The Author’s Corner with Adam Costanzo

DWB_DEVVoAArQhf.jpgAdam Costanzo is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic?

AC: Initially, I envisioned the project as an examination of the relationship between the local residents of the District of Columbia and the federal government. Because the Constitution gives Congress exclusive control over the federal District, the capital has always had a very peculiar relationship with the federal government. As I began to explore the subject, however, I came to better understand the District’s place in national debates over political ideology. Eventually, it became clear that understanding the development of the city required understanding the visions for the nation, and for the city, put forward by the political leaders of the time. Thus, the book became an exploration of those visions for the national capital and the ways that they affected the growth of the city.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic?

AC: Federal support for development of the national capital ebbed and flowed in connection with the ideological goals of those in power. George Washington’s vision for a grand national capital on the Potomac was supported (but largely bungled) by Federalists, systematically ignored by Jeffersonians, and with the help of locals who had served as caretakers for Washington’s vision revived by Jacksonians as they began to establish a continental American empire.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic?

AC: In cities and towns across the nation, the federal government might wield some influence. In the District of Columbia, it had complete control over the city. That fact made the capital a physical embodiment of the ideological goals of early republic politicians. Thomas Jefferson might have written glowing prose about yeoman farmers advancing his empire of liberty into the west, but he had very few ways to control the actual development of that region. In the District, he got to decide what streets to fund, what bridges to build, and, in one delightful example of micromanagement, how to properly secure the bars over the windows of the new city jail.

If you have interest in early republic politics, city planning, DC history, architecture, or any of the ways that our built environment both reflects and affects the goals we have for our cities and our nation, you’ll need to read George Washington’s Washington.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AC: As an undergraduate in the post-Cold War 1990s, I studied International Relations and Russian Studies. While, these studies allowed me to study abroad and then briefly to live abroad after college, I eventually realized that what I had liked most about my IR courses was learning the history of the places and people I was studying. I decided to leave behind Russian Studies and take up American history for graduate school because I had learned enough Russian history by that point to see that it is almost unceasingly depressing. I settled on a specialty in early republic America in part because Americans at the time held out great hopefulness for the future despite the rapidly changing world around them.

JF: What is your next project?

AC: Right now, I’m working on turning the ideas and issues from George Washington’s Washington into a Reacting to the Past learning experience for the classroom. In a long-form Reacting game, students would be assigned characters from the history of early Washington such as local landowners, land speculators, city commissioners, or national politicians. Through a series of in-class activities, they’d work their own way through complicated questions like, what should the capital city look like, what should it mean to the nation, how should its plan reflect their political goals, how should construction of the city be funded, and what responsibility should the federal government have for the city itself. I think the subject matter offers not only room for students to engage in historical research and debate but also an opportunity to introduce the notion that the built environment around them carries meaning and has an effect on their lives.

AC: Thanks, Adam!

Kevin Hayes’s *George Washington: A Life in Books* Wins the 2018 George Washington Book Prize

HayesCongrats to Kevin Hayes.   Click here for our Author’s Corner interview with Hayes.

Here is the Mount Vernon press release:

MOUNT VERNON, VA – Author and historian Kevin J. Hayes has won the coveted George Washington Prize, including an award of $50,000, for his new book, George Washington: A Life in Books (Oxford University Press). One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards, now in its 13th year, the George Washington Prize honors its namesake by recognizing the year’s best new books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Conferred by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Washington College, the award will be presented to Hayes on May 23 at a black-tie gala at Mount Vernon.

In George Washington: A Life in Books, Hayes presents an intellectual biography of Washington that should permanentlydispel popular misconceptions of America’s leading Founding Father as a man of all action and no ideas. Washington scholars have long known that he owned an impressive library of more than thirteen hundred volumes. Hayes has gone further by meticulously paging through Washington’s surviving books held at the Boston Athenæum, the Washington Library at Mount Vernon, and other collections, as well as nearly nine hundred pages of Washington’s notes on his reading, to create a portrait of him as a reader. By closely examining Washington’s notes, Hayes has uncovered an intellectual curiosity that dozens of previous biographers have missed. As a young man, Washington read popular serials such as The Gentleman’s Magazine and The Spectator, which helps to bridge the long-imagined gap between him and his learned contemporaries like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams.

“Kevin Hayes shattered myths and calumnies against George Washington and has done much more,” said Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO of Mount Vernon. “He’s added to the depth of the man helping to reveal why Washington is such an effective leader.”

