Built to Last
The Founders at Home:
The Building of America, 1735-1817
By Myron Magnet
W.W. Norton, 472 pages
Among the many blessings this country has experienced, perhaps none compares with the group of men we call the Founding Fathers. That a few remote colonies with a combined population of less than three million could have brought forth so remarkable an assemblage of talent at their time of need is beyond astonishing.
In 1770 only a single American—Benjamin Franklin—was known outside the American colonies. By 1800, many Americans were known throughout the Western world. When King George III asked the portraitist Benjamin West what George Washington planned to do after the signing of the peace treaty in 1783, West replied that Washington intended to resign his commission and retire to Mount Vernon.
“If he does that,” said the astonished king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” By the end of Washington’s life 16 years later, many thought him to be exactly that.
In his new book, The Founders at Home, Myron Magnet, who edited City Journal and is now editor-at-large, tells the story of several of these men in a novel way: He focuses his attention on the homes they built or lived in.
Consider Jefferson’s Monticello. Perhaps not since the Escorial of Philip II, has a building so profoundly expressed the personality of its creator. A very gifted architect (and historian of architecture) amid his myriad other talents, Jefferson’s intricate design is fascinating. Magnet writes, “To walk through the house is to feel oneself in a microcosm of Jefferson’s conception of the universe, a complex order whose parts mesh precisely….I wandered from room to room, figuring out how the octagons fit together with the squares and rectangles to compose the balanced recessions and projections of the brick exterior.”
John Jay’s house in Westchester County north of New York City is a very different matter. As his son William noted, Jay did not want “a seat,” which Monticello most certainly is. Instead “he wanted a plain republican farmhouse, just like his neighbors’ and like hundreds of others built by carpenters rather than architects all over the Northeast in the Federal period—two stories tall, five windows across, with a full-length front porch for looking down the hill at the lovely rural view to the south.”
Jay, who would contribute to the Federalist Papers along with Hamilton and Madison, was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But his most important service to his country was as a diplomat at the end of the Revolutionary War. Jay realized that the French, who had entered the war on the American side, had done so only to injure their old rival Britain. Once American independence had been won, France wanted the new United States to be as weak as possible. Jay ignored an agreement with France not to make a separate peace and negotiated with the British directly. The British, anxious to get the whole business over with, agreed that the territory of the United States would extend to the Mississippi River. It was a singularly important achievement.
Jay was elected governor of New York in 1795 but declined to serve a second term and retired to his farm, aged only 56. The Jay house would stay in the family for another four generations, while Monticello was sold immediately upon Jefferson’s death (he was bankrupt and the house was heavily mortgaged, as were his slaves).
Washington inherited Mount Vernon from his older half-brother Lawrence, who died in 1752, but it was not the familiar building known to us today. Washington twice rebuilt what he had inherited, first in 1757 and then in the late 1770s, even as he was leading the Continental Army. A trace of the earlier structure can still be seen in the slightly off-center front entrance. It must have sorely annoyed Washington who, like most of his 18th-century contemporaries greatly valued symmetry, even as he accepted the practical necessity of leaving the door as it was.
As Magnet explains,
Mount Vernon became the outer emblem of his inner worth, showing him as perfect an English country gentleman as any officer with a royal commission who had ever condescended to him. It became his self-created embodiment of his own ideal life, continually evolving as his view of himself and the world deepened. It was his mental escape hatch from the battlefield: no matter where he was or what privations he suffered, he could conjure up in his mind’s eye, with a surveyor’s precision, every inch of the house, every outbuilding, tree, and field, and he daydreamed about improving, extending, planting, beautifying. The work of art he spent thirty years perfecting, Mount Vernon represented all that he was fighting for.
Even at his moment of greatest crisis, Washington thought about Mount Vernon. As his defeated, depleted, and demoralized army struggled across the Delaware River in December 1776, Washington knew that he had, at best, one more roll of the dice to stave off the collapse of the Continental Army and the end of the Revolution. That roll of the dice would result in the triumph at Trenton on the day after Christmas, Washington’s signature military achievement.
Still, as he was developing his plans for Trenton, he found time to write his cousin and Mount Vernon’s caretaker, Lund Washington, asking him to plant trees along the river bank and elsewhere, specifying that they should be set 15 or 16 feet apart, close “enough for the limbs to Interlock when the Trees are grown.”
The house Alexander Hamilton built in northern Manhattan as a country retreat was, in contrast, modest and graceful, designed by John McComb Jr., New York’s leading architect of the day. Hamilton, gunned down by Aaron Burr when only 49, did not live to enjoy his jewel of a house for long. Unlike the other houses of the Founding Fathers, it has had a peripatetic existence, having been moved twice. In 1889, Manhattan’s advancing street grid forced it to be moved a block away, where it was shorn of its porches and squeezed in between an apartment building and a church. Then in 2008, it was moved again to St. Nicholas Park a block and a half away, where it has now been beautifully restored.
Less well known than Mount Vernon or Monticello is Stratford Hall, the seat of the Lee family of Virginia, which would give us two signers of the Declaration of Independence, the military hero “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—and, eventually, the great Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Stratford is the most remarkable of all the colonial mansions of America, as bold a statement about a family that a house can make. With its two massive clusters of chimneys, and majestic stone staircase to the front entrance, Stratford is hubris expressed in brick, proclaiming the wealth and grandeur of the Lee family.
Grand the family may have been, but it was not a happy one. No fewer than two heirs to Stratford would tumble down the entrance stairs as children to their deaths. And the wealth, as it so often did in early America, proved ephemeral. Light-Horse Harry would spend time in debtors prison.
An excellent and fluid writer, Magnet succeeds in proving his point that these were more than residences; they were an expression of the personalities of their remarkable owners. The Founders at Home provides an interesting, entertaining, and informative way of looking at their lives and their world.