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.

George Washington Asks for a Ride to Church

Trinity

Federal Hall, Wall Street, and Trinity Church, 1789

Historian Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern is working on a project on John Jay at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this month.  At his Facebook page he shared this great 1789 letter from Washington to John Jay.

The President of the United States presents his Compliments to Mr Jay, and informs him that the Harness of the President’s Carriage was so much injured in coming from Jersey that he will not be able to use it today. If Mr Jay should propose going to Church this Morng the President would be obliged to him for a Seat in his Carriage.

The letter is dated “April-Dec. 1789.” Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, so it is unclear if he is POTUS yet.  There is no place mentioned on the letter, but all signs point to New York.  This was the site of the Federal Government until 1790 and it was the home state of Jay.  I would guess Washington needs a ride to New York’s Trinity Church where Jay was a church warden.

Hey, we all need a ride to church every now and then.

ADDENDUM: See the comments section.  It looks like GW was probably asking for a ride to St. Paul’s Chapel, not Trinity Church.  Nice work!

The Mind of George Washington

HayesHistorian Kevin Hayes has a new book out on the reading habits of George Washington. (Kevin, if you are out there I would love to interview for the Author’s Corner.  I can’t seem to find an e-mail address.  Thanks).

He gives us a preview of George Washington: A Life in Books at the blog of Oxford University Press.

Here is a taste:

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.

No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:

Surviving books

Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.

Marginalia

With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.

Read the entire piece here.

Nathaniel Philbrick Wins the 2017 George Washington Book Prize

PhilbrickHere is a taste of the press release from Washington College, one of the sponsors of the award.

Author Nathaniel Philbrick has won the coveted George Washington Prize, including an award of $50,000, for his book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking). One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards and now in its 12th 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 Philbrick on May 25 at a black-tie gala at Mount Vernon.

“To have Valiant Ambition recognized in this way means a tremendous amount to me, especially given the extraordinary quality of the books produced by the other six finalists,” said Philbrick. “My heartfelt thanks to the jurors involved in the selection process and to the George Washington Prize’s sponsoring institutions.”

Valiant Ambition is a surprising account of the middle years of the American Revolution and the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Philbrick creates a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and of the war that gave birth to a nation. He focuses on loyalty and personal integrity as he explores the relationship between Washington and Arnold—an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters.

“Philbrick brings both careful craftsmanship and propulsive energy to his storytelling—a hallmark of all his widely read and acclaimed books,” says Adam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. “Moreover, Valiant Ambition is also an impressive feat of research: it offers dramatic episodes that have been largely forgotten, such as a naval battle fought by Arnold on Lake Champlain in 1776, which Philbrick turns into a heart-racing adventure story.”   

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 David Preston, Kathleen DuVal, and Nick Bunker, selected the finalists from a field of nearly 60 books.

Mount Vernon’s event on May 25 will also honor the six finalists for the 2017 prize:

T.H. Breen, George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (Simon and Schuster)

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (Liveright Publishing)

Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton)

Michael J. KlarmanThe Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press)

Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler StoneFatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press)

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton)

 

George Washington on Nepotism

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Nepotism is bad

Cassandra Good, Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe, has written a timely piece at History News Network on George Washington’s view of nepotism.

Here is a taste:

George Washington was deeply concerned about maintaining a government based on merit rather than connections. While Washington had no sons or daughters, he did have a broader family of relations and close friends who could and did seek positions in the new administration. He marked out a firm line while still president-elect in the spring of 1789. He would “discharge the duties of the office with that impartiality and zeal for the public good, which ought never to suffer connections of blood or friendship to intermingle,” he told a friend. He told another friend that he “would not be in the remotest degree influenced, in making nominations, by motives arising from the ties of amity or blood.”

Washington knew that Americans were watching his appointments closely. “My political conduct in nominations … must be exceedingly circumspect and proof against just criticism,” he wrote, “for the eyes of Argus are upon me.” The Argus—a Greek mythical beast with 100 eyes—represented the vigilant new citizens, ready to pounce at any “supposed partiality for friends or relations.”

