The Founders at Home

For anyone who enjoys visiting historic homes associated with the American Revolution and early American republic, there is a recent and wonderful book that will surely deepen the experience. I heard the author speak at the New York Historical Society, bought the book, and brought it with me on my November 2013 trip to Virginia.

The book, by Myron Magnet, is titled The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817. Principally a series of short biographies, the hook is a detailed description of each Founder’s home and what it reveals about his character. George Washington’s biography, at over 100 pages, is the most substantial; James Madison is given extended treatment as well, but the other biographies are in the 40-page range.

Stratford Hall in Virginia

In preparation for my trip to Statford Hall (40 miles southeast of Fredericksburg) I read the chapter on the Lee family and the brothers who made outsized contributions to Virginia and the cause of American independence. Two were signers of the Declaration of Independence, two were diplomats, one helped compose the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Another, related, Lee — Light Horse Harry — led an elite cavalry division during the War and then became governor of Virginia. (His son, by the way, was a Confederate general during the Civil War, Robert E. Lee.)

And the house? Built in the 1730s, it can be described as colonial-palatial. Not ornate, though it has many detailed architectural effects, it is, as Magnet writes, rich, stylish, handsome, proud almost to insolence, and strong. With 18 rooms and 16 fireplaces it sits today on a much reduced estate of some 1,900 acres. The day I visited was drizzly, so I had the docent all to myself for a tour of the magnificent interior.

Other chapters of The Founders at Home examine the following homes and their owners:

  • Mount Vernon — Washington’s plantation home in Virginia, 20 miles south of Washington, DC.
  • Monticello — Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home atop a mountain in Charlottesville, Virginia.
  • Montpelier — Madison’s plantation home, 35 miles northeast of Charlottesville, in Orange, Virginia.
  • Hamilton Grange — Alexander Hamilton’s summer home in upper Manhattan, New York.
  • John Jay Homestead — 45 miles north of Manhattan in Katonah, New York.
  • Liberty Hall — Governor William Livingston's home in New Jersey, though it is much changed now.

Hamilton Grange in New York

As good as Magnet’s book is for travelers to historical sites, note that the profiles are not dual studies in architecture and character — as, say, Jack McGlaughlin’s Jefferson and Monticello (1990; still one of the very best of the many Jefferson books). Yet these are character studies — with an eye towards the home that was important to each Founder.

I’m not aware of another book quite like this. With its many color illustrations it serves those who have not seen the homes, and is a spur to those who someday will.

JDN | 27-Jan-2014

[George] Mason’s obvious legacy is in his contribution to America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence through the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Constitution through his role at the Philadelphia Convention, and the Bill of Rights through his dogged opposition to a Constitution without one. Mason may have taken a circumscribed view of the rights he advocated — limiting the right of representation to white men or restricting freedom of the press to a ban on prior restraint — but he put words on paper that could be given more expansive meanings by later generations.

Jeff Broadwater
George Mason: Forgotten Founder (2006)