The Four Horsemen
On the trail of Virginia’s presidential gentry
They look stiff and sedentary in their formal portraits, but in fact our Founding Fathers were vigorous young men when they launched the American Revolution. They were accomplished horsemen who rode under arduous conditions to political meetings or off to battle.
Four of our country’s earliest presidents hailed from Virginia, where they owned some of the most spectacular real estate in that beautiful and historic state.
A tour of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, James Monroe’s Highland, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon makes an ideal itinerary for a long weekend getaway. A good base for exploring is the town of Charlottesville or one of the historic inns further north in Virginia’s hunt country, putting all four houses within an easy drive.
The rolling landscape east of the Blue Ridge Mountains was frontier country in the late 18th century but it also was home to Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. These fellow Virginians were close friends and political allies who led our young democracy for 24 consecutive years as American’s third, fourth, and fifth presidents.
When Jefferson came to Philadelphia in 1776 and wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was in the middle of designing and building his spectacular home on a remote mountaintop near Charlottesville. From his “little mountain”—Monticello in Italian—Jefferson could retreat from the political fray and gaze out at his “sea view,” the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The rooms of Monticello hold a treasure trove of Jefferson’s personal possessions that reveal his wide-ranging intellect and refined taste.
Jefferson believed the key to a sharp mind was daily exercise. “From breakfast, or noon at latest, to dinner, I am mostly on horseback, attending to my farm or other concerns, which I find healthful to my body, mind, and affairs,” he wrote a few years after leaving the White House. He often rode the four miles down the mountain to the University of Virginia, the college he founded and designed.
At Jefferson’s urging, James Monroe bought property adjacent to Monticello in 1793. A winding drive lined with shade trees leads to the country house at Highland that Monroe called his “cabin castle.”
Monroe was a tall, strapping 18-year-old in 1775 when he left his studies at the College of William and Mary to fight in the Revolution. He was in one of the boats that crossed the icy Delaware in Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton and was severely wounded in the battle. After recovering, he served at the Battle of Brandywine and wintered at Valley Forge.
Monroe went on to become a senator, diplomat, governor of Virginia, cabinet member, and finally president in 1816. His long years of public service left little time to enjoy or manage his plantation. Traveling on horseback from remote Charlottesville to the White House took close to a week with rutted, poorly-marked roads, rivers to ford, and overnight stops at taverns.
He and his wife planned to return to Highland in retirement but financial pressures forced them to sell their home in 1826. Today the 535-acre estate, now called Ash Lawn-Highland, is operated as a working plantation and offers tours of the house with its Monroe family furnishings and artifacts.
The road north to “Montpelier” winds past horse farms and unspoiled pastoral landscapes. Madison was the privileged son of a tobacco planter and the Montpelier mansion was his childhood home. Slight, studious, and not athletically inclined, Madison is remembered as the Father of the Constitution for his leading role in shaping our government.
In 1901 the Montpelier estate was bought by William du Pont, who expanded the house from 22 to 55 rooms. His daughter, accomplished horsewoman Marion du Pont Scott, started the Montpelier Hunt Races on their property—a prestigious steeplechase event still held there every November. Marion Scott died in 1983, leaving the house to the National Trust. The house has undergone painstaking restoration over the past five years to bring it back to the 1820s era of James and Dolley Madison.
No tour of Virginia is complete without a visit to the home of the “greatest horseman of his age,” as Jefferson once described George Washington. The new Reynolds Museum, that opened at Mt. Vernon in 2006, includes a life-size replica of Washington astride his pale gray horse “Blueskin,” one of two warhorses he used during his eight years commanding of the Continental Army. His favorite battle mount was “Nelson,” a chestnut who reportedly was unfazed by the roar of cannon fire.
Washington was part of elite Potomac society and enjoyed foxhunting and horse races until the Revolution changed the course of his life. Visiting Mt. Vernon and the homes of others of the so-called “Virginia Dynasty” reminds us of what was at stake for these wealthy and accomplished young men when they rode away from their plantations to participate in the Revolution.