Pres. James Madison's Personal Desk Speaks Up

Pres. James Madison's Personal Desk Speaks Up  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Sloans and Kenyon.

If a home offers a glimpse into a man and his values then Pres. James Madison’s lifelong residence speaks volumes.  Madison, the 4th. President of the United States spent almost his entire life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Orange Co., Va.

He (Pres. James Madison) appears less studied, brilliant, and frank, but more natural, candid and profound than Mr. Jefferson.
— An Observer

Born in 1751, Madison grew up at Montpelier, his father’s plantation.  He lived there after his marriage to Dolley.  He died there at age 85 surrounded by books and the people he loved.  He was also buried on the mansion grounds. 

Madison’s home included tobacco fields, a farm complex, slave quarters, a blacksmith shop and barns.

When his second term as president ended in 1817 he returned to his Montpelier home.  He was 66-years-old.  His health was good.  His family was healthy.  Farming and a 3,000 acre estate were waiting for the man nicknamed “Father of the Constitution" and his Dolley, the woman called "First Lady."

As president, Madison’s legacy would be his dedication to religious liberty and preserving the Constitution.  At Montpelier, his time was mostly his own.     

The main feature of Madison’s 22-room mansion was a large drawing room which opened to the entire house and the landscape behind it. The drawing room was lined with paintings of ancient masters as well as portraits by Gilbert Stuart of distinguished Americans.

More museum-like than drawing room, the mantelpiece and tables in each corner of the room were filled with busts and plaster figures.  Madison enlarged the mansion by adding wings on both sides.  He also added curved, serpentine paths and plantings that relaxed against the mansion giving it a natural look and feel.  He also planted a terraced garden and leveled the backyard.

The couple had no children of their own and doted on nieces, nephews, friends and other family members.  Dolley had two children from her first marriage.  Madison raise3d her son John Payne Todd.

Montpelier was 30 miles away from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate.  The two men shared a 50-year friendship.  People who knew them both say Madison was more interesting. 

“He appears less studied, brilliant, and frank, but more natural, candid and profound than Mr. Jefferson,” one observer said about the shy, soft-spoken leader.  

Thomas Jefferson called Madison the best farmer in the world.  

Summer was a big time of year at Montpelier.  The world seemed to come to Pres. Madison.  Friends, relatives, dignitaries, tourists—all curious about the couple and their lifestyle.  Dolley served dinner to as many as 90 guests underneath the garden arbor.

Breakfast at nine.  Dinner at four.  Tea at seven.  Bed at ten.  It was a routine the guests grew to expect.  From ten until three they rode, walked or relaxed in their rooms      

Among the furnishings in the Montpelier home was Madison’s neoclassical mahogany drop-front secretary desk.  If the piece could speak what might it say about the documents signed and hours spent hovered over its surface?

On Nov. 14, Sloans & Kenyon featured the above desk in its Former Museum of American Presidents sale.  The desk sold for $25,095.


Branch from George Washington’s Alleged Cherry Tree; in shadowbox; 22 inches long; together with book about Washington by Mason Locke Weems;  $418. 

James Madison Amulet; metal; inscribed with Hebrew Prayer of Protection; late-18th/ early-19th century;  $956.

Dinner Plates; 2; James K. Polk Whitehouse porcelain; featuring, red, white and blue shield of stars and stripes; mid-19th century;  $3,884.

Braided Lock of George Washington’s Hair; in yellow gold oval memorial ring; originally from the estate of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton; $5,378.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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