Virginia is utterly saturated in American history. The James Madison home, Montpelier, was home to James and Dolly Madison. They’re known as the Father of the Constitution, Architect of the Bill of Rights, and America’s 1st First Lady, respectively.
This incredible home and grounds are beautiful unto themselves, but they’re also steeped in the Americana and historical programs people travel from around the world to experience. Read on to find out what you need to know to plan your visit to the James Madison home…
Married in 1794, James and Dolly Madison–separated by a 17-year age gap–began their journey into the annals of American history together. Madison was a congressman, then secretary of state to Thomas Jefferson, and of course a two-term president of the Unites States. Dolly was his political partner, a renowned hostess, and of course, the first lady.
When they retired in 1817, Montpelier was where they went. At the James Madison home, the couple entertained hundreds of visitors, managed a plantation, and edited together Madison’s political papers.
The significance of the James Madison home
Montpelier was the place where Madison shaped the ideas that would become the U.S. Constitution. He spent six months doing research and formulating thoughts in the upstairs library. He first developed the “Virginia Plan,” and later the framework for the Constitution.
Additonally, the James Madison home provides a crucial glimpse into the lives of Americans at the time of the nation’s birth, including people of color who were enslaved on the plantation.
Exhibits at Montpelier
The Presidential Detective Story
Montpelier’s plantation records and private documents were reportedly burned in 1852. Consequently, historians know very little about their day-to-day lives.
Research at Montpelier focuses on interpreting James and Dolley Madison’s life, and the lives of the enslaved community, in the context of their time through documentary and object research (including seeking out objects sold and dispersed from Montpelier after its sale) and archaelogical investigation, with particular emphasis on the enslaved communities.
The Presidential Detective Story aims to rediscover the Madisons by restoring the home and researching its history.
The centerpiece of the Montpelier experience is the Mansion. The guided first-floor tour focuses on what visitors and guests would have seen and experienced, as well as the Presidential Library.
There’s a lot of landscape to take in around the James Madison home–more than 2,600 acres of it. Hills, horse pastures and the Blue Ridge Mountains are points of emphasis. In addition to enjoying the grounds, you can visit the Madison Family Cemetery. The Annie duPont Formal Garden is a two-acre masterpiece, while James Madison’s Landmark Forest features 200 acres of old-growth forest perfect for walking and hiking.
The Archaeology Lab
The Archaeology Lab is for visitors who love artifacts. Archaeologists can explain how the research is done at Montpelier, and you can even watch them at their work. A hands-on kids archaeology site makes this great for all ages.
The Civil War Trail
Take a stroll along Montpelier’s Civil War trail to see the archaeological remains of a Confederate winter camp, a reconstructed camp street, and freedman George Gilmore’s home for a rare look at life after slavery. The 1910 Train Depot offers a glimpse of life in the segregated south.
Upcoming Special Tours at Montpelier
Here’s a sampling of the seasonal and recurring special tours…
March 16: James Madison’s Birthday
Commemorate the 265th birthday of America’s fourth president and Father of the Constitution with the United States Marine Corps Band and Color Guard during this annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Madison Family Cemetery at Montpelier.
April 2: Historic Landscape Tour
Peel back 250 years of landscaping, one layer at a time, to learn how the grounds of Montpelier evolved through generations of owners from a working plantation to a trove of champion trees and unique plantings. Begins at 1 PM at the Visitor Center. Free.
April 9: Journey from Slavery to Freedom Tour
Experience the African American transition from slavery to freedom. This walking and driving tour will visit sites of enslavement near the mansion, as well as the Gilmore Cabin and the 1910 Train Depot. This guided tour begins at 2 PM at the Visitor Center.
April 10: Big Woods Walk
Hike through the National Landmark Forest and learn about ecology, conservation and Madison’s role as an early environmentalist. The trail is a gentle mile loop. $10/person or $5/person with purchase of a mansion ticket. This guided tour begins at 2 PM at the Visitor Center. Dogs on leashes are permitted.
April 17: Working Woods Walk
Venture deep into the Montpelier Demonstration Forest on a two-hour hike guided by experts in forest conservation. $10/person or $5/person with purchase of a mansion ticket. This guided tour begins at 2 PM at the Visitor Center. Dogs on leashes are permitted.
April 23: Civil War Mansion Tour
Discover Madison’s view of the Union, his struggle to preserve it, and the greatest challenge it ever faced. This guided tour begins at 11 AM in the Visitor Center.
April 23: Civil War Trail & Freedman’s Farm Walking Tour
Begins at 2 PM in the parking lot across from the Montpelier Station Train Depot on Route 20. Free.
April 23-30: Historic Garden Week
The Town of Culpeper, a scenic 25-minute drive to Montpelier, is the home to this year’s local tour. Be sure to include a visit to Montpelier to enjoy the Annie duPont Formal Garden. Montpelier’s grounds and gardens are open to the public year-round at no charge.
To make the most of your historic Virginia visit to Montpelier, book in at the Prospect Hill Inn & Restaurant. You can experience the Americana for yourself!