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James Madison’s Montpelier: Pic of the Week

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On this day in 1789, James Madison—the fourth President of the United Statesintroduced amendments to the Constitution in the House of Representatives, which are now known as the Bill of Rights. Even though he was initially skeptical of the usefulness of a bill of rights, he eventually embraced the idea as it seemed that the Constitution would not be ratified without the promise of it. His views on a bill of rights are set out in a letter to Thomas Jefferson from October 17, 1788. The final approved version differed from his original proposal, but it contained many of his core ideas. The Bill of Rights was added as a separate amendment at the end of the Constitution instead of being interwoven within the Constitution as Madison had originally proposed to avoid the appearance that the Constitution was being rewritten.

A large Greek Revival style home made of red brick with four white columns holding up a white pediment.
James Madison’s Montpelier. Photo by Jenny Gesley.

As I recently had the opportunity to visit Madison’s estate Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia, I thought this would make a fitting picture for this day. Madison’s 2,650 acre estate is a fascinating place to visit and to learn about his life and American history in general. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

A round, Greek Revival style structure composed of eight white columns holding up a red dome. One column shows exposed red brick.
James Madison’s Temple. Photo by Jenny Gesley.

An interesting object that can be found in the vast gardens at Montpelier is Madison’s Temple, inspired by the ancient Roman Temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. The temple is a monopteron—a circle of columns supporting a domed roof. The temple at Montpelier was constructed by carpenters James Dinsmore and John Neilson with the aid of mason Hugh Chisholm in 1810-1811. It was probably based on a sketch by William Thornton‘s wife Anna, who visited Montpelier in 1802. The “sacred fire” that burned inside the Temple of Vesta symbolized safety, security, and longevity of the Roman Republic; in the U.S. it became a representation of liberty. President George Washington in his inaugural address in 1789, which was drafted by Madison, stated that “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

The temple is said to be both useful and beautiful (utile dulci). It stands on top of an ice house and thereby protects it from direct sunlight. At the same time, the ice house makes the temple cooler than its surroundings and therefore a comfortable place to stay during the warm summer months. In addition, the Temple of Vesta supposedly contained a sacred statue associated with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom (and later war). Madison believed that “[k]nowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” as well as that the “advancement & diffusion of Knowledge[…]is the only Guardian of true liberty”. The plaque at the temple states that it is assumed that Madison built this temple to celebrate both knowledge and liberty.

If you would like to know more about James Madison’s life and the history of Montpelier, check out our previous blog post on James Madison, Virginia Dynasty: James Madison. 

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