A Day with the Presidents

Saturday, I was finally able to get away form Harrisonburg for the day and visit some historic sites.  I will describe where I went, give a little history, and share some of my photographs from the day.

1.  James Madison’s Montpelier

Being a student at James Madison University, it almost seems like a requirement to visit his home.  Montpelier is about a hour from Harrisonburg which made for a nice drive over the Blueridge Mountains.  Montpelier was built by James Madison Sr. in the early 18th century.  After James Madison Jr. married Dolley, the house was expanded and converted into a duplex.  James Madison’s parents lived on the South end of the house and Madison, Dolley and Dolley’s young son lived on the North end.  After the death of his father, Madison expanded the house again and made it a single residence home.  Madison’s mother would continue to live in the house in 1826.  Madison died in 1836 and Dolley lived in the house until her death.  The house changed hands several times after Dolley’s death before the duPont family bought it.  The duPont’s added on to the house and nearly tripled the square footage.  The home remained in the duPont family until 1983 when it was turned over The Montpelier Foundation.

Today, the house has been restored to it appearance at Dolley’s death.  The duPont’s additions were torn off and the house project was completed in 2008.  Today, the foundation is working on purchasing the original furnishings of Montpelier.  In addition, they are working on wallpapering the home.  Dolley only wallpapered three rooms and one has been restored.  The dining room was re-wallpapered two weeks ago and they are palling on wallpapering the drawing room in a few weeks.  There are also several archaeological digs taking place and many items have been uncovered that belonged to the Madison family and their slaves.  As the work continues, Montpelier will only become a more popular stop for tourists.

2.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

What is there to say about Monticello?  Everyone knows something about it.  Weather it is the distinct architectural styling or Jefferson’s collections and inventions, Monticello is an extremely popular tourist destination.  Monticello is located atop a 867 feet peak overlooking Charlottesville.  What is not well known is that Jefferson was given an option when his father died.  He was given a choice between land in the valley and the mountain, and he chose the Montpelier.  The views from Monticello are spectacular!

3. James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland

Most people, myself included, do not realize that Jefferson and Monroe were neighbors.   Monroe purchased the land adjacent to Monticello at the request of Jefferson.  Monroe purchased the land as a second home.  Monroe’s primary residence was Oak Hill which was closer to D.C.  Ash Lawn was used as a source of income and operated as a farm with several slaves, however, Monroe left the White House $75,000 in debt.  He placed Ash Lawn-Highland and Oak Hill on the market.  Ash Lawn sold two days after the death of Jefferson.  Ash Lawn is a modest home when compared to Montpelier and Monticello, but Monroe lived in opulence at Oak Hill.

I went to all three homes in one day and learned a lot about each president.  I found it interesting that presidents 3, 4, and 5 lived within 30 miles of each other and their connections go beyond being former Presidents of the United States.  Prior to becoming president, Madison was Jefferson’s Secretary of State and Monroe was Secretaries of State and War for Madison.  In addition, Monroe was tutored by Jefferson and encouraged by him to become a lawyer.

After visiting all three homes I discovered a few things about each president.  Madison was modest, Jefferson had to have the newest and greatest, and Monroe strived to keep up with both of them.  As a result, Monroe was in deep debt at one point of his life.  Of the three homes, I would prefer Montpelier.  To be fair, Monticello is very impressive, but I could not picture myself living there.  It was more like a laboratory than a home.  It also does not help that there were 100s of people at Monticello and a new tour starts every 5 minutes.  There were only about 40 people at Montpelier which made it feel more comfortable.

I really look forward to visiting Mt. Vernon and other sites in Virginia and will discuss them as I do.  I apologize for not posting anything last week and will start describing my courses next week.  Until then…

-Eric

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