Mount Vernon Recap

Smith library

Many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know that I spent the last month as a visiting scholar at Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.  I reflected briefly on my visit in Episode 5 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.

Soon I will be ready to talk more fully about what I was working on during my visit.

In the meantime, here are a few highlights of my stint in Mount Vernon:

The members of the library staff that I worked with were outstanding.  Sarah Meyers, the Access Services Librarian, clearly loves her job.  It is obvious that her work is motivated by a strong sense of vocation. (I also learned that she was a student in my online Gilder-Lehrman class on Colonial America last Fall!)  I wish I had more time to chat with Mark Santangelo, the Chief Librarian and Archivist, about our common interest in religious history.  Mary Jongema, the Executive Assistant to the Founding Director, made sure that all of my technical needs were met, especially when she saw me wandering around the library with my laptop trying to get a WiFi signal.  (The problem was remedied quickly).

Stephen McLeod made sure that I was included in all of the wonderful lectures and talks that took place at the library during my visit.  (I got to attend lectures by Richard Norton Smith, Susan Swain, Nick Bunker, Lindsay Chervinsky, and Luke Pecoraro).  Neal Millikan of the Papers of George Washington offered some helpful connections to some yet-to-be-published work.  Allison Wickens told me about all the opportunities available to K-12 teachers at Mount Vernon.  I look forward to working with her in the future as part of the History Relevance Campaign.

Doug Bradburn, a scholar of the early American republic and, from all accounts, a very successful history professor, left his academic post in the History Department at SUNY-Binghamton in 2013 to become the Founding Director of the Smith Library.  After spending some time with him, it is clear that he made the right move.  Doug has a real passion for bridging the divide between academic and public history and he is very good at what he does. He is also a great guy, despite the fact that he will never let me live down my ill-conceived remark about the  size of the fellows’ discount at the Shops at Mount Vernon. On the day that I left Mount Vernon I sat down with Doug for a rollicking podcast interview. (His podcast, not mine). Stay tuned.  The library will be launching this podcast very soon.

My visit to Mount Vernon overlapped with the residencies of  four other visiting scholars. Erin Holmes is a Woody Holton graduate student from the University of South Carolina working on a project at the intersection of architectural history, sensory history, and slavery.  (I also learned that she is working with my old friend Louis Nelson).  I shared the reading room most days with Philip Levy of the University of Southern Florida. Some of you may know Phil as the archaeologist and public historian who “found” Ferry Farm, the childhood home of George Washington.  Phil is working on a biography of George Washington that focuses on his relationship with material culture.  Chris Juergens, a graduate student in European history at Florida State, is writing a transatlantic history of Hessian soldiers.  He was gracious enough to share some of his research with me and actually pointed me to a Hessian who described the American Revolution as a “Presbyterian rebellion.”  Thanks Chris.  Lindsay Chervinsky is an Alan Taylor graduate student at the University of California-Davis.  She is writing a history of George Washington’s cabinet. Believe it or not, the last history of the first presidential cabinet was written over 100 years ago.  I heard her give a public talk on her project and it is excellent.

The accommodations for visiting scholars at Mount Vernon are excellent.  My room in the DeVos House residence was first-rate. Scholars also get 24-hour access to the Mount Vernon estate.  (Doug Bradburn encouraged me to walk the grounds to “meditate” and “be inspired.”  He also told me not to break anything!).  I have posted after-hours pics of my walks on the property both here and on Facebook.  I also think I ate five or six meals in the Mount Vernon Inn.  I recommend the cornbread (thanks for the tip Linsday and Erin) and the Virginia peanut and chestnut soup.

Needless to say, it was a great month. I jump-started a research project, made some new friends, and enjoyed the stimulating conversation.

It’s good to get out once every now and then! I guess that is what sabbaticals are for.

I hope that my “way of improvement” leads me back to Mount Vernon very soon.

Time Travel Can Get Tiring

The George Washington Presidential Library - DC

I am in Mount Vernon, Virginia for a month.  I am working on my next book project at the Fred W. Smith Memorial Library for the Study of George Washington.  I am sure I will write more about my experience at the library (and perhaps post some pictures) as my fellowship here unfolds. Stay tuned.

But in this post I want to talk about historians as time travelers.  For the past several weeks, as anyone who reads this blog knows,  I have been writing a lot about religion and politics in the 2016 presidential primary season.

Yesterday I journeyed back to the eighteenth century.  I spent most of the day in the library reading letters written by and to George Washington in November 1776. (More on this project later).

After spending a day with documents related to the American Revolution, I returned to my room and started  blogging about election coverage again. Today I am back in the 18th-century.

These kinds of transitions–from the 21st century to the 18th century and back again–can be intellectual exhausting.  Think of it in terms of the jet lag one might experience when they visit a foreign country.

If you are doing history well you should probably be experiencing such jet-lag.  If you are teaching history well, your students should also feel it.