The View from Madison’s Desk

This is the view from James Madison’s desk in his home, Montpelier, located in Orange County, Virginia. This desk is in the middle of his second-floor library that houses over 1500 books. On my recent visit, I arrived at this room after visiting the dining room where the guide spoke of the many guests and lively conversation Madison held (often led by his wife Dolly) at their dining room table. He described how guests would come visit Montpelier and stay in Madison’s guest rooms for weeks at a time.

But when I walked into this library with its shelves jammed with books and its temperature reaching a sweltering point, I was overcome by one thing—the view.  Miles of green lawn stretching out in front of Madison’s desk and cascading westward toward a horizon line where the Blue Ridge Mountains expand in either direction. Who couldn’t think up grand thoughts with a view like that?

You know, little grand things like the Virginia Plan, a philosophical document that was considered an influential underpinning of the Constitution. Maybe throw in several of the most influential issues of the Federalist Papers, and then of course one must include the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom for good measure. Oh, and don’t forget his penning of George Washington’s Inaugural Address. Talk about an inspired writer!

There was apparently a good bit of correspondence drafted in this room as well, letters to his pals trying to convince them of one grand idea or another. He argued with Thomas Jefferson, by letter, about the very need for a Bill of Rights, a document that Madison at first opposed but was convinced otherwise by ol’ TJ. He apparently locked himself in this library for several weeks, hammering out his arguments for individual liberties (i.e. freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, etc.) to help his pals see the light of day and eventually pass the Bill of Rights.

Standing in his library by his desk and checking out his view, I was struck by the idea that back in 1787 when he penned those grand ideas, they were indeed novel and not taken for granted by the masses like today.

Madison fueled these ideas with an extensive reading list with the likes of Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Paine, John Lock, Sir Isaac Newton. Just some light reading to help him sleep at night!

Big thinking apparently needs a big view and an extensive library. This is where I have been going wrong. I hammer out my words at my coffee table with a view of the television and a messy bookshelf. How uninspired! I sometimes take my writing life upstairs to a comfy chair with a view of our aging oak tree out front where I can oversee the parking and tricycle wars in our cul-de-sac. Still, no awe-inspiring Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. No expansive, green lawn (although my husband does a good job with our patch of green.) But hey, at least my room is air-conditioned!

I have now added an important item to my writing wish list: A Room with a View.


  1. What a splendid observation! Having given up a spectacular view, which I rarely took for granted, I now find that to be the number one criterion for our next sojourn.

  2. ? …. Oh I was just waiting for the part where you talk about the delicious baked goods from Dolly Madison ?

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