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'Within a Squirrel's Leap of Heaven' : 'HEAVEN': Montpelier

November 01, 1987|NANCY HOYT BELCHER | Belcher is a South Pasadena free-lance writer

MONTPELIER, Va. — The sprawling estate of President James Madison was so large that he and his wife, Dolley, are said to have kept a telescope on the handsome portico of their plantation house so they could watch for the carriages of approaching visitors.

The mansion and grounds shared by our fourth President, the "Father of the Constitution," and his First Lady opened to tourists for the first time earlier this year as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the document's signing.

Madison's need for a telescope becomes evident to visitors standing in the same place now, for the road meanders downhill over gently rolling hillocks, past trees and through fields into infinity. To the west, the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains line the horizon.

While there have been many changes during the estate's more than 250-year history, one can easily understand Dolley's affectionate description of the homestead covering 2,700 acres on the western slope of the Little Mountains as "within a squirrel's leap of heaven."

The estate has 10 miles of paved roads now, and the mansion, its original brick exterior covered with limestone plaster, has grown to 55 rooms.

Eldest of 12 Children

James Madison was a 36-year-old delegate from Virginia--and still single--when he traveled to Philadelphia during that hot, muggy summer 200 years ago, and made notes about the convention that established the U.S. Constitution, now the oldest in the world.

He was the eldest of James Madison Sr.'s 12 children, and had been living on the old homestead since shortly after his birth in 1751. Montpelier had been settled by his grandfather in 1723.

This was Madison's home for 75 years. The boyish-looking "Little Jemmy" (as his father called him) was introduced to the young Quaker widow, Dolley Payne Todd, in 1794 by Aaron Burr. They were married the same year; he was 43, she 26.

They had no children of their own, but when Dolley married the future President she was the mother of an infant son, John Payne Todd--sometimes referred to by his numerous detractors as John Pain Todd.

A tour guide, leading visitors through the Madison home, was not quite so harsh, describing Dolley's son as "a gambler with many debts." Then she paused and chose her next words carefully: ". . . among other things."

After she was widowed, Dolley spent the rest of her life borrowing money and selling property to support her son's constant demands. Even the proceeds due her from the sale of Madison's second set of presidential papers went to pay off her son's debts. She never denied him.

Private Country Residence

An impoverished Dolley Madison sold Montpelier in 1844 when she was 81. The estate passed through several owners before it was bought by William du Pont in 1901. His daughter, Marion du Pont Scott (she was married to actor Randolph Scott for two years in the 1930s), inherited the property in 1926.

Scott lived here and used it as a private country residence until she died in 1983. She left Montpelier to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which took possession in 1984. The grounds and mansion opened for guided tours March 15, James Madison's birthday.

Most of the 2,700 acres of countryside is leased to a race horse owner and trainer, or used as pasture. There are 135 structures on the grounds, ranging from a bowling alley and greenhouse to the small two-story house built for the Du Ponts' chauffeur. The Du Ponts bred, raised and showed horses, and the grounds (with numerous barns, show rings and a race track) generally reflect the Du Pont era.

A beautiful steeplechase course commands a large expanse of the rolling countryside. Marion du Pont Scott started the Montpelier Hunt Races, which are still held here annually.

The National Trust anticipates that it will take at least 10 years of historical interpretation and archeological work to restore the house and gardens as they were during Madison's era. Some of the formal gardens contain English boxwoods thought to have been planted during Madison's time, as well as some cedars of Lebanon and silver pines near the house.

Would Have Approved

But most of today's landscaping was done by the Du Ponts, including a 2 1/2-acre formal garden by Mrs. William du Pont.

Madison would probably approve of the Du Ponts' efforts. Thomas Jefferson, his best friend for 50 years, once said that Madison was "the best farmer in the world."

Madison also was Jefferson's secretary of state when the latter was President. Both men grew up in an atmosphere of cultivated, well-to-do Virginia gentleman farmers. Madison's family had been in Virginia since 1653, and Jefferson, another native, began building Monticello, 30 miles away, in 1770.

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