Established in 2005, the George Washington Prize has honored a dozen leading writers on the Revolutionary era including Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton. For this year’s prize, a distinguished jury comprised of notable historians Denver Brunsman, Flora Fraser, and Peter Onuf selected the seven finalists from a field of more than 50 books.

Mount Vernon’s event on May 23 will also honor the six finalists for the 2017 prize:

Max EdelsonThe New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Harvard University Press)

Eric HinderakerBoston’s Massacre (Harvard University Press)

Jon KuklaPatrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (Simon & Schuster)

James E. Lewis, Jr.The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (Princeton University Press)

Jennifer Van HornThe Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)

Douglas L. WiniarskiDarkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)

George Washington Did Not Like Military Parades

Bastille Parade

Trump was quite enamored with the 2017 Bastille Day military parade in Paris (via Creative Commons)

I got to know Lindsay Chervinsky a few years ago during my stint as a visiting fellow at Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  Her book project, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution,” is going to make a big splash when it appears in print.  She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Last week Chervinsky published an excellent and timely piece in The Washington Post titled “Why George Washington rejected a military in his honor (and why Donald Trump should, too).

Here is a taste:

This year, on Nov. 11, the federal government will throw a parade to celebrate the nation’s military past, including period costumes and reenactments from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and both world wars. To accompany the soldiers and veterans, the air will be filled with many generations of military planes. The parade is intended to proclaim U.S. military dominance, rather than the typical somber reflection at the cemetery. A White House report admits that the cost for the celebrations could exceed $30 million.

The significantly expanded parade comes at the request of President Trump, in an effort to one-up the Bastille Day celebration he witnessed last July in France. By celebrating current military strength, rather than honoring veterans’ service, the parade breaks with a long tradition of civilian leadership dating back to President George Washington.

Washington, the first in the pantheon of American military heroes to become president, refused pomp and circumstance as the trappings of monarchy, not a virtuous republic. If the parade occurs, it will demonstrate Trump’s contempt for civilian authority and flout the established governing norms of the republic.

On Oct. 24, 1789, President Washington entered Boston on the back of a large white stallion. This visit was the first time he had returned to the city since the Continental Army had liberated it from the British fleet in March 1776. Washington could have ridden into Boston a conquering hero with full fanfare — parades, feasts, military demonstrations, fireworks, cannons and countless toasts.

Instead, the day before his arrival, Washington pleaded with Gov. John Hancock to limit the celebrations. He then informed Maj. Gen. John Brooks, commander of the Middlesex Militia, that he would not review the militia or observe any special military maneuvers. As a private man, he could only pass down the line of troops assembled to greet him. There would be neither military parades nor any military operations for the newly inaugurated civilian leader.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Colin Calloway

51Wjbq2KQpL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgColin Calloway is John Kimball, Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his new book, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Indian World of George Washington?

CG: I, and many other scholars, have been working for years to include Native American history in the history of the United States, not only because indigenous experiences and voices should be part of the national narrative but also because the presence, power, and persistence of Indian nations affected how that narrative unfolded. I decided to write The Indian World of George Washington (rather than a book entitled George Washington and the Indians) because I hoped that demonstrating how Indian people and Indian lands played a central role in the life of the first president would confirm their central role in the early history of the nation he helped to found.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Indian World of George Washington?

CG: As first president, George Washington established important precedents that shaped the direction of US Indian policy and affected the lives of thousands of Indian people. At the same time, Indian people, Indian lands, Indian resistance, and Indian diplomacy shaped the life of George Washington and affected the direction of early American history.

JF: Why do we need to read The Indian World of George Washington?

CG: George Washington is perhaps the most iconic and revered figure in US history, but the purpose of the book is not to debunk him. History, put simply, is the stories we tell about the past. Simple stories may allow us to feel uniformly good about the nation’s past and its heroes, but great nations deserve great histories that recognize complexities, include multiple perspectives, and acknowledge hard truths. Looking closely and honestly at Washington’s dealings with Indian people and Indian lands provides a more ambiguous, but more realistic portrayal of the father of the country as a human being rather than as a demi-god; looking closely at the roles and experiences of Native Americans during his lifetime provides a richer and fuller picture of the world Washington inhabited and of the nation he built.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CG: Growing up in Britain, I think I was always interested in American history. What struck me as distinctive was the presence of Indian peoples; what struck me as odd was the relative absence of Indian people in most American history books. I suppose this is what led me to think about how differently the history of America looks if Indian people are included as having meaningful roles and impacts rather than scripted appearances and disappearances.

JF: What is your next project?

