Mother of Fourth U.S. President James Madison
Image: Nelly and James Madison, Sr.
By Charles Peale Polke, 1799
Nelly Conway was born on January 9, 1731, at Belle Grove plantation in Port Conway, Virginia, the daughter of prominent planter and tobacco merchant Francis Conway, for whom Port Conway was named.
James Madison, Sr. was born on March 27, 1723, the son of Ambrose Madison and his wife Frances Taylor at Mount Pleasant, a large tobacco plantation in Orange County, Virginia. Like many others who first came to the Piedmont, the Madison family hailed from the Tidewater on the coast of Virginia. In 1723 Ambrose Madison and brother-in-law Thomas Chew patented 4675 acres in the newly opened Piedmont of Virginia.
In order to receive title to a land patent, the owner had three years to make certain improvements to the property, including erecting a house and and clearing land. At the end of three years there would be an inspection and certification by neighbors. When his land was viewed in 1726, the record shows that Ambrose was one of the wealthiest men in the Virginia Piedmont.
In 1732 Ambrose and his wife Frances Taylor Madison, along with their three children, moved to the Mount Pleasant estate. In early summer Ambrose fell ill, apparently the victim of poisoning. On August 27, 1732, Ambrose died, leaving his wife Frances to run the plantation. The three slaves were arrested and convicted of his murder. Frances then ran the plantation with notable success.
Education and books clearly played an important role in the Madison family. When Ambrose died, his 1733 inventory listed 18 books, an unusual number for a ‘frontier’ plantation. As witnessed by tutoring her grandson, Frances Taylor Madison was also educated. Madison Sr., established a library, most likely founded on his father’s and later augmented by his mother’s. By the time of his death, the library numbered 91 volumes and sets.
On September 15, 1749, James Madison Sr. married Nelly Conway, and they had 12 children – four sons and three daughters survived to maturity.
Madison’s parents married in 1743.
On March 16, 1751, Nelly gave birth to future U.S. President James Madison, Jr. at her mother’s home in Port Conway, Virginia. She had the baby at her parents’ Port Conway, Virginia home. ‘Mother Madison’ and her new baby returned to James Sr. at Mount Pleasant later that spring, where his education was begun by his grandmother Frances. James was an excellent student but a frail and sickly child.
Both parents also had a significant influence over their most famous oldest son. The Madisons’ considerable wealth in land, slaves and tobacco provided well for their family. Nelly Conway Madison was a remarkable woman. She oversaw the domestic management of her husband’s plantation, gave birth to twelve children and helped to educate them.
Around 1760 Madison built a new plantation complex, Montpelier, including a new house about half a mile southeast of Mount Pleasant. James and Nelly, who had been living with his mother, probably needed more space, since by 1760 the family included four children. When the new house was finished, it was the most elaborate structure in the county.
Orange County, Virginia
Montpelier was home to three generations of Madisons – from 1723 when Ambrose Madison was deeded the land, until 1844 when the widowed Dolley Madison sold the estate. John Madison had immigrated to Virginia in 1653. His grandson Ambrose was a well-connected member of the gentry class. He held several significant public offices, married very well, and owned thousands of acres in both the Tidewater and the Piedmont.
James Madison, Sr. was a man of great talent and enterprise. He not only ran a prosperous farm, but also established several businesses, including a distillery, a contracting business and an ironworks. He was a prominent public figure, serving as a vestryman, a justice of the Orange County Court and a road surveyor.
During the American Revolution, James, Sr. served as chairman of the Orange County Committe of Safety and was a colonel in the Virginia militia.
In 1797 when James, Jr. took a temporary hiatus from politics and moved home with his bride Dolley, father and son added a two-over-two room duplex with a side passage to house the younger couple.
James Madison, Sr. died on February 27, 1801, one month before his 78th birthday, leaving Nelly life rights to the estate.
Following his father’s death, James Jr. enlarged and remodeled the building once again, carving out a suite of rooms on the first floor for his widowed mother.
In 1801 at age 50 James Madison, Jr. inherited Montpelier, and in 1817 he and Dolley returned there full time. It is said that the president bore a striking resemblance to his mother in his later years.
Nelly Conway Madison always lived at Montpelier and in later years kept her own household, including her own staff, kitchen and garden. She enjoyed excellent health, even in old age. She believed in the simple life, and was plain and unpretentious in her manner of living.
She was held in high esteem by her large circle of relatives and friends, and none loved her more devotedly than her son James. She was the central point in the life of her distinguished son, and the object of his devoted care. She lived to enjoy his companionship after his retirement from politics.
Nelly Conway Madison died on February 11, 1829, at Montpelier, at the age of 98.