Statistically impossible, but true nonetheless, three of our country's first five Presidents died on Independence Day -- James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- the last two also signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rivals Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, after long lives, in natural deaths that many of their co-signers might have envied.
Of the 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds during the Revolution; 17 lost all their possessions, including 12 whose houses were burnt to the ground. Five were captured and imprisoned, and the wives and children of several were killed, jailed or left destitute.
All the more remarkable, then, that the homes of nine of the 11 signers from Maryland and Virginia still stand, open to visit.
Maryland was represented at the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1776 by Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone and Charles Carroll. The first three lives in Annapolis, and two of these houses are restored and open to the public. Stone lived for a time at the Peggy Stewart House at 207 Hanover Street, a private residence now.
Maryland's decision to vote for independence was dramatic: Paca, Stone and Carroll went on ahead to Philadelphia, while Chase stayed in Annapolis to argue the case for severing ties with England. His perseverance paid off -- Maryland's provincial assembly voted fresh instructions to vote for independence. Chase covered the 150 miles on horseback in two days, arriving in time to cast the crucial vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence. THE SAMUEL CHASE HOUSE on King George Street was optimistically begun in 1769, but Chase suffered financial reverses and had to sell before the mansion was complete. The new owner hired the greatest colonial architect of his day, William Buckland, to finish the work. The result is one of the finest 18th-century interiors in the country. The Chase House is open 2 to 4 except Sundays and Wednesdays.
One block up on Prince George Street is WILLIAM PACA'S HOME, which has been restored to its appearance ten years before the American Revolution. Visitors are surprised at the bright colors used on the parlor walls and woodwork; in some rooms, 20 layers of wallpaper had to be removed to find the original wallcolor.
The garden has been made to match the background in a portrait of William Paca by Charles Wilson Peale: Five terraces were built leading down to a pond with a Chinese Chippendale bridge. Beyond the pond is an octagonal pavilion with a silver dome, just as in the 18th century when Paca enjoyed his garden folly. The Paca House is open 2 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday.
The last house connected with the Maryland signers is The carroll MANSION in Baltimore. In his last five years, Charles Carroll was a living relic of the Revolution, the sole surviving signer of the Declaration. Carroll spent winters in this townhouse and summers at his estate. Doughregan Manor, near Ellicott City, Maryland. Nine of the rooms of this gracious Baltimore house have been decorated to suggest their appearance in Carroll's times, with tapes of period music. The Carroll Mansion at 800 East Lombard Street, two blocks up from Harborplace, is open free from 10 to 4 Tuesday through Sunday.
The homes of all but one of the Virginia's seven signers are open to the public. (Carter Braxton's Elsing Green is in private hands.) The best-known Virginia signer is the document's reluctant author, Thomas Jefferson. His MONTICELLO was a preoccupation that Jefferson enjoyed for most of his adult life, designing, modifying and adding to it. Some of his ideas worked and some didn't.
Monticello was one of the first houses in America to have double windows on the first floor. They opened in three sections and did much to improve ventilation, but after Jefferson's friend and neighbor James Madison fell out of a window one day, Jefferson added stout wooden grills. Monticello is open daily, 8 to 5.
Three of the signers' homes are near Williamsburg. In the restored town itself is THE HOUSE OF GEORGE WYTHE, considered the finest legal mind of his day. He died by poisoning, and his murderer went free because of a legal technicality. His nephew, in dire financial straits, poisoned him for the inheritance. The only witness was Wythe's black manservant, who couldn't testify under Virginia law. Justice was not entirely thwarted, though: Wythe lived long enough to change his will and disinherit his nephew.
George Wythe's house, on Palace Green, was used by George Washington as his headquarters before the seige of Yorktown. The house, outbuildings and garden are a miniature plantation set down in the heart of this colonial town. The house is open daily.
Another signer of the Declaration of Independence lived in nearby Yorktown. At THOMAS NILSON'S HOUSE even the walls talk -- courtesy of a free living-history program.
During the Revolution, Lord Cornwallis made his headquarters in Nilson's home. Underterred, Brigadier General Nilson ordered his men to fire on his own home. To this day, two cannot balls remain embedded in the east wall. It was from here that Cornwallis wrote to Washington proposing an end to the hostilities.
The Nilson House is open daily in the summer from 10 to 4.
Only two homes in America can boast of being not only the home of a signer of the Delaring of Independence, but also the ancestral home of two presidents. One is the Adams home in Braintree, Massachusetts; the other is BERKELEY, the Harrison family's James River Plantation.
It was at Berkeley, not Plymouth, that the first Thanksgiving was actually held in 1619, they say in Virginia. The gracious plantation house, built in 1726, is a far cry from the log cabin William Henry Harrison portrayed it as being when he ran for the presidency.
After winning the election, he returned to Berkeley to write his inaugural address -- the longest ever given, taking more than two hours to deliver in the cold and wet. Harrison caught pneumonia and died after only 30 days in office. He was suceed by a neighbor, John Tyler, whose plantation, Sherwood Forest, is just down the road.
Berkeley, open daily from 8 to 5, is on Route 5 halfway between Williamsburg and Richmond.
The last house, STRATFORD HALL, was home to two Virginia signers, the Lees -- Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, the only brothers to sign the Declaration. It was Richard Henry Lee who actually proposed the resolution for independence that led to the writing of the Declaration.
Their home remains as it was two centuries ago, and its Great Hall is widely considered one of the most beautiful rooms in America. The house is an architectural anomaly in colonial design -- the only one of its time to follow the Italian pattern of putting the major living areas on the second floor. A working plantation with many outbuildings, off Route 3, it's open daily 9 to 4.