell land, and then mortgage property to free him.
No one on our tour that day was an American Founder, an icon of American Democracy, or a celebrated political theorist. Many were parents however and could relate to the heartbreak Madison expressed in this 1825 letter. Unbeknownst to James and Dolley, Payne was about to spend his first stretch in debtor’s prison, having gambled away the funds the former President had advanced him to clear his obligations:
My dear P. What shall I say to you? It is painful to utter reproaches; yet how can They be avoided? Your last letter to your mother made us confident that we would see you in a few days. Weeks have passed without even a line explaining the disappointment or soothing the anxieties of the tenderest of mothers, wound up to the highest pitch by this addition to your long & mysterious absence. As ample remittances were furnished for all known purposes, your continuance where you are under such strange appearances necessarily produces distressing apprehensions. Whatever be the causes of it, you owe it to yourself as well as to us to withhold them no longer. Let the worst be known, that the best may be made of it, I wish not to dwell on the subject, but I must not conclude without imploring & conjuring you to hasten to the embraces of your parents & put an end to uncertainties which afflict them, giving immediate assurance that you will do so by a line to your mother by the first mail after this gets to hand. You cannot be too quick in afford(i)ng some reflief to her present feelings.
Yr affect father J. Madison
Raquel described the impact this letter had on the participants after the weekend’s events this way: “The teachers got to hear from James’ own words how much he cared for his stepson and how much he looked after him. It was absolutely a perfect way of demonstrating Madison’s humanity.”
Collections, The Center for the Constitution, and the Education and Visitor Engagement Departments had all come together to craft a custom tour that exactly met the requests the group had asked for. This poignant letter that Jenniffer had provided allowed a special and unexpected insight into Madison, the man.
Historic Interpreter and House Team Leader
Raised in New York, Russell began his professional life as a writer, journalist and freelancer. After some initial success, he eventually succumbed to the lure of business, and went on to start a company providing advertising and circulation services for newspapers and magazine publishers world-wide. After retiring from that business several years ago, he eventually found his way to Montpelier in 2015. As a member of Montpelier’s Department of Education and Visitor Engagement, his story telling skills perfectly segue with his lifelong interest in history and the civil rights era, and his passion to tell that ‘more complete American story’.