James and Nelly

Research & Collections

The President's Parents

In 1749, Colonel James Madison (1723-1801), the eldest child and only son of Ambrose and Frances Taylor Madison, married Nelly Conway (1731-1829) of Caroline County. James Sr. and Nelly had twelve children together; the most noteworthy is their first-born child, James, who would go on to serve his country as secretary of state and fourth president of the United States.

James Sr. and Nelly resided at Mount Pleasant during the early years of their marriage. During the first half of the 1760s, Col. Madison built a new plantation complex, including a Georgian-style house, about half a mile southeast of Mount Pleasant. James Jr. recalled to his great-nephew Col. John Willis moving “some of the lighter furniture” from Mount Pleasant to Montpelier. In addition to running a prosperous plantation, – the largest in Orange County by the 1790s – James Sr. established several businesses, including a distillery, a contracting business, and an ironworks. He also served in a public capacity as a vestryman in the local parish, a sheriff, a road surveyor, and a colonel in the militia.

As Madison Jr. pursued his education at the College of New Jersey, took on more significant roles in the public sphere, and was, in turn, away from Montpelier, Ambrose Madison, Madison’s brother, and Madison Sr. were largely in charge of the plantation operations. However, it was assumed as part of Virginia planter culture that Madison Jr., as the eldest son, would eventually take ownership of Montpelier. As such, Madison Jr. and his father kept in touch concerning the day-to-day happenings on the plantation. Madison Sr. often reported on the weather and crop yields. Conversely, Madison Jr. recalled the political happenings from Williamsburg and Philadelphia.

Madison Sr.'s Death

It was during Madison Jr.’s brief retirement from public office that Madison Sr.’s health began to decline rapidly. Despite annual summer trips with Nelly to the Healing Springs in Bath County throughout the 1790s, Madison Sr. continued to battle illness. Madison Jr. confided in friend and colleague, Thomas Jefferson, that “the age and very declining state of my father are making also daily claims on my attention; and, from appearances it may not be long before these claims may acquire their full force.” After a brief recovery in late January and early February 1801, Madison Sr. died on February 27, 1801. Although having already accepted the position of secretary of state to the newly elected Jefferson (Madison was formally appointed to this position on March 5), Madison Jr. had to postpone his political duties to tend to the business of his father’s estate. Madison Sr.’s death marked the beginning of Madison Jr.’s illustrious rise to the presidency.

Mother Madison, the Widow

Nelly Madison, now a widow, continued to reside at Montpelier. Mother Madison, as she was often referred, primarily resided in the southern “duplex” of the mansion, while James and Dolley occupied the northern half of the house. In many ways, the two generations of Madisons lived separate lives – Nelly continued to keep her own household and take her meals at an earlier hour. She owned her own slaves and by all accounts, lived by an “old fashioned” standard of living. Despite her advanced age, visitors often commented on Mother Madison’s fine health, good memory, and active lifestyle – busying herself with needlework and reading. Predeceasing her son by only seven years, Mother Madison died on February 11, 1829 at the age of ninety-eight.

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Nelly Madison's Best Room

Nelly "Mother" Madison continued to live with her son and daughter-in-law at Montpelier until her death in 1829. She generally resided in the south wing of the mansion, ate her meals separately, and kept her own house slaves. The closet in her Best Room features original Prussian blue paint and the only surviving ca. 1760s glass window panes from the original Madison Sr. home.

"Mr. Madisons mother, whom I saw frequently must be an object of interest I should think to every one...She still possesses her eye sight, her hearing, and her memory in an uncommon degree."

Mary Randolph, October 30, 1826