Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Pringle House

Royal governors have visited here ; invading generals have made the house
 headquarters in two wars ; it was twice besieged ; a famous beauty
left its doors and was lost at sea ; and even Josiah Quincy was impressed by
its hospitality. But there are new roses every springtime on the garden wall. . . .

      If tradition has any influence upon its own children, your true Charlestonian should be a violently proud person, who votes with a flourish, as a Signer would vote; who looks aloft not at the sun but at the spires of St. Michael s and St. Philip's, and seeing them in their proper places in Charleston s profile, knows that the world again revolves; who makes horrid faces regularly in the direction of Fort Sumter; who cheers "Huzza!" at the lightest mention of General Francis Marion; in short, who conducts himself generally in an extremely historic manner.
      He has none of these gestures. He dines at mid-afternoon, goes amiably about his affairs, is aristocratic to a degree and in the same degree is gracefully hospitable. In the center of one of our country's most fertile areas of dramatic action he is not theatrical. It bothers you, for example, if he happens to be a Prioleau and you are passing the Huguenot church which a Prioleau founded in 1685, that he has no appropriate expression of Seventeenth Century piety.
      If Charleston really knew what was expected of her in dramatic ritual she would do all those things. Happily Charleston does not know, or she might exploit and become odious. Instead she watches the cloth-of-gold roses climb the courtyard wall and is much more concerned with the forthcoming blossoms than with the ancestor who planted the roots. She has a back-drop as glorious as an old tapes try, but it is hung where it belongs back. She attends St. Michael's and St. Philip's for today's devotions and tomorrow's salvation, which are the richer for yesterday's haunting footsteps. And only Charleston can truly appreciate though the rest of the nation may admire and cherish the old square house in King Street whose red-brick walls and shining white portico are framed by ancient trees at the curbing; the house Miles Brewton built; the house Charleston knows as the "Pringle House."
      Miles Brewton was not primarily a soldier. His father and his grandfather had been for forty years custodians of gunpowder in Charles Town, but the colony s preliminary fighting had mostly been done by that time. When the combined forces of the Kings of France and Spain were driven out of the harbor forever in 1706, the colonists settled back to a half-century of peaceful commerce. The powder magazine on Cumberland Street was not often called upon to repel the invader, and the powder receiver s duties, though honorable service, were not over-exacting.
      So Miles came into the dual inheritance of a quiescent military tradition and an active fortune. Naturally enough, since he had just married Miss Mary Izard, his thoughts turned on building a house; his taste suggested a beautiful house; his wealth permitted a house which Josiah Quincy described as "superb, . . . said to have cost him 18,000 sterling."
      Josiah Quincy, though a Bostonian, believed in seeing America first. He had a most illuminating journey. He had never realized that Charles Town, in the Carolinas, was the richest city south of Philadelphia, nor that here he was to find a spirit of resentment against British injustice as acute as that of his own people. This town," he wrote, "makes a beautiful appearance as you come up to it and
in many respects a magnificent one. I can only say in general that in grandeur, splendor of building, decorations, equipages, numbers, commerce, shipping, and indeed everything it far surpasses all I ever saw or ever expect to see in America." From a Quincy of Massachusetts this was the perfect tribute.
      What prompted it? In his diary of March 8, 1773 he writes: "Dined with a large company at Miles Brewton s, Esq., a gentleman of very large fortune. ... At Mr. Brewton s sideboard was very magnificent plate. A very fine bird kept familiarly playing about the room under our chairs and the table, picking up the crumbs, and perching on the window and sideboard." The bird was evidently the
crowning touch to a panoply of culture and luxury such as he had scarcely anticipated among the outlanders. You may picture him, if you like, rising comfortably fortified with good cooking, at the end of a whole afternoon at the five-yard table; identifying with shrewd appraisal the excellent furniture which his host and hostess had picked up in England five years before; running a furtive proving finger over the carved woodwork which had also come across the Atlantic; knowing that the portrait of Miles Brewton on the wall was good, and knowing that another reason why it was good was because Sir Joshua Reynolds had done it. Though there were slaves in Boston at that time, you may conjecture that he tacitly disapproved of the substantial slave quarters across the courtyard for he  of a brilliant abolitionist. But for the architectural excellence of the interior, its carved woodwork, and its furnishings, he could have nothing but praise. And at the risk of invading the visitor s privacy you may follow him to the King Street gate as he departs, and you may perhaps catch the emphatic wag of his head, and hear his conclusive whisper: "These people know how! They have atmosphere! lam amazed!" He carried back to Boston the warm friendship of Miles Brewton and the firm conviction that Charles Town could be relied upon.
      Miles Brewton had for ten years been a member of the Commons House of the Colonial legislature. He had watched the smouldering of a spirit which would break out in flame the next spring, had given wise counsel to the hot-heads, yielded nothing to injustice from London. Then Charles Town heard the shot fired round the world. The Provincial Congress met, voted to raise three regiments and a million dollars. Into the uproar sailed his Majesty's Ship Scorpion, bearing Lord William Campbell, to be the new colonial governor, apparently for no special qualification except that he had married Sarah Izard, of Charles Town. Miles Brewton made his wife s cousin and her governor-husband his guests at once, and when the Provincial Congress promptly stuck its verbal bayonets under the uncomfortable young Campbell s nose, His Lordship stayed up half the night wondering what he could do, and then called Miles Brewton out of bed to help settle the question.
