Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Not only is Liz Kendall a shy Tory, but her words are also likely to appeal to racists

Charlie Brinkhurst Cuff
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)