Orange Uncovered
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison: A Friendship Story

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True or false: James Madison’s Campeche chair is on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.?

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Thomas Jefferson and James Madison

Is a chair simply an inanimate object, or is it something more? From our seat (See what we did there?), a chair is a space where memories are made, and it connects the present to the history of the past. Orange County is home to a unique chair that symbolized the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth United States Presidents.

The story starts with a friendship, which began in 1776, when a young James Madison met Thomas Jefferson during the framing of the Virginia Constitution.  Drawn to Madison’s intellect, passion for religious freedom and curiosity about all things, Jefferson became a mentor first, and a friend for a lifetime.

Over the decades, their relationship evolved into one of the most powerful collaborations in American history. Jefferson went on to author the Declaration of Independence, while Madison took the lead in drafting the Constitution and advocating for the Bill of Rights. Living as neighbors at Monticello and Montpelier, Jefferson and Madison shared a love of books, science, art and architecture. As friends, they celebrated their successes and consoled each other in times of sorrow.

As the tale goes, Jefferson gifted Madison with a leather Campeche chair perfect for reading, conversing and reclining. While the exchange of the chair can’t be proven, experts date the chair back to key years of their friendship in 1820. The chair itself is embossed with an eagle, a symbol of American independence since 1782. Writings from Madison’s relatives indicate that the chair was his favorite seat in the house, which makes sense if it was gifted by a friend.

The chair is connected to the third and fourth Presidents of the United States, but that’s not all. The lure of Madison’s Campeche chair was so strong that Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, sat in the chair when it was on exhibition at the Library of Congress. Today, this throne of American leadership and friendship sits in the James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage.

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