Touring History

 A review of the places you can go to get a taste of America’s formative years from the colonies through Revolution and the early Republic.

Episode 1

James Madison’s Montpelier
 by Dan Shippey & Michael Burns

When you first make the turn off of Virginia’s scenic route 20 you may not be sure that you have chosen the right driveway, and it’s possible your’e correct. Fortunately, you can probably get to your destination either way. I’m still convinced I came in the exit. I have a certain apprehension whenever driving near historic buildings that some sort of situation comedy moment will occur where I end up parking on or crashing into hallowed ground. As I saw James Madison’s Montpelier standing directly before the rental car hood I was sure the situation comedy moment was coming. Fortunately a small sign read “Visitors’ Center” and pointed to the right. So, with the potential destruction of national treasures relaxed, we continued to the parking.

      Montpelier is a fairly recent addition to the list of places you can go to encounter American history. While the house was originally built in 1765, the meticulously restored house was only opened to the public in September of 2008, with the visitors center opening its doors in March 2007. Because it is so new, you immediately sense that it is not as developed as many other historic sites. There is no large museum, no massive tour groups or long lists of scheduled activities. At the same time it is immaculately kept and very welcoming in a way that most other sites are not. Perhaps Dolley Madison would have wanted it that way. The visitors’ center is pleasant and has many of the gifts and goods you can find at the other period museums, with a few that are unique to Montpelier. The tiny one-room museum is absolutely state of the art and feels like it could be a new display room that escaped from the Smithsonian.

The artifacts are beautifully displayed and very enjoyable to look through while you wait for the next tour orientation film. The orientation theater is suitable, but the film is just like all the others at every other historic site--designed to give you enough background so that your tour docent does not have to answer basic questions and you understand why the location is historically important.


     It is a short walk with your docent/guide to the stunningly beautiful house. The house has been painstakingly restored with countless hours of research turned into thousands of hours of labor. When the decision was made to return the mansion to its historically significant appearance, years of new construction by later owners (The DuPont family)

had to be stripped away before any positive work could be done. Once inside the house, the story of the Madison family’s life is explored in as much depth as one could expect in a short tour. Some of the highlights for me were seeing the upstairs room where Madison wrote the Bill of Rights and one room that left a section of plaster wall unfinished. This unfinished work allows you to see the techniques used and some hand painted details that were covered over in an earlier period of the home’s history. For some reason I never felt as if President Madison or First Lady Dolley might suddenly arrive. The rooms do not seem to be fully furnished like Jefferson’s Monticello or Washington’s Mount Vernon but are still impressive and beautiful in their simplicity. They just feel very un-lived in.

    Outside the main house are beautiful gardens, a nature trail and a horse racetrack. Right beside the house, archaeology is continuing on the site of stables, kitchens and slave’s quarters. These are worth investigating, and I hope they will eventually reconstruct these building as they would do much to round out the history of what Montpelier was like in the late 18th century.

    Depending on when you visit there are programs running in a hands-on tent, downstairs kitchen display, hands-on cooking demonstration and an archaeology lab. All of these make the location more palatable to children who might otherwise remain unimpressed by visiting home of the “Father of the Constitution.”  For teachers, there is a wonderful Constitutional scholar program on property and even an opportunity for regular folks to join an archaeological dig.

    Overall, I recommend a trip to Montpelier for American history lovers and their families. Expect to spend half a day exploring the programs and property. The website claims there is a cafe’ for mealtime, but I never saw it. Admission is $16.00 for adults and $8.00 for children 6-14 years. There are different prices for special tours when they are offered. Depending on the direction you travel it is a beautiful ride through scenic Orange County and rewarding opportunity to see one of the most overlooked of Virginia’s historic homes.

For past articles go to