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Scotchtown is a colonial era plantation house in Hanover County, Virginia. The property was part of a large land grant given to Charles Chiswell in 1717. Chiswell built the first house on the site in 1720. The building was expanded around 1760 to its present size. The house is not only architecturally unique, it is also one of the largest 18th-century homes to survive in the Americas. Scotchtown also holds an important place in American history.
In 1757 Chiswell had discovered a lead mine. The mine was not a profitable success. Neither was his plantation. In fact, the whole plantation system in the Colonies was in wholesale decline. The prices for tobacco, the colonists’ staple export crop, had fallen steadily whilst debts to the English merchants continued to mount. To keep his businesses afloat Chiswell borrowed money. One person he borrowed from was John Robinson, an owner of many plantations and mansions and who was Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Treasurer of Virginia.
Robinson married Chiswell’s eldest daughter, Suzannah, in 1759. The following year he purchased some of Chiswell’s property including the Scotchtown plantation. Not only did Robinson purchase Scotchtown to help his father-in-law stave off bankruptcy, he had also launched a scheme by which many other prominent individuals would be saved from a similar fate.
His plan was for the Colony of Virginia to borrow £240,000 in gold from the creditor English merchants and use £100,000 of it to retire outstanding paper, primarily currency issued to meet expenses from the French and Indian War. The remaining money was to be used to issue loans at 5% interest to individuals with “good land security”. A fourteen year tax on tobacco exports would be used to pay the interest on the £240,000. The intent was to buy time for the gentlemen plantation owners (the people with“good land security”) by shifting the burden of their debts to the public.
One of the people who stood up against this scheme was the newly elected Burgess, Patrick Henry. In fact, his first speech in the House of Burgesses on May 23, 1765, was in opposition to this plan. The bill, though, passed the House, only to be killed by the Council.
Almost a year later, on May 11, 1766, Robinson died. His executors struggled to make sense of Robinson’s poorly documented finances. The accounts of the colony’s treasury were also in a bad way. The executors eventually discovered debts in excess of £138,000. Robinson had lent a great deal of money to family and friends, none of which appeared to have been repaid. The Burgesses alone owed £37,000.
Even before he died, there had been stories that not all of the money lent had been Robinson’s. Edmund Pendleton, Robinson’s protege and the man behind the idea for the colony to borrow the £240,000, was given the task of trying to understand Robinson’s financial position. He determined that Robinson had lent more than £100,761 from the public coffers without authorization and without security for it. Robinson’s estate, Pendleton realized, was obligated to repay the colony any amounts not received from the debtors. The problem was that few of the borrowers had the ability to repay the debts without liquidating their plantations. Moreover, if they all put their lands on the market, all property values would plummet, serving neither them, the Robinson’s estate nor Virginia’s treasury.
Robinson’s widow held on to Scotchtown for as long as she could. By this time it was determined that the estate could only repay about £5,000. To raise money, two of Robinson’s properties were to be sold. Scotchtown’s 7,000 acres were to be subdivided and auctioned.
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John Payne, father of the future Dolly Madison, purchased the 960-acre plot on which Scotchtown stood. Two years later in 1771, he sold it to Patrick Henry for the bargain price of £960.
Patrick Henry stayed at Scotchtown until 1778. It was here that he formulated the ideas that became his famous “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech, leaving from the property on March 23, 1775 to deliver it at St. John’s Church in Richmond. Scotchtown was also Henry’s home when he became the first elected Governor of Virginia in 1776.
Scotchtown was purchased in 1958 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now Preservation Virginia). The house has been restored and Henry’s law office and kitchen reconstructed. The property opened to the public in 1964. Scotchtown was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 as an unusual 18th-century structure associated with a Founding Father.