CG: I am beginning work on a book that will explore the experiences of Indian visitors to early American cities. Indian delegates who came to Philadelphia to negotiate with George Washington, for example, often spent many weeks in the city between negotiations. What did they do, see, and hear, and what did they make of it all?

JF: Thanks, Colin!

 

 

Americans and Land

American_progress

Earlier this week President Donald Trump tweeted:

I responded with a couple of tweets:

and

Not everyone was happy with me:

I thought about this series of tweets again when I read H.W. Brand’s piece at the website of the History Channel.  It is a (very) short introduction to Americans’ relationship to the land.  Here is a taste:

Before long, a critical mass of Americans joined Washington in concluding they needed a government of their own. Complaints over taxation and other issues joined the land question in triggering the American Revolution, which ended with the Americans in possession of the Ohio Valley and much more.

The new land proved the British right about one thing: More western settlement meant more trouble with the Indians. To the tribes of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, American independence was a disaster. The Americans were more aggressive in seizing land than the British had been. Often tribes secured treaties from the governments of the white settlers, but those treaties rarely inhibited the whites from taking what land they wanted.

At times the Indians resisted. In the first years of George Washington’s presidency, an Indian confederacy that formed in the region between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes inflicted a series of defeats upon settlers and local militia groups. They received arms and moral support from the British, who, still stinging from the loss of their 13 American colonies, were happy to provoke trouble for the upstart republic.

Washington summoned one of his lieutenants from the Revolutionary War, Anthony Wayne, known as Mad Anthony for his impetuous style of command. Wayne led America’s first federal army under the Constitution, called the Legion of the United States, against the Indian confederacy and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near modern Toledo.

The victory allowed the settlement of Ohio, but it meanwhile foreshadowed a century of struggle between whites and Indians over land along the westward-moving frontier.

Read the rest here.

Doug Bradburn Takes the Helm at Mount Vernon

BradburnCongrats to Douglas Bradburn on his promotion to President and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon!  Doug takes the position after four years as Founding Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

Check out our interview with Doug on Episode 17 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Also check Doug’s interview with me at the “Conversations at the Washington Library” podcast (Episode 4).

Here is the press release:

MOUNT VERNON, VA—The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association today announced the selection of its current library director, Dr. Doug Bradburn, to serve as the new president and chief executive officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He will begin his tenure on January 1, 2018, as only the eleventh person to hold this esteemed position since 1858, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the estate from the Washington family.

An accomplished leader and noted American history scholar, Bradburn currently serves as Founding Director for Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. With his appointment as president, Bradburn will expand his responsibilities to oversee the multifaceted daily operations of America’s most visited historic home and its research library. At the same time, he will partner closely with the board to shape the organization’s strategic priorities surrounding preservation, education, and visitor engagement. His selection follows an extensive national search, which began earlier this year after Mount Vernon’s tenth president, Curtis G. Viebranz, announced his plans to step down in late 2017.

“While searching for our next president, the board gave careful thought to Mount Vernon’s immediate needs and to the Association’s long-standing pledge to preserve and protect not only Mount Vernon but the life and legacy of American’s first president, George Washington. Doug brings the right balance of management expertise, intellectual rigor, and passion for George Washington’s legacy to lead us in these times,” said Sarah Miller Coulson, Regent. “We have seen Doug’s energetic and effective leadership in action in the four transformational years that he has served as our library’s founding director, and we are confident that he will apply tremendous enthusiasm and commitment to this position.”

Bradburn was named the Library’s founding director in 2013, mere weeks before the facility opened. In his four years in this role, Bradburn oversaw the selection of more than 60 research fellows and developed and executed dozens of lectures and symposia. He pioneered the launch of the George Washington Leadership Institute, which provides leadership development to government, corporate, and military officials. He also championed the restructuring of Mount Vernon’s teacher outreach programs and the guided the creation of a residential fellowship program for talented college juniors. He secured significant acquisitions of documents and manuscripts for the Library’s collections and spearheaded significant enhancements to the Library’s digital platforms.

“Doug takes the helm at an important time in Mount Vernon’s history,” Coulson continued. “We are confident that he will help us build on our successes in historic preservation, educational outreach, and visitor engagement as we work in new ways and with new audiences to preserve Mount Vernon for generations to come.”

“I am humbled and honored that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has entrusted me with the responsibility to lead this beloved institution,” said Bradburn. “My years at the Library have confirmed what I have long believed: that George Washington’s impact on the history and character of our country are far greater than that of any other individual. It is critical that we share these important stories of his life with our guests here at Mount Vernon and with people around the world. I look forward to my new role and to being part of an incredible team.”

