See him: Hard to believe that the Father of the Constitution once sat in an unadorned grave, but it’s true – Madison’s stepson, Payne Todd, lived large and had gambling debts, which did away with most of the Madisons’ money. At least he was at home: wife Dolley had to be buried in a temporary vault in Washington DC for about a year because she had no money left to ship the body home to the place she called “a squirrel’s jump from heaven.” Eventually she made the jump and both she and James got grave markers at the family cemetery, a short walk from the mansion.
While you’re there, make sure to take the Montpelier house tour: the mansion, which had been in private hands until the 1980’s, has just gone through a top-to-bottom exterior renovation to look the way it looked during the Madisons’ retirement years. “Phase One,” as the architectural work is known, took five years and $24 million to complete, but the real fun is just getting started: “Phase Two” is the work to restore the interior, and that work is ongoing, meaning you could come by and see the restoration essentially as it happens. I first visited Montpelier in 2010, and they had done a huge amount of work by the time I saw it again in 2014 – new artwork on the walls, new furniture in the rooms, new artifacts found in digs on the grounds… it’s kind of exciting.
Extra kudos to tour guide April Bertaux, who earned a standing ovation from our tour group at the end of our visit. Granted, we were all standing anyway, but she deserved it – April gave one of the best tours I’ve had in this entire project. Montpelier staff also do an exceptional job at telling the stories of enslaved people on the plantation, and the English-style country garden is a sight to see.
Also see: The Madison Building at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s a research library, so you can’t just wander around in there, but there’s a nice Madison statue near the public entrance. It’s worth poking your head in and saying hi.