In December 1799, George Washington died after a short illness. His body and his legacy quickly became fodder for nineteenth century Americans – free and enslaved – who were struggling to make sense of what it meant to be an American as well as the nation’s identity.
Americans across the divide used Washington and his memory to advance various political and economic interests.
Some, like Federalists, yoked their political fortunes and their belief in a strong central government to Washington’s legacy, much to the abhorrence of Jeffersonian Republicans, who championed the yeoman farmer and a smaller federal state.
Enslaved people at Mount Vernon who never knew Washington in life used their fictive attachment to him to sell goods and services to the hundreds of Americans who made a civic pilgrimage to the Virginia plantation each year.
And all the while, Washington’s heirs dealt with a constant stream of visitors, trying to balance their private property interests against the idea that Washington was the “property of the nation.”
On today’s episode, Matthew Costello joins Jim Ambuske to discuss his aptly titled book, Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President.
About Our Guest:
Matthew Costello is Vice President of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at the White House Historical Association. He received his Ph.D. in history from Marquette University. Costello has published articles in The Journal of History and Cultures, Essays in History, The Dome, and White House History. His book, The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President was published by University Press of Kansas in fall 2019.
About Our Host:
Jim Ambuske leads the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2016 with a focus on Scotland and America in an Age of War and Revolution. He is a former Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia Law Library. At UVA, Ambuske co-directed the 1828 Catalogue Project and the Scottish Court of Session Project. Ambuske is currently at work on a book entitled Emigration and Empire: America and Scotland in the Revolutionary Era, as well as a chapter on Scottish loyalism during the American Revolution for a volume to be published by the University of Edinburgh Press.