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 Washington ordered his overseers to begin the 1767 wheat harvest on June 24, a hot, cloudy Saturday at the end of a dry week. Thus began twenty days of unrelenting exertion for Mount Vernon’s slaves and no little anxiety for their master, who for the first time had given over his holding almost entirely to the cultivation of grain. Much depended on the success of this experiment, which was a crucial element in Washington’s scheme to free himself of the debts he had accumulated over the years of failing to produce tobacco that would sell on London’s finicky market. Rich as he was in land, he feared that, like so many of his fellow planters, he too would become permanently dependent on his English merchant creditors. It was a fate he dreaded above all, for to suffer it meant that he would lose the essence of a gentleman’s character, independence, and with it the capacity to behave in a truly virtuous way.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)