YOU COULD put a fence around the whole eastern part of Virginia and call it a historic shrine. Gentlemen of the early Commonwealth took the duties of citizenship seriously, and seven among them--more than from any other state except Pennsylvania--traveled north to sign the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton and Thomas Nelson Jr.
Departing this Earth, they left us occasional footprints to tell us what kind of men they were.
Not all of them died revered and affluent. Carter Braxton, according to Virginius Dabney, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, "was a creditable citizen but not a brilliant figure in Virginia history." Jefferson had financial troubles that made him sell some of his books. George Wythe was poisoned. All, with the possible exception of Wythe, were economically ruined by the revolution.
The most prominent, and the most accessible of the seven to rediscover in his haunts, is Thomas Jefferson, of whom they speak in Charlottesville as if he had just left the room. At Monticello, the personality of this big, red-haired, raw-boned man is everywhere in the house he began designing when he was only 26, and into which he put so many ideas well ahead of his time. But this year we are offered a new dimension of the man in the restoration of the gardens that he so dearly loved. For the faithful reconstruction of it all we have to thank his habit of keeping careful, not to say meticulous, records.
"The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," said Jefferson, who had a passion for trying out vegetable oddities like white broccoli, serpentine cucumbers and many-headed cabbages. Some variation of the first two have been planted in the estate's restoration, along with several kinds of peas, of which Jefferson grew 19 varieties. Peas were his favorite vegetable.
Many of the trees in Monticello's orchard haven't survived, though Jefferson experimented with 122 varieties, so the restoration involves putting in nearly 300 new ones of the sort Jefferson's plans specified. But the place where you feel closest to the man is the newly re-created garden pavilion, to which he often escaped with a book when his guests became too plentiful. It's only 12 1/2 feet square, but it has a beautiful view from atop the stone retaining wall dividing garden and orchard.
"I have been planning what I would show you," Jefferson wrote in 1788 to Angelica Church, who had mentioned a possible visit, "a flower here, a tree there; yonder a grove, near it a fountain . . ." Who knows if Church came, but if she did, she saw what we can still see today--20 oval flower beds at the four corners of the house and a graveled "roundabout" walk, flower-bordered, on the west side of the house.
All the Virginia founding fathers knew each other but none were so close as Jefferson and Wythe, whose handsome 1752 home is Williamsburg's pride. Wythe tutored Jefferson in this house and probably did more to shape his ideas than any other man. The house has been restored and refurnished in the manner it must have been when Wythe, a man of wealth and prestige, lived there. It is simple, with high ceilings and stocked with barometers, compasses, globes and telescopes, the house of a jurist with a liking for scientific instruments. You can go through this house where George Washington, Henry Clay and Jefferson were frequent visitors and, in the dependencies and service yard behind, see the domestic crafts of the day performed.
But the house in which Wythe died in Richmond, a yellow wooden house with a hip roof, to which he moved after a disagreement with some of William and Mary's policies, is gone. You can see his grave in the churchyard of St. John's Episcopal Church on Church Hill, and people will remind you, when they point out the thin stone tablet marker, that he was poisoned.
Wythe moved to the yellow house as an aged widower, living there with his grand nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, and a serving woman, Lydia Broadnax. On the morning of May 25, 1806, as the story goes, he rang for his breakfast as usual. According to Broadnax, Sweeney was in the room when breakfast was being readied, and declared that he had no time to eat but would take a cup of coffee. Broadnax said afterward that he poured himself a cup, set the pot on the table and, when she turned again, was throwing a little white paper into the fire. She took the pot and some toast upstairs to Wythe, drank a cup herself and gave the rest to the freed mulatto boy on the premises.
She shortly became very sick, the boy died and, after lingering two weeks, so did Wythe. Doctors called it arsenic poisoning. Sweeney, who remained well, was jailed but subsequently acquitted. It was said he forged his granduncle's name on checks made to cover gambling debts, and had been observed examining his granduncle's will. The church at Ninth and Grace streets was five blocks from Wythe's home and most likely was his place of worship. It was here that Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech on liberty (guided tours daily).
Halfway between Williamsburg and Richmond is the plantation home of another Declaration of Independence signer, Benjamin Harrison, a 1726 house on the James River known as Berkeley. The land on which it stands was a 1619 grant from King James.
A great many firsts are connected with Berkeley, the most famous being the claim that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated there more than a year before the Pilgrims arrived in New England. Settlers reportedly sailed up the James River Dec. 4 and, landing safely on the Virginia shore, immediately declared the day an annual one of thanksgiving. The Harrison family established the first commercial shipyard there to supply battleships to the revolution, and the home they built on the land had the first pediment roof in America. But the first that brings the sparkle to most visitors' eyes is the work of Episcopal minister George Thorpe, who invented bourbon at Berkeley, claiming that if "people sick of body taste this fiery drink, they would be made well."
If you attend the slide show before touring the house, you will get more details on this tale, and afterwards can see the 200-year-old still that produced the drink that caused the founding Virginia fathers to abandon fine English ale.
The Lees, of course, are Virginia's royalty. To have inherited the prominent Lee nose is a badge of aristocracy. Strong men have wept when geneologists dashed their hopes of kinship with the Lees, whose family tree includes, among other famous men, two signers, Richard Henry and his younger brother, Francis Lightfoot.
Henry and Lightfoot were born in Stratford, tucked away off the beaten track in Westmoreland County south of the Potomac, a magnificent 18th-century plantation that has had no major changes since 1730. It sits at the end of a vista as impressive as that of any English castle, quite possibly what Thomas Lee, the builder, had in mind.
The furniture largely did not belong to the Lees, but careful research has assembled beautiful authentic period pieces (1630-1801), because Lee descendents lived here until 1822. Costumed docents take you through and give, with anecdotes, a nice picture of life in the 18th century, when the gentlemen spoke of war and politics in the retiring room and joined the women after dinner for small talk and harp music. The schoolroom in the back was for the boys. They received an early grounding here before returning to England to finish their education. The girls were taught needlepoint, care of the sick and social graces.
The Lee genealogy is confusing, so it's well to make a stop at the reception center first to check the family tree. The christening dress worn by the two signers is there in a glass case, as well as some mourning jewelry of the period and a special exhibit of Richard Henry's letters to his wife from the battlefield of the revolution. His watch fob is there and a first printing of the Resolution of Independence, the document that preceded the Declaration. Fewer things of Francis Lightfoot have survived, though a recent acquisition is a chair of his in the great house.
Carter Braxton is one of only four signers with unknown graves, but Alonzo T. Dill, a historian specializing in the area, thinks it's possible that he lies in St. John's churchyard in Richmond with Wythe. The early records of this church are lost, so no one is sure, but Dill does say that the King William Courthouse on State Road 302, 25 miles east of Doswell, is a place that knew him well. It's a colonial brick building, open daily except weekends. Braxton's church, 1734 St. John's in King William County, is 10 miles farther along the road.
As for Thomas Nelson Jr., you can meet him in the flesh--or a reasonable facsimile--if you visit Yorktown after June 16. Professional actors portray him and his family in a historical drama called "Visions," a mobile play that moves its audience through the rooms of his 18th-century house at the corner of Main and Pearl streets. Until then you can see on weekends a dramatized history of the house from the revolution through the Civil War titled "If These Walls Could Talk." If they could, they might complain a bit. In 1781, from September to October, it was the second headquarters of Charles Cornwallis, the English general and statesman, and Nelson, staunch patriot as he was, ordered it shelled. There's still a cannonball stuck in one of the walls.