Portrait of James Madison, 5th Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson
James Madison (1751–1836) and his vivacious wife Dolley were long at the center of Washington’s dynamic social scene even before he became the fourth president of the United States. This plate from a French dinner and dessert service that belonged to the Madisons remains as a symbol of that city’s vibrant social life, the admiration of Americans for things French during the early years of the republic, and the continuing close diplomatic relationship between France and the United States.
The Madisons acquired the service in 1806 through the efforts of their personal friend, Virginian Fulwar Skipwith. Madison was secretary of state at the time and had recently finished negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. Skipwith was apparently a clever broker as well. He reported in a letter to Madison that he had purchased the set not from the Sevres manufactory as he had originally intended, but for 40 percent less from Jean Nepomucene Hermann Nast, a Paris porcelain manufacturer.1 Fulwar Skitwith to James Madison, September 3, 1806, in Klaptor 1999, 37. When the Madisons moved into the White House in 1809, the set probably went into storage. Official china purchases made during his presidency were of the plain sort to fill in losses from the sets in use during Thomas Jefferson’s administration. But after British soldiers burned the White House in August 1814, a deed meant to punish the young nation for its continued diplomatic ties to France, the Madisons were forced to set up housekeeping with some of their own furnishings in Octagon House. This service undoubtedly played a role in helping Washington social life resume and normalcy return to the battered city.2For more information on Washington’s social life in this era, see Barbara G. Carson, Ambitious Appetites: Dining Behavior and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1990). Although the Madisons were not able to reoccupy the White House again during his administration, the table service is considered White House china nonetheless.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.