When the PBS television program Antiques Roadshow aired on January 16, 2017, featuring an appraisal of a purported James Madison seal, the Montpelier Research Department was soon peppered with questions. Did we know this item existed? What did we know about the seal? What was the significance of the motto engraved on it? How did it end up in the hands of its present owner?

Following the Paper Trail

As we do with most research questions, we started by looking in the Montpelier Research Database to see what information our previous colleagues had already collected. In the Sources module of the database, we found the September 1828 letter that Wes Cowan referred to in his appraisal, in which James Madison asked his friend James Barbour to order two seals while in London:

“I have long desired to obtain a simple seal engraved with the initials of my name, encircled by the motto veritas non verba magistri. The material prefered, is a stone of no very costly sort, and as the price of one in silver cannot be great, I should be glad of a duplicate in that metal. The size of the seal, I would wish to be rather small than large. Shd. you succeed in getting this little job done for me, be so good as to accompany the article with a note of the expence.” 1James Madison to James Barbour, September [22], [1828], James Barbour Papers, New York Public Library, New York, New York, MRD-S 22527.

Barbour placed the order with a London seal maker, admitting to Madison, “With but little taste on such matters I was obliged to confide in his [the seal maker’s],” and adding “the artist assures me they are made after the most approved fashion here.”2James Barbour to James Madison, November 13, 1828, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 18355. When Madison received the seals in February 1829, he wrote to Barbour that the two seals “fully answer my wishes.”3James Madison to James Barbour, February 6, 1829, box 3, Papers of James Madison, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, MRD-S 26910.

In an era before gummed envelopes, a writer typically folded the letter and sealed the flap with a few drops of melted wax. Pressing an engraved seal into the wax gave the letter a more personalized and polished look. The engraved seal often served as a piece of jewelry, worn along with a watch key on a chain attached to a pocket watch.

The Meaning of the Motto

The motto that James Madison chose for his seal can be translated as “truth, not the words of a master” (or “teacher”), or alternately, “the truth, and not the master’s word for it.” By choosing this motto, Madison expressed a belief central to the Age of Enlightenment: that the individual could and should discern the truth through reason, rather than relying on dogma, superstition, or bigotry.

Madison did not use this motto anywhere else, nor did he explain why he chose it for his seal. It seems more than appropriate, however, for a man who was dedicated to defending freedom of thought and liberty of conscience. Congressman George Coke Dromgoole of Virginia alluded to Madison’s motto while making a report to Congress in February 1844, and clearly interpreted the motto in this Enlightenment sense. The Congressional Globe reported Dromgoole’s speech:

“Were the opinions of others to guide us — were our judgments to be pronounced according to the authority of superior names, instead of our own sincere interpretations — they could not, in foro conscientia, be regarded by ourselves. Mr. D. said, (holding up a volume of the Madison Papers) he should adopt for his motto the words which beautifully circumscribe the initials (endorsed on this volume) of James Madison, the virtuous citizen, the wise statesman: ‘Veritas non verba magistri.’”4“Report of the Committee of Elections – Mr. Dromgoole,”  The Congressional Globe, February 1844, vol. 13, Part 2, p. 212, accessed December 31, 2018.

Tracking the Object

Along with our research in documentary sources, we also looked in the Objects module of the MRD to see if anyone had created an Object record for the seal that appeared on Antiques Roadshow. Just as we create Source records for letters that we know were written by or to the Madisons, even if we haven’t located the letters, we also create Object records for items that we know were owned by the Madisons, even if we don’t know whether those items still exist. In this case, we had actually created three Object records for a Madison seal, since from the varying written descriptions, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether the writer was describing the stone seal, the silver duplicate, or another seal entirely.

While we had no images of the seal in the MRD, we did have its opposite in our permanent collection – an original wax impression still attached to the address panel of a letter that Madison had sent to Edward Everett in 1830.5Free-franked panel with wax seal, James Madison to Edward Everett, April 8, 1830, MS MF2013.19.1, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, MRD-S 42070. The wax impression showed the initials “JM” and the motto “Veritas Non Verba Magistri.” This was clearly the reverse image of the Antiques Roadshow seal!

Using an engraved seal was part of the way a gentleman presented himself to the world, and the world took note. When Edward Everett opened his letter from Madison in 1830, he took care to preserve this seal by tearing the paper around it, implying the value he placed on Madison’s personal seal. John Quincy Adams, receiving a letter from Madison in 1831, found the seal to be worth describing in his diary: “I received this morning a note from Mr. Madison … The seal was the initials of his name, and the motto, ‘Veritas, non verba magistri.’”6John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848, Vol. VIII, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1876) 398. Accessed December 31, 2018, HathiTrust, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044013557038?urlappend=%3Bseq=408.