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Virginia, Bradburn, 45, holds a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Economics from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.   He is the author and editor of three books and numerous articles and book chapters on the history of the American founding, leadership, and the history of American citizenship.  Before coming to Mount Vernon, Bradburn served as a professor of history and director of graduate studies at the State University of New York- Binghamton University and departed as chair of the history faculty. He will reside on the estate with his wife, Nadene, and their two children, Charles, 14, and Samuel, 12.

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.

Washington Slept Here

Mount_Vernon,_by_Francis_Jukes

On November 3 and 4, 2017, Mount Vernon will be hosting a symposium titled: “George Washington Slept Here: Travel, Rest, and Memory of the First President.”  The good folks at Mount Vernon has put together a very impressive set of talks.  Here is a taste:

During his exciting and well-traveled lifetime, the Father of Our Country slept in a great number of beds, and today, historic sites from Maine to Georgia proudly proclaim that “George Washington Slept Here.” Join leading historians, curators, and academics for an enlightening look at the wide variety of places where Washington lived or visited, including his early years on the frontier, the tropical island of Barbados, his war-time headquarters in Massachusetts, and the nearby capitol city of Annapolis. We will also explore his collection of maps and surveys, learn about his adventurous journey to the southern states in 1791, and examine many of the actual beds he slept on.

Where George Washington Slept: The Early Years

Philip Levy

Washington’s formative years have long sat under clouds of uncertainty. A lack of documents and an abundance of questionable stories have often left more confusion than certainty. But recent research at his Westmoreland County birthplace and at his childhood home near Fredericksburg, Virginia have told us more about these significant childhood years and places than anyone has known since Washington’s day. Both of these sites boast their own reconstructed homes, and these homes each tell very different stories of Washington and of his upbringing. Washington himself may not have slept within these actual walls, but exploring these sites, buildings, and their stories reveals much about how Americans have understood Washington and connected with his life.   

Philip Levy teaches early American history and archaeology, public history, and historical theory at the University of South Florida. He is the author of Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, and George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature Memory, Myth, & Landscape. He is also a former Washington Library research fellow. 

Soldier and Surveyor: George Washington on Virginia’s Frontier

John Maass

Although from a tidewater gentry family, George Washington spent much of his early years on Virginia’s frontier as a soldier and surveyor. Beginning at age sixteen, he surveyed hundreds of tracts primarily for Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck, in the Shenandoah and Potomac River Valleys. In 1754, Washington began his military service on Virginia’s frontier in the French and Indian War, serving until late 1758. This presentation will highlight various lands, forts, fords, and skirmishes associated with Washington’s years on the frontier. 

John Maass received a Ph.D. in early American history from the Ohio State University. He served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1988 to 1993. He is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. His publications include North Carolina and the French and Indian War: The Spreading Flames of War; Defending a New Nation, 1783-1811; The Road to Yorktown: Jefferson, Lafayette and the British Invasion of Virginia; and, most recently, George Washington’s Virginia.

Read the rest here.

The Plan to Build George Washington’s Mausoleum

 

Washington's Tomb

Washington’s Tomb, circa 1862

As Jamie L. Brummitt writes in her Junto post about the construction of George Washington’s mausoleum: “monuments matter.”  This was a project “entangled in debates about politics, finances, and the material nature of monuments.”  In the end, the plan to bring Washington’s remains to Washington D.C. never materialized.

Here is a taste:

On January 1, 1801, the House voted on the mausoleum bill and divided along party lines. Democratic-Republicans voted 34 to 3 against the bill and Federalists voted 45 to 3 for it. The bill passed. Congress determined to move forward with plans to construct a mausoleum for Washington’s remains. It set aside $200,000 for projected costs associated with a design by George Dance. These plans, however, evaporated within the year as Congress disagreed on the mausoleum’s final design. In the end, Congress did not erect the mausoleum and Washington’s corpse remained in the family tomb at Mount Vernon.

Historians usually interpret these debates as early expressions of party divisions. These debates also reveal different notions of the work of memorials and remains in the early republic. Both parties unanimously agreed that Washington’s remains should be deposited in the new capital city with a monument. Washington’s remains and a monument were essential to preserving his memory and perpetuating his virtues to the new nation. Congress, however, could not agree on the physical form a monument should take. The form of the monument mattered because different forms reflected degrees of sentiment and virtue associated with the remains.