Washington used this analogy in a letter to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, in response to Bushrod’s request for a district attorney position. Washington had many nephews, but he had singled out Bushrod to inherit his Mount Vernon estate. Regardless of Washington’s desire to see his nephew advance, however, he reminded Bushrod that other, more qualified candidates were seeking the position. It was not until after Washington left office—and Bushrod was nine years older and more experienced—that he urged Bushrod to run for Congress. Bushrod instead accepted John Adams’s offer of a position on the Supreme Court, then a minor third wheel to the executive and legislative branches. The position of Associate Justice was the highest office, elected or appointed, that any close relation of George Washington ever achieved.

Washington knew that the decision to award offices solely on merit would set an important precedent for future presidents. This is not to suggest that he was entirely impartial; his close relationships with Alexander Hamilton and other young men who served with him in the Revolution clearly influenced his appointment of them to government posts. In the small elite of the new national leadership, granting positions to men he knew well would be difficult (if not impossible) to avoid. But the highest any family member ever rose during his presidency was as a private secretary, copying letters and assisting Washington primarily with running his private plantation.

Read the entire piece here.  Can you say Jared and Ivanka?

Was George Washington a Christian?

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This comes from the archives.  I wrote it back in 2011 when I was doing a weekly column at Patheos.  Here is a taste:

On Monday we will once again celebrate George Washington’s birthday. (He was actually born on February 22, 1732.) Over the course of the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Washington for my book on Christianity and the founding of the American republic. In a chapter entitled “Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?” I explore his religious beliefs and wonder whether or not we can truly call him a Christian. Washington’s faith is not easy to pin down.

I am not the only one who has wondered whether or not Washington was a Christian. His contemporaries also wondered. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that “doubt may and will exist” about the substance of his faith.

Today, Washington’s faith has become a minor battlefield in America’s ongoing culture wars. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and the coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind novels, has called Washington “a devout believer in Jesus Christ” who, in good evangelical fashion, “had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior.” Peter Lillback, the current president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has written over 1,100 pages in an attempt to prove that Washington was “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ . . .” In contrast, Joseph Ellis, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the American founders, has described Washington as a “lukewarm Episcopalian.” Writer Brooke Allen recently concluded that “there are very real doubts as to whether Washington was a Christian or even whether he was a believer at all.”

Who is right? Or, more importantly, what is at stake in deciding who is right? In recent years Washington’s faith has become heavily politicized. It is often used to promote a particular political platform in the present. The argument goes something like this: “If George Washington was a Christian, then America must be too” or “If Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation.”

Most historians agree that Washington was quiet about his faith. Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin, he did not leave behind definitive statements about what he believed. Neither was he particularly curious about theology or other religious matters. His religious reading was confined largely to sermons purchased by his devout wife, Martha.

We do know that Washington was a firm believer in what he called “Providence.” He used this term 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. This was an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God who created and ordered the universe, but whose purposes remained mysterious. Washington’s God was active in the lives of human beings. He could perform miracles, answer prayer, and intervene in history to carry out his will. Yet Washington never tried to predict what God was doing in history. Instead, he acted in history—often with great valor and determination—and let God’s purpose be done.

Washington was christened into the Anglican Church. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was known in Virginia plantation circles for her piety. George’s religious upbringing included regular reading of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He attended Anglican (later Episcopal) churches most of his life and even served his Virginia parish in leadership roles.

Read the entire piece here.  Happy Birthday, George!

Episode 17: The Way of Improvement Leads to Mount Vernon

podcast-icon1History always matters, but in times of great political change, good historical thinking is especially important. And since it’s Presidents’ Day, we thought the best place to start Season 3 is at historic Mount Vernon. In this episode we discuss George Washington’s leadership, paying special attention to his 1796 Farewell Address. We are joined by Douglas Bradburn (@douglasbradburn), the founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington (@gwbooks) at Mount Vernon.