Rule #3 – Experience everything.
History – if we don’t learn from it, we are doomed to repeat it. These aren’t my words. They come from Greece long ago, in one form or another. Winston Churchill said something similar. George Santayana did, too. It’s a phrase that’s been used and reused, parsed and re-parsed, and in the end, proven correct. We all need to study history, and try to experience it as much as possible in our current day, so that we not only honor those in our past, but understand their vision for their future. We are living in “their vision” as we speak and what are we doing differently? How are we doing it differently? Are we doing anything differently, really? And, why?
These are questions that rolled around in my head after visiting Montpelier, James Madison’s home, in Orange, Virginia. This may sound like a strange reaction to visiting a historical mansion, and viewing the daily life of one of our “founding fathers”. But James Madison was not so much a founding father of our country, like Washington, Adams (Sam or John) or Jefferson. He was truly responsible for a lot of what we live today. James Madison is the architect of our U.S. Constitution, the major document that drives the laws in our country. It’s also THE document that’s had its relevancy challenged in the recent American press and courts. With 2012 being a Presidential election year, I wanted to visit Mr. Madison’s home to see what he was “all about”.
I went into the visit with some prior knowledge of Madison’s professional career. He was our fourth President. His wife’s name was Dolley. He was president during the War of 1812, and was the first to have to evacuate the capital city for the safety of the government. Dolley Madison was also the first to serve a new French concoction called iced cream. Being a Philadelphia native, I remember the brand “Dolley Madison Ice Cream” from when I was growing up. Beyond that, nothing stood out in my mind. Politically, he was sandwiched between Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase) and James Monroe (Monroe Doctrine).
Now his home is a National Historic Trust site. The restoration work is as recent at 2003. The goal for the restoration is to bring the home back to the post-Presidential period of Madison’s life.
There is a long, winding drive from Route 20, Constitution Highway, up to the Visitor’s Center at Montpelier. From here, you can see that this home was at one time a working farm. You can also see how subsequent owners put their own stamp on the land. The last private owner, Marion DuPont Scott, bred horses for racing. You drive past a track and can occasionally see a horse work out with the sulky for harness racing.
|View from the front of the Montpelier Mansion|
Pull into the Visitor’s Center lot and catch your breath, as I did, with the beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The day I visited was hot, but the haze did not impede the view at all. You can imagine the colors in autumn. In the Visitor’s Center, I could use one of the many Smartphones with self-paced audio tours on them. These tours also have apps that visually give plenty of background for each stop on the tour. These items are free to use, just leave a deposit at the desk. Before you go a-wandering, you might want to get a snack or drink at the Courtyard Café. There are two galleries in the Visitor’s Center to check out, too. One holds items from the DuPont era; the other focuses on Dolley Madison. Now let’s go to the theater to view the film and “meet” our host for the day.
|Montpelier, Orange, Virginia|
Our group walks up Madison Road to the front gate of the house where we meet our tour guide for the house tour. She explains that the house we see before us was, at first, a smaller version, then expanded, then “duplexed”, and finally returned to is current look. We walked up to the porch, with a floor surface of marble, which keeps the porch 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the house in the heat of the summer.
Inside, our group tours the first floor living spaces of our fourth President. It shows the residual of when the home was a duplex, with Mrs. Madison, his mother, and her staff on one side and Mrs. Madison, his wife, and family on the other. We learn that Mr. Madison thought ahead of the territorial egos of the two most important women in his life.
As we tour the second floor, we learn more about the archeological investigations and the restoration process. The master bedroom gives you a good look into the lives – and hygiene opportunities – of those living at that time. We move into the library space, a precious location for Mr. Madison, since all of his treasured books were here. Since the books were sold off after his death, we don’t see the actual books, but we have the view of the mountains to inspire us, and a multi-media reflection on his greatest work, the drafts of the Constitution, to view. Brace yourself, too, because at the end of the presentation comes my personal favorite part: “The Constitution… Read it. Cherish it. Protect it.” Brace yourself for the cheers from those of us who want people to really READ the document.
Our tour group then moves to the grounds of Montpelier. Some of us choose to investigate the formal garden. Others check out the slave quarters site. The rest of us head into the side office where a reenactor – or “James Madison” himself – was available for discussions. Mr. Madison sits at his desk and fields questions about the reason for the War of 1812. There is a spirited discussion between the audience of now and Mr. Madison of then. We get a chance to look into how decisions of such magnitude are made. Another audience member asks about his courtship of Dolley. We find out there was a substantial age difference between them, and that Mr. Madison was truly smitten with his wife. He blushed as he described his courtship and the long lasting love he had for her. I personally, spend the greater part of an hour in the company of this gentleman.
|View of the slave quarters site just outside the main house|
|President James Madison and yours truly after a long discussion in his office|
Due to the rising heat and humidity of the day, the visit is shortened. I walk around the house grounds, and through the slave quarters area and take pictures of the site. I walk over to the area near Dolley’s kitchen where the staff demonstrates cooking techniques of the time period. There is a chance for youngsters to help in the kitchen too, with hands on demonstrations. I walk over to the other hands-on tent, where you can learn wood crafting and needlecrafts from the Madison era. I did not hike to the Forest Walking Trail, over to the Archeology Lab, or down to the Family and Slave Cemeteries. That’s for my next visit, in cooler weather.
|Mr. Madison's "Temple" over the year-round ice house|
|Bronze rendering of Mr. and Mrs. Madison|
|View of the walled formal garden from the slave quarters|
I really need to return to Montpelier. There is so much to see and more history to absorb. And my questions are still not completely answered. So much to learn about history…so much to learn from history…
|What a view from the front porch!|
All photos are the sole property of Marge McGugan. No reproduction or reuse without permission.