The American public, however, did not require a congressionally approved stone monument. It was already producing monuments in other ways. Children, women, and men purchased, copied, painted, and embroidered likenesses of Washington and monuments for his remains. They displayed these images on their bodies and in their homes. They expected these monuments to preserve the memory and remains of Washington, and to transmit his virtues to them. Many Americans also made pilgrimages to Washington’s tomb to experience the virtues of his remains. Early visitors expressed disappointment on discovering that his remains lay in an ordinary family vault, not under a monument like the ones depicted in their treasured images.

Read the entire piece here.

Monuments Present a “conflict that cannot be resolved”

c18bd-jefferson-memorial

Should we rename this monument?

David Bell, a historian of revolutionary France who teaches at Princeton, offers some solid perspective on the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments.  He focuses particularly on Donald Trump’s remarks comparing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Here is a taste:

In the end, if we are to have any confidence in our own moral standards, we must believe that these standards are universally applicable, across time and space. And so, we must be ready to criticize figures in the past for attitudes and practices we consider abhorrent. If our moral standards are to have any meaning, then they don’t simply apply because we believe in them. They apply because they are right.

Yes, we also need to acknowledge that an overly rigid application of this principle would soon leave us with very little history to honor and celebrate, because few, if any, prominent figures of the past lived up to the moral standards of 21st-century Americans. Taken to the extreme, it would, indeed, mean tearing down the Washington Monument, and perhaps even the Lincoln Memorial.

But countries need their history. They need heroes and leaders to venerate, to inspire new generations, and to act as a source of unity. National unity can be a very fragile thing, as Americans today know all too well. Revolutionary movements have sometimes tried to consign their national pasts to the dustbin of history and to start over. The French revolutionaries famously introduced a new calendar, numbering the years from the birth of the French republic in 1792 and condemning nearly all of what came before as darkness, feudalism and superstition, unworthy of veneration. It didn’t work. Such attempts at erasure go against the deeply human need to feel a connection with the past.

The conflict, then, is one between two principles. On one hand, we should not honor people who did things and held beliefs that were morally objectionable. On the other, we need a common history we can take pride in as a nation. It is a conflict that cannot be resolved with cheap sound bites of the sort uttered by the president and his backers this week. They can be resolved only with careful, reasoned judgments, backed up by logic and evidence.

When it comes to particular figures in the past, such judgments involve, above all, looking carefully at their entire historical record. In the case of Washington, it involves weighing his role as a slave owner against his role as a heroic commander in chief, as an immensely popular political leader who resisted the temptation to become anything more than a republican chief executive, and who brought the country together around the new Constitution. Calhoun, by contrast, devoted his political career above all to the defense of slavery. The distinction between the two is not difficult to make.

Lee’s case is clear-cut. Whatever admirable personal qualities he may have had, he was also a man who took up arms against his country in defense of an evil institution. In my view, he doesn’t deserve to be honored in any fashion.

Read the entire piece here.  This is one the best short pieces I have read on this issue.

 

No, Your Questions About Monuments Do Not Make You a Racist! (Updated)

budapest_georgewashingtonstatue_pedestal

A monument to George Washington in Budapest

Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments.  On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:

What should we make of all this?  Here is one of the reader messages I received:

I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?

And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.

First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington.  I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist.  I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective.  Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth.  If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.

Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump).  There are similarities between Washington and Lee.  I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument.  But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee.  They are worth noting too.

In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them.  As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate.   Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy.  Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it.  Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia?  Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia.  I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.

This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.

Trump Lawyer: “You cannot be against General Lee and be for George Washington”

washington_lee

Yes, they both own slaves. Yes, they were both Virginians.  One lived in the eighteenth-century, the other in the nineteenth.  Lee was the president of a college that Washington helped to keep alive.

George Washington led an army to fight for liberty against what he perceived to be a tyrannical British government.  Yes, he was the product of a southern culture in which liberty and freedom were only afforded to white people.  And yes, the Revolution that he led was riddled with hypocrisy on this front.  These are essential points and must be acknowledged when we teach the American Revolution.   Washington freed his slaves when he died and the revolution he helped set in motion would, eventually, lead to the end of slavery in America despite the fact that Robert E. Lee did his best to stop such progress.  By all accounts, Lee was a Christian and a noble man.  But he also led an army built to preserve the institution of slavery and the white supremacy that came with it.