      A Committee of Safety presently supplanted the Provincial Congress, and Brewton became a member. We know of his value to the colony in trying to preserve equilibrium. Of what his service in war might have been we can never know. Josiah Quincy had been urging upon his friend the courtesy of a return visit. With Mrs. Brewton and the children he took ship to Philadelphia and Miles Brewton and his family were lost at sea. Josiah Quincy lost a friend and the cause a level-headed patriot.
      Although its builder was gone, and his direct line wiped out, the Brewton house remained. It was left jointly to his sisters, Mrs. Charles Pinckney and Mrs. Jacob Motte. It was Mrs. Motte's home while Parker and Clinton hammered at the city gates in 1776, and it requires no documentary evidence to conceive how that "very magnificent plate" on the Brewton sideboard shone at dinner the night of August second the night when the battered British fleet had sailed away, and the night when Captain Barnard Elliott read the Declaration of Independence to the soldiery and the cheering townsfolk.
      There came a day, however, four years later when Sir Henry Clinton cut off the peninsula from the mainland, and forced the city to surrender. A conqueror likes to be comfortable, and Sir Henry and his staff camped down upon Mrs. Motte s thoroughly comfortable house. You will find, scratched into one of its white marble mantels, a crude sketch of a British frigate, and a portrait of the conqueror himself, done by a staff-officer. Mrs. Motte, at the commander s request, presided at table, but the lady was as wise as she was tactful her three attractive daughters were behind barred doors in the garret a knowing precaution against the notorious tendencies of Lord Rawdon, who succeeded Sir Henry Clinton. Other homes in the town fared less well: Mrs. C. C. Pinckney and her family were turned out bodily, and the families upon whom were quartered certain of the lesser invaders were made wretched indeed.
      Charles Town endured and waited. In pleasant weather the enemy staff lounged in the deep-walled garden which reaches back of the Motte house to Legare Street; when winter forced them in doors in there were cheerful dinners in the high-panelled dining-room, dinners attended by those of the citizenry who had "played safe" and England to win. The patriots wore brave smiles and old dresses. If you had been a sentry during those days you might have challenged a charming young woman with a pass through the lines to visit her plantation. If you had been a dutiful sentry you would have glanced into her carriage, to make sure she carried no contraband. If you had been an impertinent sentry you might have seen that she wore heavy boots-but if she had smiled at you you would not have been impertinent. And naturally when she returned through the lines two or three days later and smiled graciously upon you as an old friend, how could you know that those boots were men s boots, and that they were now in the stirrups of some cavalier serving under Marion, the Swamp Fox? Or read behind her smile the secret that Marion s men that night would ride the harder, harass the British patrols outside more bitterly, make foreign tenure of the city less and less comfortable? That was the secret of the women of Charles Town.
      A British officer caught Colonel Isaac Hayne after a brilliant capture he had effected within five miles of the city. They brought him in and condemned him to death as a spy, which he was not. The drawing-room of the Motte house saw another phase of Charles Town s women: heard their pleading for Hayne's life; saw Rawdon refuse. Then imprisoned Charles Town saw Martyr Hayne hanged and bitterness crystallized to hate. The same Mrs. Motte who had been an unwilling hostess to the British in town went in 1780 to her plantation "Mount Joseph," on the Congaree. The British seized and fortified it the next year and she was moved to a nearby farmhouse, so that Marion and "Light Horse Harry" Lee could lay siege to the property. When Lee suggested to her the destruction of her own home by fire-bearing arrows, she agreed heartily, and herself brought forth an East-Indian bow and arrows of great range. The good lady then watched the marksmanship of Marion s men set fire to her own plantation house, applauded its surrender, and when the fire was out presided over captor and captive at her own table!
      A watchman s cry put an end to the poverty and distress in which the besieged city found itself slowly mired. Cutting through the rain it brought candle-light to life in every house as the news spread: "Half-past- twelve of a stormy night and Cornwallis has surrendered!" It meant victory, an end to suffering, reunited families. In 1782 Moultrie led his troops into the city, past "the balconies, the doors and windows crowded with the patriotic fair, the aged citizens and others congratulating us on our return home, saying, God bless you, gentlemen! You are welcome home, gentlemen! Both citizens and soldiers shed mutual tears of joy."
      For ten years the Motte house followed the city s returning prosperity. Of the three girls who had been hidden in the attic during the wretched Rawdon s incumbency, one, who married Thomas Pinckney, died young; the second, whose first husband died, married Pinckney and lived to see him the first American ambassador to England and a candidate for president. The third, Mary Brewton Motte, married William Alston, a colonel in Marion s Brigade.
