Acting Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History, Matthew R. Costello’s new book The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President (University Press of Kansas, 2019) looks at the life of George Washington, and how he has been viewed throughout history.
George Washington was an affluent slave owner who believed that republicanism and social hierarchy were vital to the young country’s survival. And yet, he remains largely free of the “elitist” label affixed to his contemporaries, as Washington evolved in public memory during the nineteenth century into a man of the common people, the father of democracy. The Property of the Nation tells how this idea was a deliberately constructed image, shaped and reshaped over time, generally in service of one cause or another. Matthew R. Costello traces this process through the story of Washington’s tomb, whose history and popularity reflect the building of a memory of America’s first president — of, by, and for the American people.
Washington’s resting place at his beloved Mount Vernon estate was at times as contested as his iconic image; and in Costello’s telling, the many attempts to move the first president’s bodily remains offer greater insight to the issue of memory and hero worship in early America. While describing the efforts of politicians, business owners, artists, and storytellers to define, influence, and profit from the memory of Washington at Mount Vernon, this book’s main focus is the memory-making process that took place among American citizens. As public access to the tomb increased over time, more and more ordinary Americans were drawn to Mount Vernon, and their participation in this nationalistic ritual helped further democratize Washington in the popular imagination. Shifting our attention from official days of commemoration and publicly orchestrated events to spontaneous visits by citizens, Costello’s book clearly demonstrates in compelling detail how the memory of George Washington slowly but surely became The Property of the Nation.
A book talk on The Property of the Nation is set for Tuesday, February 18, at 6:30 pm, at The Fulton-Montgomery Community College’s Allen House, located at 2805 NY-67, Johnstown. Admission is $10. Tickets can be purchased online, or by emailing your name, city and state to firstname.lastname@example.org and paying $10 at the door. Matthew’s book will be available for sale ($5 off with paid admission).
Matthew R. Costello is Acting Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History & Senior Historian White House Historical Association and was a project contributor for the George Washington Bibliography Project, George Washington Papers. His work has appeared in such publications as White House History, Journal of History and Cultures, and Essays in History.
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