Blog Post Nicolas Brulliard Jul 1, 2019

Halls of Independence

Did you know that four national park sites preserve the homes of signers of the Declaration of Independence?

A few years before the nation’s bicentennial, then-President Richard Nixon said that Americans had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the meaning of America, “but none can mean more than personal visits to sites where freedom was forged and our founding fathers actually made the decisions which have stood the severest tests of time.”

Did You Know?

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, two later became president, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Both men died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the declaration’s ratification. Only one other signer, Charles Carroll, outlived them. He died in 1832.

That remains true today, and you can gain a better appreciation for the men who made the perilous choice to cut ties with Great Britain by visiting the homes of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The residences of more than a third of the 56 signers of the declaration were lost over time, and many of the remaining ones are in private hands and closed to the public. Thankfully, a number of these homes have been restored and made available to visitors, and the National Park Service has played a major role in this effort.

In addition to Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, which includes the hall where the declaration was signed, and the White House, where two signers — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — were the first occupants, the Park Service preserves the homes of four of the document’s signers (the foundation of the home of Benjamin Franklin, one of the signers representing Pennsylvania, is also located in Independence National Historical Park).

 

Thomas Stone National Historic Site, Maryland

A plantation owner and lawyer in his early 30s, Thomas Stone was a reluctant signer who waited until the last moments to make his decision to support the declaration in 1776. Two months later, he even favored reconciliation with Great Britain. Stone liked to stay in the background, and he retired from public life when his wife became seriously ill. When she died at the age of 34 in 1787, he decided to skip the Constitutional Convention and visit England, but he died in Alexandria, Virginia, while waiting for the ship. He is buried at Haberdeventure, the mansion he built around 1771. Located about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., the home belonged to the Stone family until the 1930s. The Park Service eventually acquired the property and opened it to the public in 1997 as the only national park site created specifically to preserve the home of a signer of the declaration. Visitors to the site can learn about the declaration and Stone’s life. They might also hear about Haberdeventure’s enslaved population, though few details of their lives are known today.

 

William Floyd’s Estate at Fire Island National Seashore, New York

William Floyd did not have the luxury to retire to his estate on Long Island to contemplate the significance of the document he signed on Aug. 2. (The declaration was ratified on July 4, which is now celebrated as Independence Day, but most of the delegates signed the document on Aug. 2, and a few even later.) The British Army defeated American troops in the Battle of Long Island later that month, and soon British troops occupied Floyd’s Old Mastic House. For several years, Floyd and his family stayed away from their home, and when they returned in 1783, they found the house damaged, fences destroyed and trees cut down. Floyd restored the property, enlarged the house, and entertained luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison there. The house remained in the family until 1976, when descendants donated the property to the Park Service. These days, visitors can take a one-hour guided tour through the 25-room mansion and explore more than 600 acres of forests, fields and marshes around the property.

 

Thomas Nelson House at Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

Thomas Nelson’s contributions to the independence cause extended well beyond his signature on the declaration. An outspoken patriot, he served in the Continental Congress and Virginia’s legislature and even succeeded Thomas Jefferson as the state’s governor in 1781. Nelson also commanded troops during the Revolutionary War and raised money for the war effort, often offering his own fortune — acquired in large part through the labor of more than 400 enslaved people — as a guarantee. He was even willing to give up his own home. During the Battle of Yorktown, which led to the surrender of the British Army and the end of the war, Nelson reportedly ordered an American artillery unit to shell his house, which he thought had been taken over by British troops (the story is part of family lore, and one facade of the home did show evidence of damage from cannon fire). After the war, Nelson found himself close to poverty as some of the loans he made were never repaid. He died in 1789 from an asthma attack, and his wife Lucy stayed in their Yorktown home for more than 30 years after his death. The Georgian-style mansion later served as a hospital for Confederate soldiers and later Union troops during the Civil War and was nicknamed “York Hall” in the 20th century. The park offers informal tours of the first floor of the house, and interested visitors should call ahead.

 

Adams National Historical Park, Massachusetts

John Adams has been called “the Atlas of Independence” for his outsized role in the creation of the United States. Not only did he help draft the Declaration of Independence, but he was one of its most formidable champions in the Continental Congress and helped convince some of his reluctant fellow delegates. After Congress ratified the document, he was exhausted from the effort and resumed his law practice in Braintree, Massachusetts. It wasn’t long, though, before he was selected to serve as a diplomat in Europe, and he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that saw Great Britain recognize the United States as an independent nation. He became the country’s first vice president in 1789 and second president in 1797. He died a few hours after Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the declaration, at the age of 90. Of the 56 signers, only Charles Carroll, who died in 1832, outlived him. Adams National Historical Park includes not just one but three of John Adams’ homes: his birthplace, the house he lived in while the colonies pushed for independence (also the birthplace of his son John Quincy Adams, who would become the sixth U.S. president), and the Old House at Peace Field, where several generations of the Adams family lived from 1788 to 1927. Visitors can see all three homes through guided tours from May to November.

 

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About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Associate Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as associate editor of National Parks magazine.