John Dowd, the lawyer for Donald Trump’s legal team, recently forwarded an e-mail to conservative journalists for the purpose of defending the comments POTUS made on Tuesday equating the white supremacists at Charlottesville with those who came to protest against them.  In the e-mail he wrote “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington–there is literally no difference between the two men.”

“Literally no difference.”  This is why we need to invest more money into historical education and historical thinking.  As I have said before, we need historians more than ever.  It is NOT a useless major.

Dowd’s e-mail went on to explain that Lee is no different than Washington because:

  • Both owned slaves
  • Both rebelled against the ruling government
  • Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West Point
  • Both saved America
  • Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders
  • Neither man is any different than Napoleon, Shaku Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc

Just to clarify:

  • Yes, as I mentioned above, both men owned slaves
  • Yes, both men rebelled against the ruling government.
  • I am not sure if both men’s battle tactics are taught at West Point.  I need some help on that one.
  • George Washington did not “save America” during the American Revolutionary War because it did not exist yet.  If Dowd means that he saved America during his presidency I don’t know of any historians who frame his eight years in office this way.  Lee did not save America.  He rebelled against and, as noted above, his rebellion was rooted in the preservation of slavery and white supremacy.
  • I will let readers decide if either man can be truly called “great.”
  • Actually, both men are different than the generals Dowd references above.  Yes, they were all military leaders, but they all lived in different eras making historical comparison very difficult.

This is just a quick answer.  I hope some historian will respond more thoroughly.

The New York Times broke the story and has some solid commentary from Civil War historian Judith Giesberg.   She reminds us that the Confederacy used Washington’s image, legacy, and role in the War for Independence to justify their own cause. The Lost Cause also invoked Washington.  I don’t know much about the history of Washington and Lee University, but I imagine that it was important to the leaders of the college to attach Lee’s name to Washington’s after the Confederate general died in 1870.

Here is the piece.

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

Lee

Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

How George Washington Got the Key to the Bastille

Mount_Vernon,_by_Francis_Jukes

If you go to Mount Vernon and tour the mansion you will see it.

Over at Smithsonian.com, Sara Georgini tells the story of Washington’s key to the Bastille.

Here is a taste:

President George Washington knew how to curate a blockbuster exhibit—and with just one artifact. Elite visitors who mingled in August 1790 at his New York reception, a meet-and-greet of sorts, clustered around an extraordinary sight: a midnight-colored metal key, just over seven inches in height and a little more than three inches wide, a key that once sealed the king’s prisoners into the notorious Bastille prison of Paris.

 

Following Washington’s party, newspapers across the country ran an “exact representation” of the key, splayed out in grim silhouette. This “new” relic of the French Revolution, sent by Washington’s longtime friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, soon appeared on display in Philadelphia, hung prominently in the president’s state dining room. (The legislation moving the nation’s capital from New York to a federal district, situated along the Potomac River, passed in 1790; Philadelphia was the interim capital until 1800.)

To the first American president, the Bastille key came to represent a global surge of liberty. He considered the unusual artifact to be a significant “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism by another.” Along with a sketch of the Bastille by Etienne-Louis-Denis Cathala , the architect who oversaw its final demolition, the key hung in the entryway of Washington’s Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. How and why it landed in the president’s home makes for a fascinating tale.

Read the entire piece here.

George Washington Returns William Howe’s Dog

GW DOG

“George Washington and His Mother” in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, 1865. (Wikipedia Commons)

Apparently George Washington loved dogs.  He even returned one to his British counterpart after the Battle of Germantown.  Here is a letter Washington  wrote to General William Howe three days after the battle.  (The letter was actually written by Alexander Hamilton).

[Perkiomen, Pa.] Octr 6. 1777

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.

HT: Nate McAlister

 

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Bill O’Reilly on Writing About the American Revolution From “Top to Bottom”

Killing EnglandThis is the title of Bill O’Reilly’s next book.  The official title is Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence.  It will be released on September 19, 2017.

In a recent interview, O’Reilly explained why he has decided to write about the American Revolution.  His words will leave all historians of the American Revolution rolling their eyes.

The book will be co-written by O’Reilly’s longtime collaborator, Martin Dugard. The six previous Killing books, which include Killing Lincoln, Killing Reagan and Killing Kennedy, have consistently sold more than 1 million copies each in hardcover, a rare achievement in publishing for nonfiction. O’Reilly said he chose the American Revolution because he had never read a book that explained it “top to bottom” and was also anxious to show the personal sides of George Washington and other leaders.

Unbelievable.  This speaks volumes.  I will leave it at that for now.

Thanks to Michael Hattem for bringing this interview to my attention.