America's founding fathers shaped one of history's most dramatic stories, transforming 13 obscure colonies into an emerging nation whose political principles would change the world. But to see them in the household settings they shared with wives and families and in the intimate context of their very different era, is to understand the founders as individuals, extraordinary ones, to be sure, but also men who supped and shaved, wore slippers and read by candlelight. It was also an extraordinary time, but a time of achingly slow communications and travel, primitive and perverse medical care, a moral code that had only begun to condemn slavery, and ways of living that seem today an odd mixture of the charming, the crude and the peculiar.
From This Story
The founders shared a remarkably small and interconnected world, one that extended to their personal as well as their public lives. When New Jersey delegate William Livingston rode to Philadelphia for the first Continental Congress, for instance, he traveled with his new son-in-law, John Jay, who would be the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. The president of that Congress was Peyton Randolph, a cousin of
Thomas Jefferson and mentor of George Washington; another Virginia delegate, George Wythe, had been Jefferson's "faithful Mentor in youth." John Adams and Jefferson first met at the second Philadelphia Congress in 1775; half a century later, after both had lived long and colorful lives, they were still writing to each other.
Of course the name that seems to connect them all is Washington, the era's essential figure. His adjutants included painter (and sometime colonel) John Trumbull; the Marquis de Lafayette, whom he regarded almost as an adopted son; future president James Monroe; and his chief of staff, the precociously brilliant Alexander Hamilton. Among his generals were Philip Schuyler of New York and Henry Knox of Massachusetts. Years later, Washington's first cabinet would include Secretary of War Knox, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton (by then married to Philip Schuyler's daughter Betsy), Secretary of State Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, another Jefferson cousin. Washington appointed Jay to the highest court, and John Adams served as his vice president. It was a world characterized by enduring ties of blood, marriage and political kinship. And imposing, classic architecture.
These pages showcase a variety of historic 18th-century houses. (Neither Washington's Mount Vernon nor Jefferson's Monticello, the best known and most visited of the founder's houses, are included in this excerpt, though they are part of the new book from which it comes, Houses of the Founding Fathers; each deserves an article of its own.) Some were occupied by such important personages as John and Abigail Adams. Others memorialize lesser-known figures, such as America's first spy, Silas Deane of Connecticut, and pamphleteer and delegate to the Continental Congress William Henry Drayton. All the houses are open to the public.
Charleston, South Carolina
As a delegate to the Continental Congress, William Henry Drayton of South Carolina took part in a number of acrimonious debates over such important issues as military pensions, British proposals for peace and the Articles of Confederation. Drayton was also outspoken about a suitable way to mark the third anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Thanks to his advocacy, "a very elegant dinner" followed by a "brilliant exhibition" of fireworks won out—the origin of our Fourth of July celebrations.
Once the center of a busy 660-acre plantation—with stables, slave quarters, a poultry house, lime kiln and privy—Drayton's childhood home now stands alone. But it remains the house he knew, largely untouched and authentic—and all the grander for it.
William Drayton never became master of Drayton Hall. His father disinherited him when William stayed in Philadelphia to serve in the Continental Congress rather than coming home to defend South Carolina when British troops invaded in 1779.
The Deshler-Morris House