A Brief History of Mount Pleasant Plantation
Montpelier is known as the home of James Madison. He represented the third generation of Madisons to own this property. Ambrose Madison, together with his brother-in-law, Thomas Chew, first purchased the property in 1723 and located the center of his plantation at Mount Pleasant. After his untimely death in 1732, his wife, Frances Madison, ran the property jointly with their son, James Madison, Sr. Mount Pleasant would remain the core of the plantation until the death of his mother around 1764. After his mother’s death James Madison, Sr. relocated the family to a new Georgian style brick mansion on a rise of land a short distance north of Mount Pleasant, which he named Montpelier. Madison, Sr. enlarged the plantation, putting resources into diversifying his economic output beyondtobacco by adding corn and livestock, and planting a fruit orchard. He also built a grist mill, a brandy distillery, a blacksmithing operation, produced lumber, and distributed imported merchandise. He grew to be one of the most powerful men in Orange County, occupying multiple positions of influence in the community. These activities would not be possible without a large community of enslaved people laboring for his profit (Chambers 1991).
His son, James Madison, Jr. would begin to take a more active role in running the plantation as his father began to age. Although he focused most of his energies on his political career, he also had interests in agricultural diversification and plantation efficiency. President Madison also made major changes to the Montpelier mansion and landscape. The first of these changes came about in 1797, when he enlarged the mansion and began thinking about creating a formal pleasure grounds. After his father’s death in 1801, Madison began to make much more extreme changes to the landscape, having enslaved laborers move tons of earth by hand to create a flattened lawn in the rear of the mansion, making a new front entrance, and building a temple atop a deep ice house. Extensive changes were also made to the mansion at this time, so that, by his retirement in 1817, Montpelier was a stylish plantation that welcomed hundreds of visitors.
This work would not have been possible without a large enslaved community. Archaeological excavations have begun to reconstruct where these people lived and worked. Part of the improvements the president made to the plantation included implementing new ideas about housing his laborers. In keeping with popular plantation management literature at the time, he had orderly frame houses built for his enslaved domestic servants inside the formal landscape of the mansion curtilage, within the watchful eye of the mansion. Enslaved craftsmen and field laborers had more typical log dwellings scattered around the landscape close to their places of work.
After Madison’s death, the plantation remained in his wife, Dolley’s hands for a few years before being sold (along with a large portion of the enslaved community) to Henry Moncure in 1844. There were a number of subsequent owners, but the two who made the largest impact on the landscape were Benjamin Thornton in the mid-nineteenth century, and the duPont family, who owned the property for most of the twentieth century.
Matt Reeves and Hope Smith
Montpelier Foundation and University of Tennessee