Matthew R. Costello – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President”

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Matthew R. Costello – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President”


The Property of the Nation; George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President. University Press of Kansas, October 2019.

Matthew R. Costello

1. Tell us about the book. 

The book explores how Americans—individually and collectively—remembered George Washington during the nineteenth century. In order to tell that story, I used Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon as a lens, as this site of memory-making was a crossroads for politicians, Freemasons, enslaved African Americans, women, visiting foreigners, artists, poets, and entrepreneurs.

2. What’s your thesis? Story arc?  

Nineteenth-century Americans claimed the memory of Washington for many different reasons, and because he was so malleable as a symbol many Americans felt he belonged to everyone. “The Property of the Nation” was a phrase I found repeatedly throughout my research, and I argue that it was this idea that not only democratized the memory of Washington but also made it appear that he was a proponent of American democracy. In reality, George Washington—and most of the Founders—preferred republicanism as a form of government. 

3. What are the most important influences on your telling of this story? 

The visitor accounts. Many of these were published in newspapers, periodicals, and journals, but there were also observations in letters, diaries, and memoirs. The narrative is driven by their words and experiences at the tomb—which was often shaped by others such as the Washington family, the enslaved guides on site, steamboat captains, coach drivers, and many others. 

4. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject.

There are two that come to mind; first, that George Washington was an advocate for democratic government. As a member of the Virginia gentry and as a soldier, he adhered closely to societal and military hierarchies. He saw the inability of the national government to respond to a domestic insurrection in Shays’ Rebellion—and later believed the Whiskey Rebellion was the result of the growing number of “democratic societies.” As president, he watched the French Revolution unfold from afar, which only confirmed his fears that democracy would inevitably descend into mob rule and anarchy with the rise of demagogues. 

The other is that George Washington was uninterested in anything related to his legacy. The this myth was created by Washington, but it was amplified and reinforced by his contemporaries and those that came after him. He was very cognizant of his reputation during his lifetime and he gave serious thought about how Americans would remember him after he was gone.

5. What are the classics in field (if any)?  

I was surprised to find that no one had written a history of the tomb, but there are a number of important works that touch on the memory of George Washington and the power of place. Karal Marling’s George Washington Slept Here; Paul Longmore’s The Invention of George Washington; Edward Lengel’s Inventing George Washington; Scott Casper’s Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon; and Francois Furstenberg’s In the Name of the Father. 

6. What challenges did you face in this research? 

The biggest challenge was identifying the enslaved individuals who were working at Mount Vernon as historic tour guides and selling mementos to visitors. The farm books and diaries of John Augustine Washington III helped in some regards, but often times white visitors used words like “servant” or “Negro” to describe the person they were interacting with. Newspaper columnists observed that upwards of 500 people were visiting Mount Vernon every week in the1850s—so clearly these interactions and exchanges were being conducted by many of the enslaved, not just a few.

7. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?  

The farm books of John Augustine Washington III at the Fred W. Smith Library at Mount Vernon. For anyone interested in 1840s-1850s plantation management in Virginia, it’s these are great primary sources to consult. The collections also had some of the Washington family’s papers, tomb accounts and illustrations, and of course the archive for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

8. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?  

I wish there were written records of the enslaved who actually lived and worked at Mount Vernon during this time—and who more often than not interacted with the throngs of people who invaded the property. I had to rely mostly on eyewitness accounts written by white visitors. These are still significant historical sources, but one must be particularly critical of the language and bias that often accompanied them.

9. Who’s your audience? 

In keeping with the main idea of the book, the memory of George Washington democratized over time, and all Americans felt that they could claim some part of him and his legacy. I hope this book will appeal to everyone.

10. Tell us about you.  

I am currently the Acting Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at the White House Historical Association. I received my Ph.D. and M.A. from Marquette University, and I also teach a class on White House history at American University. My wife Kristen and I have two children, Sophia (3) and Theodore (9 months). 

11. What inspired you to write this book?   

I was first drawn to George Washington as an undergraduate, but specifically during his military career. I was particularly interested in early intelligence operations and spycraft. Later during my graduate studies, I was in a research seminar and decided to write on the 1832 attempt to move Washington’s remains to the Capitol Rotunda. I came across this when I was doing research on the Washington Monument, so my interest in how memory is designed, constructed, reinforced and reimagined, really started in that class.

12. What’s unique about your perspective?   

The book approaches the subject topically, which is a little different from most historical monographs. The first chapter looks at the politics of removing Washington’s remains from Mount Vernon; the second the business side of memory and how people profited from Washington; the third the enslaved community of Mount Vernon and their efforts to define Washington on their terms; the fourth on how Washington manifested in popular culture; the fifth on the idea of pilgrimage and sacredness of the space; and finally the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and the politicking that came with acquiring the estate and tomb. 

13. What’s your favorite DC history book? 

A couple come to mind—Bob Arnebeck’s Through a Fiery Trial and Chris Myers Ash and George Derek Musgrove’s Chocolate City.

14. What’s next for you? What are you working on? 

There are a couple things—our research initiative, Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood, which seeks to tell the stories of enslaved and free African Americans who lived and worked on Lafayette Square. I am also writing a book for the Association on the history of the 1902 Theodore Roosevelt renovation of the White House.