President James Madison was one of 12 children and the third generation Madison to own Montpelier. However, the size of his family did not compare to the largest community of people who lived on the plantation. From 1723 to 1844, during the Madison family's ownership, hundreds of African and African-American slaves called Montpelier home. As many as seven generations of African Americans were born into slavery at Montpelier. The Madisons were not the only residents of Montpelier, but they were the masters of the land and its enslaved people.
Daily life at Montpelier during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries depended on the contributions and sacrifices of the enslaved community who were an integral and intimate part of Montpelier life. Slave ownership was common among the Virginia planter elite, of which the Madison family was a part, and it became an uneasy inheritance for James Madison. Despite his concerns, however, the institution remained well entrenched until the end of the Civil War.
While much is known of the Madisons who lived at Montpelier, very little is known of the enslaved community who supported the plantation, and made it thrive economically. At the time of James Madison Sr.'s death in 1801, his inventory listed 108 slaves. Although the number fluctuated over time, about 100 slaves lived at Montpelier during James Madison Jr.'s ownership. Most were assigned to field labor or worked around the main house. Overseers received instructions from Madison and, in turn, supervised enslaved laborers, some of whom acquired specialized skills as blacksmiths, millers, wagon drivers, and weavers.
Literacy Among the Montpelier Slave Population
Extant documents confirm that at least a few of the Madisons' slaves were literate. Letters exist from Sarah Stewart, Paul Jennings, and Ralph Taylor to members of the Madison family concerning general news and happenings.