Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

James Madison's home is being uncovered - and with it the memory of a forgotten President

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Here in Montpelier, in the heart of gorgeous Virginia horse country, the fourth President of the United States is being reborn.

Not literally, of course; James Madison shuffled off this mortal coil 170 years ago, on 28 June 1836. But in a remarkable piece of American archaeology, his home is being retrieved from beneath a carapace of extensions, renovations and stucco - and with it the personality and fame of a no-less-remarkable American.

If you have but a hazy idea of James Madison, do not feel ashamed. I first became aware of him not through the study of US history but through the good offices of Raymond Chandler. An enduring image of The Long Goodbye is the "portrait of Madison" sent to Philip Marlowe from a client on the lam. The "portrait", Chandler fans will know, refers to a $5,000 bill (last printed in 1945 but still legal tender here, incidentally), with Madison on the front.

When you live here, Madison is part of the topographical background music. There is a Madison Avenue in New York. Madison is the fourth most common town name, while no fewer than 20 states have a Madison county. All are in honour of James Madison. But who exactly was he? In truth, his presidency was not much to write home about. He fought Britain to an honourable draw in the war of 1812 - but not before suffering the indignity of having the White House burned down.

Or you may have heard of his wife, Dolley Madison, the glamorous hostess and socialite, an early 19th-century version of Jackie Kennedy.

But compared with the other members of that remarkable group of men known as the Founding Fathers, James Madison has been largely overlooked. Of his three predecessors, he has neither the iconic untouchability of Washington, nor the pugnacious, loquacious brilliance of John Adams, nor the elegance and charisma of the third President, Thomas Jefferson, Madison's friend and neighbour in Virginia.

His legacy, however, is no less lasting. Madison was the architect of the US Constitution. He was the main author of the Bill of Rights. He was also co-author with Alexander Hamilton of the Federalist Papers, which explain in accessible language what the constitution was trying to achieve.

But Madison somehow vanished from history - and so did his home of Montpelier. Dolley's son Payne so mismanaged the estate that in 1844 she was forced to sell it. Over the next 60 years, it passed through seven different owners, until the duPont family acquired it in 1901 and turned it into a horse farm. Finally in 1984, the family transferred the estate to a privately run American version of the National Trust.

By then, the simple 22-room brick house of the Madison era had metamorphosed into an unrecognisable building of 55 rooms, with a completely new portico, stuccoed and painted pink. In fact, the duPont era was both disguise and blessing. The additions did not destroy the original. Instead, they swathed it in a protective cocoon.

The final private owner, Marion duPont, had instructed that Montpelier be returned to its mid-19th-century appearance, and opened to the public as a memorial to Madison. Now, in a painstaking exercise, the external cocoon has been delicately removed. And to their delight, the restorers have found that the building where Madison spent both his childhood and his retirement is virtually intact.

Today, the old house stands anew in its former grandeur. The interior is still a jumble of dangling wires and stripped walls, but the hope is to complete the $60m project by early 2008 - if possible for a grand opening on 16 March that year, on what would be James Madison's 257th birthday.

By then, tourists will find a new attraction in the Virginia countryside, to rival the homes of George Washington at Mount Vernon and of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. And a half-forgotten President will have recovered his rightful place beside them.

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