The people in Virginia are rightfully proud of many things. It is a beautiful state and the individuals we have met in Charlottesville are bright and pleasant. The University of Virginia holds a special place in their hearts. They recognize it as unique historically and distinguished academically.
Another common theme is the place of Virginia in early American politics. State residents are quick to remind outsiders that four of the first five presidents of the United States were from Virginia.
Of course the first president was George Washington a resident of colonial Virginia at Mt. Vernon and a representative of the State of Virginia during the Constitutional Convention. Jan and I visited Mt. Vernon a couple of times before our mission. George Washington was the overwhelming choice to be the first president and the peaceful transformation of government to a new president, John Adams from Massachusetts, was a welcomed success.
The third president was Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He was a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress. His home is the famous, Monticello and is located just a few miles from our apartment. Monticello was the first historic site we visited.
Jefferson had financial problems, mostly because he liked to live well and entertain. He kept meticulous records of expenses and income, but seldom added them up or compared them. At his death he was over $100,000 in debt, a sum that would surpass $2 million in today’s money. His daughter inherited the estate, was unable to sustain it despite the use of slave labor, and was forced to sell. The third owner purchased the property in 1834. He was Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish Commodore (equivalent to today’s admiral) in the United States Navy. He admired Jefferson and used his private funds to repair, restore and preserve the house. His family maintained the home for over 100 years. A private foundation purchased the home in 1923 and the home and grounds are in good condition.
The fourth president was James Madison from Montpelier, Virginia. Montpelier is about 45 minutes from our apartment on winding, two lane roads.
In 1723, James Madison’s grandfather, received an English patent for 4,675 acres of land in the Piedmont of Virginia. The grandfather paid to have a plantation developed, then moved his family to a plantation he called Mt. Pleasant. He died six months after moving onto the property. According to court records, he was poisoned by three black slaves. At the time he held 29 slaves. His son, James Madison Sr. built up the plantation and it was the home of James Madison’s youth.
The accomplishments of James Madison are often overlooked. He is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for being instrumental in drafting the United States Constitution and as the key champion and author of the United States Bill of Rights. He served his country much of his adult life. His wife was Dolley Madison, famous for entertaining, and defining the role of the First Lady. She had a son, John Payne Todd, by a previous marriage.
After the death of James Madison, Dolley Madison returned to the life she loved in Washington, DC. She turned the operation of the Montpelier plantation over to her son John Payne Todd. He was a poor manager, gambler and drinker. With Dolley’s love for entertaining and her son’s lack of discipline, they were soon in serious debt and the property had to be sold at auction. Dolley died poor.
The property eventually came into the hands of William duPont, heir to a fortune made in gunpowder and eventually chemicals. Over the years his family added to the original home and expanded it. At her death, William duPont’s daughter Marion willed the property to the National Historic Trust along with $10 to preserve it. Her idea was to return it to the original condition of the home as it was in 1820. The trust invested $25 million into the demolition of newer portions of the house and restoration to the original. Interestingly, for the most part, the original home was preserved inside of the additions made by the DuPont family.
The fifth president of the United States was James Monroe, our fourth Virginian. Monroe was the last president who was a founding father of the United States, and the third of them to die on Independence Day (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826).
James Monroe served as Secretary of State to Thomas Jefferson before being elected president. He came from plantation wealth. At the suggestion of Jefferson he purchased Highland (later known as Ash Lawn-Highland) in 1793. The plantation is 1,000 acres and is located just a few miles south of Monticello. Monroe and his family permanently settled on the property in 1799 and lived at Ash Lawn–Highland for twenty-four years. Personal debt forced Monroe to sell the plantation in 1825. It is now owned by the College of William and Mary.
Our missionary responsibilities take up nearly all of our time, but we have enjoyed spending one day each week touring some of the local historic sites. We have now seen the homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Our friends from Virginia would be proud of us, but they would also remind us that the home of Woodrow Wilson is just a few miles up the road in Staunton, Virginia.