On the Road in Late July

Fea at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Museum

I am in the at the midpoint of two weeks of work with the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  As some of you know, this last week I was in Mount Vernon, Virginia and Boston filming a 12-week lecture course on colonial America for elementary school history and social studies teachers.  We filmed the lectures in a hotel in Framingham, Massachusetts and filmed five-minute lecture introductions in the tobacco fields and at the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, the Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon, the Boston Long Wharf, Old South Meetinghouse, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, the Massachusetts State House, Harvard University, the Boston Public Library, and Boston College.  It was hot and the work was rigorous (one day I gave five 50-minutes lectures to a camera!), but this kind of work is rewarding and hopefully useful to teachers–the men and women on the front lines of preserving, sustaining, and strengthening our democracy.

Fea at Mansion

Thanks to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for the opportunity to work on this course.  And special thanks to Sarah Jannarone and Peter Shea of Gilder-Lehrman and Garrett Kafchinski of Diagonal Media for all their hard work this week.

I understand that this course will be published at the Gilder-Lehrman website as part of its forthcoming “History Essentials” series sometime next year. Stay tuned

Fea Boston Public

With a 1656 map of New Spain at the Boston Public Library map room

Tomorrow I will be back in Princeton for what is becoming an annual event:  the Gilder Lehrman Institute summer seminar on Colonial America.  Stay tuned.  I will be blogging every day from Princeton.  (Click here to see some of my posts from 2018).  As always, I will be working with Nate McAlister. Nate is my partner-in-crime, a high school history teacher in Kansas, and the 2010 National History Teacher of the Year!

Here are some pics from 2018. I am hoping for another great week:

Princeton--Philly Trip

Philadelphia bound!

Princeton-Nate

Nate with a Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Princeton-Boudreau

In Philadelphia I introduced the teachers to the legendary George Boudreau

 

Princeton--Kidd

We ran into esteemed early American religious historian Thomas Kidd and some of his students in the Princeton graveyard

Princeton--Why

Finalists for George Washington Book Prize Announced

Vernon

Congrats to the nominees!

MOUNT VERNON, VA – Seven books published in 2018 by the country’s most prominent historians have been named finalists for the George Washington Prize. The annual award recognizes the past year’s best works on the nation’s founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of early American history.

“This prestigious prize started in 2005, and I am delighted to say that this year has one of the strongest lists of books that we have ever seen,” said Dr. Doug Bradburn, Mount Vernon President & CEO. “Clearly, we are in a golden age for writing on the founding of the United States, and I very much hope we can get the attention of the American people around their founding stories—things that we have in common that we share that make us one people. Now is the time for us to redouble our efforts to teach the story of American history to our citizens.”

Created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Washington College, the $50,000 George Washington Prize is one of the nation’s largest and most notable literary awards.

Written to engage a wide public audience, the selected books provide a “go-to” reading list for anyone interested in learning more about George Washington, his contemporaries, and the founding of the United States of America.

The 2019 George Washington Prize finalists are:

  • Colin Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation (Oxford University Press)
  • Stephen Fried, Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (Crown)
  • Catherine Kerrison, Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America (Ballantine Books)
  • Joyce Lee Malcolm, The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life (Pegasus Books)
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (Viking)
  • Russell Shorto, Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Peter Stark, Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father (Harper Collins)

Mount Vernon CEO Doug Bradburn Explains What It Was Like Giving Donald Trump a Tour

Bradburn and Trump

Doug Bradburn, the CEO of Mount Vernon, gave Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron a tour of George Washington’s estate in April 2018.

Now Bradburn is talking about the Trump visit.  Here is a taste of an article at Politico on Bradburn’s attempts to keep Trump interested on the tour:

During a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned that Washington was one of the major real-estate speculators of his era. So, he couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself.

“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The VIPs’ tour guide for the evening, Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.

Here is more:

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

A former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.

Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.

“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about Trump and American history in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them.  His approach to history also reveals his narcissism.  When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story.  As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”  Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.”  The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself.  Not all presidents have been perfect, and other have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office.   Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.  Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity.  This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst.  Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries.  Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” 

Sam Wineburg, one of the country’s foremost scholars of historical thinking, writes:

“For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”

I chatted with Bradburn in this episode of his Mount Vernon podcast and you can listen to our interview with Bradburn in Episode 17 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Mount Vernon Names Kevin Butterfield Director of the George Washington Presidential Library

Smith library

Here is the press release:

MOUNT VERNON, VA—The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association today tapped a noted American historian, Dr. Kevin Butterfield, to serve as the executive director of The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington (Washington Library), the premier center for the study of our first President.  As the executive director of the Washington Library, Butterfield will foster serious scholarship about George Washington and his era while also developing new and furthering existing cutting-edge academic and public programs, as well as growing the library collection.

“Kevin brings a fresh set of bold ideas and vision to take the Library to the next level—He’s a great scholar, but also has the rare gift of leadership,” said Mount Vernon president Doug Bradburn. “Our first five years were exceptional; I can’t wait to see what Kevin does in the coming years. The country needs George Washington’s wisdom and example as much as ever.”

Butterfield comes to Mount Vernon from the University of Oklahoma, where he serves as Director of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage and Constitutional Studies Program and holds an appointment as Wick Cary Professor and Associate Professor of Classics and Letters.  A specialist in the founding era, he boasts a lengthy list of publication and teaching credits on topics related to the founding period, including one prize-winning book about early American legal history and several articles.

Butterfield has been honored with many fellowships to support his research from institutions such as the American Antiquarian Society, Winterthur Museum, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Huntington Library, the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and many others. In his role as the head of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage at the University of Oklahoma, he engaged multiple public audiences in exploring current affairs with a historical approach focused on the Constitution and civic engagement.

“Kevin Butterfield is a superb choice to be the new Executive Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood.  “He combines excellent administrative experience with a deep understanding of history, precisely the talents needed for this important position.”

Butterfield will become the second historian to lead the Washington Library, replacing its founding director, Dr. Douglas Bradburn, who was named president of George Washington’s Mount Vernon in January 2018. Since its opening in 2013, the Washington Library has rapidly established itself as the premier center for the study of George Washington, a leading institution fostering scholarship and education in the history of the founding era of the U.S., and an innovative leader in the creation and dissemination of historical learning to a variety of audiences.

The Washington Library has held impactful conferences with prominent institutions in early American history, created a popular research fellowship program, and hosted more than 24,000 people at public events, teaching institutes, and leadership programs. The Washington Library has produced award-winning documentaries on the founding era, created ground-breaking educational experiences both on-site and across the country, and established the George Washington Leadership Institute as a top program for leadership studies.

A completely private and independent research library, the Washington Library is owned and maintained, along with Mount Vernon, the historic estate of George Washington, by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Butterfield holds a B.A. in History from the University of Missouri, an M.A. in History from the College of William and Mary, and a PhD in History from Washington University in St. Louis. He will begin his duties as Executive Director on August 1, 2018. 

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

 

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.

Tim Kaine at the George Washington Library

Here is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s new running mate, talking about politics and character at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.  I love the setting of this interview.  Kaine is seated in the magnificent reading room with the print edition of the Papers of George Washington behind him.  I assume that Doug Bradburn, the Founding Director of the library, is conducting the interview.

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.