THE FOUNDERS AT HOME: THE BUILDING OF AMERICA 1735-1817
By Myron Magnet
Norton, $35, 472 pages
Occasionally, an author has such an inspired notion for a book that it is well worth the read even though there is disappointment in its execution.
So it is with "The Founders at Home" by Manhattan journalist Myron Magnet, which offers a genius of a theme, but leaves the reader with an appetite for a fuller examination by someone with a firmer grasp. The premise of the book is the compelling notion that one can learn a lot about the attitudes and ambitions of our hallowed Founding Fathers by examining the home places they erected for themselves even as they were fretting over the architecture of our national republic.
For anyone who has visited any of the Founders' museum homes, this is a notion that sparks one's interest at once. If one considers the homes of those who were essential movers in prying the British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard away from the mother country, several common traits distinguish our experience from the British Empire's other 18th-century possessions.
When one examines India, the sugar colonies of the Caribbean and the Asian tea plantations, a common trait is that they were recklessly exploitive, often focused on a single raw material or trade product. Permanent infrastructure development was scanty, and most of the adventurers arrived intending to get rich quick and return home to Britain with their wealth.
However, in the 13 American plantations, as they were called, there was such a profusion of raw materials that Mother England wanted — tobacco and rice to be sure, but also timber, pig iron, other minerals, fur, salted fish and rum, to name a few more. Most of all, for the newly arrived adventurers, there was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of land where a man's family could grow great in a single generation.
One can't help but conclude that these differences made these new American Englishmen inevitable candidates for independence. Appropriately, Mr. Magnet begins his narrative with one of the earliest sparks in the independence conflagration, William Livingston.
He was born in 1723, an heir to the 160,000-acre estate near Albany that his father Robert had hacked and cheated out of the wilderness. Bored by the practice of law, William turned his hand to writing incendiary articles attacking the corrupt imperial government of New York. When the authorities struck back by disbarring and indicting William, it was the iconic trial of the article's newspaper publisher, Peter Zenger, which first established that the civil protections Englishmen enjoyed at home were shared as well by those across the Atlantic.
In his examination of other Founders' home places — most notably, George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello — Mr. Magnet cites two other traits that buttressed their commitment to seizing control of their own destinies away from royal authorities in London.
As anyone who has visited either place knows, both Mount Vernon and Monticello were more than farms. Washington and Jefferson engaged in an astonishing variety of entrepreneurial ventures. Washington fished shad from the Potomac River, salted the catch and shipped it to England. He became the leading distiller of whiskey in the colonies and experimented with a program of crop rotation away from the old dependency on tobacco. The outbuildings of Jefferson's home were an ambitious factory complex that produced nails and other metal products for sale, leather goods and, to his everlasting shame (as recent research has confirmed) the breeding and aggressive marketing of his most profitable crop — slaves.
The second trait, one shared by all of the other Founders, was a yearning to pack up, leave the seaboard and head west to the rich soil, cheap land and greater promise of what was called the Northwest Territory that hugged both banks of the Ohio River all the way to its junction with the Mississippi. Nearly all of them were involved in schemes to speculate in land grants in that new region.
Washington often lamented being tied to Mount Vernon, and Jefferson's sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition west and the Louisiana Purchase that followed was greatly influenced by his hunger for Ohio.
Mr. Magnet's tales of other Founders and their homes — the Lees of Stratford Hall, John Jay's estate in Westchester County, Alexander Hamilton's Grange and James Madison's Montpelier — all are interesting excursions told with perhaps overmuch rehashing of the subjects' political biographies.
However, the fatal flaw in this book is not so much with the stories the author tells, but with what he has left out. John Adams, for example, is totally ignored. Yet his birthplace home in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass., boasts being the intact museum home place of two U.S. presidents (his son John Quincy Adams being the other), plus four successive generations of Adams diplomats and authors of note. The museum and archives of their books, the re-creation of Adams' orchards and gardens and the buildings themselves are an evocative treat to this day.
Also ignored is Benjamin Franklin, whose presence dominates Philadelphia. Moreover, his home for 16 years in London — the Franklin House Museum on Craven Street near Charing Cross Station — wonderfully recaptures his long struggle over there to win justice for the colonies from British ministers. The museum's interactive program also contains artifacts from his continuing science experiments and his secret machinations to win French support in the days just before the Revolution.
But for those and other flaws, this is a book that leaves the reader with an appetite to learn more and is worth taking up.
James Srodes' "Franklin: The Essential Founding Father" won the 2006 City of Philadelphia One Book Prize to mark Franklin's tercentenary.