When sealing his 1830 letter to Edward Everett, Madison likely used this seal, featured on Antiques Roadshow, or its silver duplicate. The initials and motto engraved on the stone are clearly a mirror image of the original wax impression on the letter to Everett, above.

Where Had the Seal Been All These Years?

Using the MRD’s Source records and its system of Keywords, we could track the seals not only through the letters in which Madison ordered them, but also through several documents that mention seals in later years. Dolley Madison’s niece and companion Annie Payne Causten listed “A cornelian Seal of Mr. Madison’s” among the recently-deceased Dolley’s valuables in 1849.7[Anna Coles Payne Causten], List of jewelry and silver, August 14, 1849, box Madison/Causten/Kunkel: Estate Related Papers, folder Madison—Inventory, Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro Historical Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina, MRD-S 22874.(Carnelian or cornelian is a semi-precious mineral, varying in color from light orange to nearly black. It was often used for seals because hot wax did not stick to it.)8https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnelian, accessed December 31, 2018.

Annie wrote that she gave “The Cornelian Seal, [of] Mr Madison’s” to her husband, Dr. James Causten.9Anna Coles Payne Causten, “Note” [regarding gifts of jewelry and silver], n.d., box Madison/Causten/Kunkel: Estate Related Papers, folder Madison—n.d.—Note re: Madison objects (Annie P. Causten), Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro Historical Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina, MRD-S 22873. Tragically, both Annie and James died by the time their only daughter Mary was five years old. Mary Causten (later Kunkel) was cared for by several of her father’s relatives, including her aunt and uncle, Alice Causten Fisher and Benjamin Franklin Fisher. Mary inherited the Madison seal, and wrote that at one point her uncle Benjamin had it and lost it. When found, the seal was “somewhat mutilated so he does not now wear it.” According to Mary, Benjamin later gave the seal to his son Arthur.10Mary Carvallo Causten Kunkel, Notes regarding James Madison’s seal, n.d., box Madison/Causten/Kunkel: Estate Related Papers, folder Kunkel—Estate, Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro Historical Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina, MRD-S 26179.

The Causten family history appeared to line up with what the current owner said about the seal’s history on Antiques Roadshow: “My grandfather’s grandmother, her brother was married to Dolley Madison’s niece.” The current owner’s great-great grandmother was most likely Alice Causten Fisher (or possibly one of the other Causten sisters), whose brother James was married to Dolley’s niece Annie. Alice’s husband Benjamin gave the seal to their son Arthur, and from there it passed down through the generations.

The physical evidence lined up as well. Although Annie described Madison’s seal as “cornelian,” the banded form of carnelian can also be classified as agate, which is what Wes Cowan called the stone on the seal he appraised. Cowan also pointed out the crack in the agate, which may well have been what Mary Causten Kunkel meant when she wrote that the seal was “somewhat mutilated” after her uncle Benjamin lost it.

Although museum ethical codes prevent the Montpelier Foundation from formally appraising or authenticating objects, the Montpelier Research Database helps us conduct the kind of internal research that shows us how the Madisons’ possessions were dispersed after their deaths.

And once we knew what happened to James Madison’s carnelian seal, we couldn’t help but wonder … where did the duplicate silver seal end up?

We’ll just have to keep updating the MRD. (And watching Antiques Roadshow.)

Special appreciation to Montpelier’s former Director of Research Elizabeth Ladner, whose research contributed to this query.

Written By

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian

Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail and locating the perfect Madison quote for any occasion.

3 Comments

  • Ever since I learned of Madison’s seal in 2006 (or was it 2007?), this has remained my single favourite story from Montpelier. While one can chalk it up to Enlightenment thought, I like to think–to romanticise, perhaps–that Madison had this created because of the communications that he received as “Father of the Constitution.” Rather than people continually asking for his advice, his every letter was a reminder that they should find their own voice and direction.

    It might just be a story, but in some ways stories are the forces that drive us between the facts.

  • Fascinating story. Proves historians truly are detectives, as well. And from a collections standpoint, as an amateur curator, it’s interesting to note that your documentation includes objects known to have existed, like this seal, but not necessarily in the collection.
    I hope you find the silver seal, as well.

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