The Private Lives of James and Dolley Madison: Montpelier’s Kat Imhoff Invites Us Inside Their Estate

Montpelier Foundation President Kat Imhoff Takes Us Inside the Estate and Private Lives of James and Dolley Madison

By David Bruce Smith, Founder
and Hope Katz Gibbs, Executive Producer

If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit the Virginia home of James and Dolley Madison, be sure to put it on your to-do list.

After Madison’s presidency, Montpelier became the family plantation that the couple retired to in 1817. They entertained hundreds of visitors and jointly edited Madison’s significant political papers—including his notes on the Constitutional Convention.

“Madison predeceased Dolley by 13 years, after which she traveled back and forth between Montpelier and Washington, DC, before permanently settling in the nation’s capital in 1844,” explains Kat Imhoff, who has been president of The Montpelier Foundation since January 2013.

It was a pleasure to interview Imhoff for the July episode of The Grateful American™ TV Show. In addition to being an expert on the Madisons, she formerly was chief operating officer and vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, heading special initiatives and leading the team that created the new Visitors Center.

Imhoff also served as the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Montana, where she led the organization’s Montana Legacy Project—the purchase of more than 300,000 acres of land in the Northern Rockies bordering Glacier National Park. This land now completes a corridor of environmental protection extending across Montana from Wyoming.

 Don’t miss our Q&A with Imhoff. 

Grateful American™ Series: James Madison has been called “The Father of the Constitution,” but most people do not know his contributions to it. Can you elaborate on those?

Kat Imhoff: More than any other single individual, Madison is responsible for the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution. In fact, the years following the American Revolution proved to be a period of limbo and turbulence. Under the Articles of Confederation, America had become fractious and weak, unable to perform the most basic governing functions to maintain order and protect individual rights.

The American experiment with self-government was on the verge of failure. As the present struggles of emerging nations confirm, winning a war and declaring independence do not create a nation.

Recognizing what was at stake, Madison, then 35, undertook a massive research project in preparation for the Constitutional Convention. He studied hundreds of books and arrived at the Convention in Philadelphia with the ideas of theorists and philosophers from Plato to Locke.

He also arrived in Philadelphia with ideas articulated in the Virginia Plan, of which he was the primary author. It framed the debates and was the foundation of what ultimately became the US Constitution.

Madison was also the primary architect of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which he fought tirelessly to pass as a member of the House of Representatives in the first Congress (1789).

Grateful American™ Series: His contributions are clearly impressive, but kids aren’t always enthralled by the facts. How can historians can make Madison more interesting to kids?

Kat Imhoff: To engage our young audience, we offer several different hands-on, interactive activities at Montpelier that allow kids to have fun while gaining a better understanding of James and Dolley Madison, the Constitution and citizenship, slavery, and what life was like during our country’s early years.

Kids can role-play the debates at the Convention, for example, and look at primary source materials and artifacts from our curatorial collections and archaeological research. To make archaeology exciting to kids, the lab features an excavation unit where children can “dig” for artifacts.

Montpelier is a property of 2,650 acres with miles of nature trails, wonderful picnic areas, and great winds for flying kites. It’s a marvelous place for kids.

Grateful American™ Series: Talk a little about Dolley Madison, who, at 26, married 43-year old James.

Kat Imhoff: Dolley’s life, even before her marriage to James Madison, is interesting. When she was 22, she married a young Quaker lawyer named John Todd and had two children. They lived in Philadelphia, which by this time was the capital of the United States and a bustling town. During a yellow fever epidemic, her husband, youngest child, and in-laws died, leaving Dolley a young widow with a small son.

As a witty, charming, and attractive woman, Dolley quickly gained the attention of several suitors, including Virginia Congressman James Madison. A little less than a year after she was widowed, Dolley married Madison, to whom she was introduced by Congressman Aaron Burr, a boarder in her mother’s house and a former classmate of Madison’s at Princeton. She and James Madison remained devoted to each other throughout their lives.

Grateful American™ Series: Though known for her social prowess, Dolley proved to be a powerful political partner to James.

Kat Imhoff: People tend to think that Dolley was the ultimate party girl and fashion plate, but there was method to her merriment. Using her adept social savvy, Dolley was able to forge connections and loyalties with important and influential people. In many ways, she complemented Madison’s reserved nature. There is no better illustration of their partnership than the remark made by Charles Pinckney, who lost the presidential election to Madison in 1808: “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

When Madison was president, she instituted regular and unprecedented access to the president through her Wednesday night drawing room gatherings—so popular they became known as “squeezes.” These social events were bipartisan and everyone was invited, regardless of class or party.

Grateful American™ Series: It appears that Dolley, much like her husband, was an intrepid spirit.

Kat Imhoff: Most definitely! During the invasion of Washington in the War of 1812, she secured Madison’s cabinet papers in her “getaway” wagons and refused to leave the White House until she saw the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in safe hands. After the invasion, she was bent on boosting morale and rallying support to retain Washington as the nation’s capital. Her letters during this period crackle with fearless bravado.

She also began the tradition of first ladies championing charitable causes, by raising money for the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Washington Monument, as well as founding the Washington Orphan Asylum.

Grateful American™ Series: Dolley Madison was iconic even during her lifetime.

Kat Imhoff: Yes, and she continued to influence Washington politics and society even after James died in 1836. Dolley perpetuated Madison’s legacy after his death by publishing Madison’s papers—which she and James had devoted their retirement to editing. Madison’s papers today stand as the most comprehensive report of the debates and the Constitution-building process.

Montpelier has recently made Madison’s notes available online at ConText, Montpelier’s online library that crowdsources commentary from historians, political theorists, educators, and the public to help interpret these important documents.

Grateful American™ Series: Let’s talk more about their home, Montpelier. James and Dolley retired here in 1817, and Dolley lived here after James’ death until moving to DC in 1844. What was it like back then?

Kat Imhoff: During the Madisons’ retirement, everyone was welcome. Their open-door policy demanded a level of hospitality that required them to purchase goods from outside the plantation and ensure that the plantation was constantly replenishing its stores.

Though James Madison struggled with the institution of slavery, at any given time, there were about 100 slaves working and living at Montpelier who served the Madisons. Today, we are committed to interpreting Montpelier as a working plantation and telling the stories of its enslaved community.

Grateful American™ Series: The Grateful American series is focused on restoring kids’ interest in American history. Why do you think kids don’t know much about history? Do they not care, or is something amiss in the educational system?

Kat Imhoff: Let me tell you a story about a little girl named Ellie Pugh. Ellie is a 3rd grader from Maryland and her favorite place in the world is Montpelier. After learning that Madison read 400 books in six months in preparation for the Constitutional Convention, Ellie felt inspired to do the same. She visited Montpelier on Constitution Day last year and showed me her book list, affirming my suspicion that kids are interested in history. There are as many kids who like history are there are kids who like math. Kids are interested in what their parents, teachers, and role models make interesting for them.

Certainly there is competition for students’ time in the school system these days, but we feel that all Americans should and deserve to understand their democratic DNA. What better place to learn this lesson than at the place where the Constitution was first imagined?


Schedule a visit to James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier, and learn more at www.Montpelier.org.

For more interviews, visit GratefulAmericanSeries.com.

Here’s to restoring enthusiasm for American history in children—and adults, too!