Manus Hand

Visiting James Madison's Grave

Here I am, out in the middle of nowhere, at the small Madison family cemetery which must have been a long horse ride from the mansion on the estate at Montpelier, in middle Virginia. My wife and I made the pilgrimage to Madison's gravesite on September 17, 1991. I suppose excitement at the prospect of the visit distracted me, because -- although I am usually aware of such things -- the fact that we would be visiting the grave of the Father of the Constitution on the 204th anniversary of the signing of that great document didn't even register with me until we reached the house at Montpelier, where the fact of the anniversary meant that our admission to the site was free.

As it happens, Montpelier was only opened to the public a short time before our visit there, and the house was still very much under reconstruction as we traipsed through it. After Madison's death, Montpelier was sold to some scions of the du Pont family, who, residing in the house, added a number of rooms and wings to it, and who used the grounds to raise, train, and bury racing and riding horses. Because of this, Montpelier is as much a museum to the successors to his mansion as it is to Madison himself, and a great deal of the tour was spent in the newer wings viewing post-Madison artifacts. I was quite disappointed at what I considered the disregard for history which was manifested by the many alterations made to the house by its subsequent owners, and I came away from the experience much depressed. I remember taking pictures carefully, wanting only to photograph the unaltered portions of the main house, and I was happy to capture on film and in my memory the famous cupola over the well which is the trademark of Madison's mansion home.

To my surprise, the president's grave is not on or near the grounds of the house, but is instead a good distance away on the acreage of the estate. Driving directions of the "oh, I think it's a few miles down that way, and I think there's a sign" sort were given to us, and off we drove from the house in search of the hallowed ground. The drive was much longer than we had been led to believe, and we nearly turned around thinking we were headed in the wrong direction. Pressing on, though, we eventually saw a small sign nearly hidden by the roadside shrubs, and we turned off the main road onto a narrow one-lane rutty dirt road. Still, there was quite a bit of driving to do, and a number of small, near-shrouded signs to be followed. For much of the drive, we didn't see another car, and there didn't seem to be a soul around for miles and miles. I was continually struck with the thought that we must be in the wrong place, so sure was I that no Presidential grave would be so remote and so unvisited; certainly not Madison's. Eventually, however, we reached a plot of ground enclosed within a brick wall, and when we pulled the car off the road and walked through the gates of the small cemetery, there was the monument to President Madison.

I learned later that the cemetery at Montpelier is not all that far away from the house, and that when we drove there we made a big loop almost back to the house. The cemetery was placed near the location of the original house, and the President's grandparents had been buried there before the construction of the later house.

There are only a few dozen graves in the cemetery, including those of the president's parents, who are situated in the center of the land. President Madison himself is midway between the front gate and the back wall, but is off to the right side, near the wall. Here you see me at the gravesite facing the gate of the cemetery, and behind me, you see a smaller monument beneath which rests the President's famous wife, Dolley. Most of the graves in the cemetery show their age and the fact that the cemetery is untended; many are leaning or fallen over, and even the President's substantial monument (and more so his wife's) have lost their luster, and the etched words have been worn down by the winds of time.

The very quiet and private visit to this secluded family plot entirely made up for the sadness I felt at the altered condition of Mr. Madison's house. It was a very personal and heart-rending experience to have sought something so special and which obviously so few have ever seen. And to have done so on the 17th of September was enough to send an extra shiver up my spine.

...White House Biography of President Madison...
...A Memorial and Remonstrance from Madison's Pen....
...The James Madison Museum...
...Madison's Complete Daily Notes Made During the Constitutional Convention!...
...The Federalist Papers, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay's (Second) Masterpiece...
...Madison's speech proposing the Bill of Rights to Congress...
...Hanover College's Page on President Madison includes many resources...
...Search for Rare Books on President Madison...