      It was natural, therefore, when President Washington journeyed to South Carolina in 1791, he should stop at Clifton, Colonel Alston's plantation, and marvel at the luxurious cultivation of the fields of young rice. If Mary Motte Alston had her mother s character and charm as she probably did it is no wonder the President who was also a good farmer told her the plantation "looked like fairyland." In his journal he wrote: "Went to a concert where were 400 ladies, the number and appearance of which exceeded anything I had ever seen." And later this: "Was visited about two o clock by a great number of most respectable ladies in Charleston, the first honor of the kind I had ever experienced, as flattering as singular." Nor can we omit the fact that Commodore Gillon solved the delicate problem of where to seat the President at the state dinner by placing him opposite the loveliest lady in Charleston, and next to the wittiest.
      In 1791 Colonel Alston bought the Motte house. As the Alston house it presided over the rise of an Alston to the governorship of the state. Its gate swung wide at the arrival in Charleston of Joseph Alston s second wife, Theodosia Burr. Theodosia sailed for New York in 1813 in the swift privateer, Patriot, to join her lonely father Aaron. Four weeks later Joseph Alston sat down at a French secretary in the drawing-room and wrote Burr, "I have in vain endeavored to build upon the hope of long passage. Thirty days are decisive. My wife is either captured or lost. What a destiny is mine!" The ship was never heard of again. Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel in her excellent volume, Charleston, the Place and Its People," tells of the death-bed confession of an old sailor thirty years later, who had been one of a crew of pirates who had captured the ship and made the passengers walk the plank, and some color is given to this solution by an anonymous note found in a volume of Burr's letters, saying "Some account appeared in the New Orleans papers about 1848 of the deposition of a coloured woman in relation to the death of Mrs. Alston occasioned by Pirates."
      The eldest daughter of the Alston house, born to the purple, justified her claim to it by marrying Robert Y. Hayne, some time Governor of South Carolina, United States Senator, and proprietor of the loser's share of a magnificent debate with Daniel Webster. That rare old gentleman, William Alston, lived until 1839. He was a practical planter who believed "that in the management of slaves the true interests of the planter were in exact accordance with the dictates of an enlightened humanity." He loved horses, maintained a good stable on the King Street place, and raced them in lively competition; this leads Mr. Huger Smith, in his neighborly story of the Alston house, to "wonder whether Washington's well known interest in such things led to the presence, at Colonel Alston's plantation in 1799, of Great Plenipo, sired by Royal Gift, a Jack Ass presented to the late President Washington by the King of Spain. Georgetown Gazette, April 17, 1799" Certain it is that he owned Betsy Baker, who defeated Colonel William Washington's Rosetta in a stirring race, and Gallattin, and Alborae famous turf names all.
      His children made him happy, and he endeared himself to an army of friends, not the least of whom was Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson, the founder of the political party which has since committed prohibition, who wrote Colonel Alston in 1818:
      "I have therefore made up a box of a couple of doz. bottles among which you will find samples of the wines of White Hermitage, Ledanon, Rousillon (of Riveralto). Bergasse, claret, all of France and of Nice, and Montepulciano, of Italy."
      The visitor who penetrates to that cellar today will find it empty. But on the drawing-room walls he will find another letter from Jefferson as he will find one from George Washington, both addressed
to John Julius Pringle, and asking him to be attorney-general of the United States. Those letters hang there because John Julius Pringle, a great lawyer, had a son, William Bull Pringle, and because fate married him to Mary Motte Alston, and because she inherited the house and the letter from the fine old Colonel in 1839. His brother, Robert Pringle, was in Paris when the royal family abdicated, and had the opportunity to buy the chairs from Louis Philippe s palace which are such an ornament to the house today. Those letters from two presidents of the United States were cherished possessions of the family when another Robert Pringle was killed at Battery Wagner on Morris Island in the defense of his city against the United States. The tear drops of the crystal chandelier in that same drawing-room tinkled at the shock of two hundred and eighty days firing upon Fort Sumter,   while the harassed family lived through a bitter repetition of the siege of eighty-odd years before, and when the Federal troops occupied the city in 1865 history repeated itself as they made headquarters in the Pringle house. Fifty thousand suns have not faded the Indian dyes in the silk damask curtains Miles Brewton imported for his new house, nor have the sea-fogs dulled the French secretary that was Rebecca Motte's. Her high-boy is there today, so is a graceful and inviting old sofa. Time apparently cannot affect them except as it makes these possessions infinitely more precious to the present gracious owners, Miss Susan Pringle Frost and her sisters. A seven-yard table cloth, for example, would be an exploit in linen even if it were dated 1921; dated, in scarlet cross-stitch, "Alston, 1797," Miss Frost's seven-yard table cloth is beyond price.
      I have no doubt that when, in 1918, there were rumors of an enemy submarine base in the West Indies, and the possibility of raids upon Charleston seemed more than mere fancy, the Spirit of the House smiled, and whispered: "I recollect Miles Brewton's father telling of Blackbeard, the pirate. He was going to raid Charles Town, but thought better of it. Then Stede Bonnet we caught him. There have been a lot of them, trouble-makers of one kind and another. Admiral Cervera and the Spanish had some such notion. Submarines? M-m-m, perhaps. Who knows? I m going to take a little nap now,
but if you want me, Charleston, let me know. I ll be about anyway when they commence to shell the town." by Paul M. Hollister

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