"Nothing more than a change of mind"

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On the services of this illustrious man it is unnecessary to dwell; for what American does not know the parts which James Madison acted in the public Councils of his Country? And what Virginian needs to be reminded of the unrivalled force of his tongue and his pen in defending her most cherished principles?1

As a family mourns the loss of a dear and useful member, so must his country mourn the death of an eminent Patriot and public benefactor. By this even we are deprived of the last of those great and good men, the founders of the American Republic – the last of those living examples of a patriotism and self devotion without a parallel in history.2

June 28 marks the 176th anniversary of James Madison’s death. Madison was the last surviving Founding Father, preceded in death by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe, all of whom died on July 4 (Adams and Jefferson in 1826 and Monroe in 1831). Madison’s doctors – aware of the significance of passing on Independence Day – “would have prolonged his life until the 4th of July” through medications. However, Madison, ever humble, “would not be unnecessarily stimulated and died in the full possession of all his noble faculties.”3 Immediately following his stepfather’s death, John Payne Todd sent letters to Madison’s friends and colleagues, including William Cabell Rives, Mahlon Dickerson, and John Quincy Adams, informing them of his passing. To Adams, Todd wrote, “I ask to inform you of Mr. Madison’s death. He expired at an early hour this morning.”4 In the ensuing days and weeks, condolences flooded in to Montpelier, eulogizing a great American patriot and national treasure.

In his Reminiscences, enslaved Montpelier manservant Paul Jennings described the final moments of Madison’s life. As usual that morning, Sukey, domestic servant for the Madisons, served the ailing ex-president his breakfast. Madison’s niece, Nelly Willis, was by his side that morning and asked her uncle, “What is the matter, uncle Jeames [sic]?” Madison then spoke his final workds – “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”5

Madison was laid to rest two days later in the Madison family cemetery. Former governor James Barbour, Philip Pendleton Barbour, Charles P. Howard, and Reuben Conway served as pall bearers. In attendance were one hundred Montpelier slaves and friends and family from the surrounding area. Governor Barbour also provided a eulogy saying, “Our Madison, uniting extraordinary capacity with great virtues, furnished to the world that rare combination of the good and the great man.”6

For no one was the loss more personal than it was for Dolley Madison, who confided in her lifelong friend Eliza Collins Lee: “Indeed I have been as one in a troubled dream since my irreparable loss of him, for whom my affection was perfect, as was his character and conduct thro’ life.”7 Several months later Dolley described her grief to Henry Clay: “The reflected rays of his virtues still linger around me, and my mind now dwells with calmer feelings on their mellowed tints.”8

We hope you’ll join us today in remembering America’s fourth president, the “illustrious and beloved” James Madison.9

Notes:

1. University of Virginia Faculty to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, June 29, 1836, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Pennsylvania. 

2. Daniel Gold to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, July 2, 1836, Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California. 

3. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 69. 

4. John Payne Todd to John Quincy Adams, June 28, 1836, Adams Papers, MS P-54, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. 

5. Paul Jennings and John Brooks Russell, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (New York: George C. Beadle, 1865). 

6. James Barbour, Eulogium Upon the Life and Character of James Madison (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1836). 

7. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Elizabeth Collins Lee, July 26, 1836, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

8. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Henry Clay, November 8, 1836, Henry Clay Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. 

9. United States Congress to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, June 20, 1836, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

Obelisk marking James Madison's grave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montpelier Staff