A Collection of "literary cargo"
Over the course of a lifetime, James Madison amassed a collection of over 4,000 volumes, as well as significant pamphlets, manuscripts, and newspapers dating back to the colonial period. “Mount the carved staircase ... and enter the library,” wrote the Madisons’ niece Mary Cutts, “plain cases, not only round the room, but in the middle with just sufficient room to pass between, these cases were well filled with books, pamphlets, papers, all, every thing of interest to our country before and since the Revolution, this is no exaggeration.”
Madison likely used this room during his extensive preparation for the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Pouring over books on world history and political theory, Madison took notes on the experiences of past republics and began to develop the ideas that would be presented in the Convention as the Virginia Plan. Madison particularly appreciated a shipment of two trunks of books sent from France by Thomas Jefferson in 1786, a “literary cargo” which Madison told Jefferson was a “collection...perfectly to my mind.”
Eyewitness accounts describe Madison’s library extending beyond this single room. Ben Stewart, who was enslaved at Montpelier as a young man, recalled that Madison “had three rooms in his library, and he kept his papers filed in pigeon holes. I had to put them away for him many times.” The second-floor “Old Library” (as carpenter James Dinsmore called this room when installing the tripartite window circa 1809-1812) may have evolved from an active study space in Madison’s early career to a holding library during his retirement. As the aging ex-President organized his voluminous personal papers, debilitating arthritis eventually limited his activities to a few first-floor rooms.
"I am once more got into my native land and into the possession of my customary enjoyments Solitude and Contemplation"
James Madison, 1774