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Here, George Washington Was Born

Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument

Seth C. Bruggeman

Publication Year: 2008

In Here, George Washington Was Born, Seth C. Bruggeman examines the history of commemoration in the United States by focusing on the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Virginia's Northern Neck, where contests of public memory have unfolded with particular vigor for nearly eighty years.

Washington left the birthplace with his family at a young age and rarely returned. The house burned in 1779 and would likely have passed from memory but for George Washington Parke Custis, who erected a stone marker on the site in 1815, creating the first birthplace monument in America. Both Virginia and the U.S. War Department later commemorated the site, but neither matched the work of a Virginia ladies association that in 1923 resolved to build a replica of the home. The National Park Service permitted construction of the "replica house" until a shocking archeological discovery sparked protracted battles between the two organizations over the building's appearance, purpose, and claims to historical authenticity.

Bruggeman sifts through years of correspondence, superintendent logs, and other park records to reconstruct delicate negotiations of power among a host of often unexpected claimants on Washington's memory. By paying close attention to costumes, furnishings, and other material culture, he reveals the centrality of race and gender in the construction of Washington's public memory and reminds us that national parks have not always welcomed all Americans. What's more, Bruggeman offers the story of Washington's birthplace as a cautionary tale about the perils and possibilities of public history by asking why we care about famous birthplaces at all.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Contents

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pp. v-

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

Never would I have imagined prior to this project that I might write a book, or anything else for that matter, about George Washington. Blame and thanks for that entirely unforeseen yet fortuitous turn of events goes to Heather Huyck and Rich Lowry at the College of William and Mary...

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Introduction: Birthing Washington

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pp. 1-23

Virginia State Route 3--known locally as "Kings Highway"--takes its name from King George County, through which it winds west from Fredericksburg into the commonwealth's Northern Neck, peeling back layers of urban sprawl as it does. Th e rolling fields and quaint country homes that...

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CHAPTER 1. The First Stone

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pp. 24-50

The history of commemoration at Washington's birthplace properly begins with a flamboyant character named George Washington Parke Custis. George and Martha adopted Custis after the boy's father, John Parke Custis--Martha's son by her first marriage--died in 1781. Custis was only...

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CHAPTER 2. Costumed Ladies and Federal Agents

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pp. 51-85

Despite all eff orts by the National Park Service to perpetuate the myth of a "place untouched by time," the most distinguishing feature of Washington's birthplace today is its unwitting preservation of decade upon decade of commemorative recalibration--and each layer invokes the ideological...

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CHAPTER 3. Building X

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pp. 86-113

The excitement generated by Washington's 1932 bicentennial spread everywhere, even into the funny pages. That year, cartoonist Frank King's nationally syndicated Gasoline Alley followed Uncle Walt and Skeezix on their tour of famous places associated with the life of George Washington. Their first stop was Wakefield. King introduced the series with a tri-panel comic...

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CHAPTER 4. A Contest of Relics

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pp. 114-139

When used today by scholars and pundits, the word "contest" usually refers to a struggle among cultural rivals to establish their beliefs as normative. The nightly news routinely covers contests of faith, politics, and values. Historians write about contests of cultures stemming from colonization,...

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CHAPTER 5. Framing the Colonial Picture

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pp. 140-172

Superintendent Russell Gibbs and his staff had a rough go of it during the spring and early summer of 1959. The Potomac River oyster wars--an ongoing and very violent turf war between Maryland and Virginia oyster tongers dating all the way back to Washington's day--erupted anew in...

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CHAPTER 6. Homecomings

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pp. 173-197

Although living history achieved a remarkable victory in the contest of relics at Washington's birthplace by the early 1970s, the Memorial House slowly but surely crept back into the spotlight during subsequent decades and remains to this day the park's most prominent feature. Explaining...

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Afterword

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pp. 198-204

Our story, and consequently my role in it, began on a summer morning in 2003 inside the park's Log House with historians and rangers wrangling over the historical significance of George Washington's birthplace. It is fitting, then, and perhaps even a shade ironic that we end in the same place...

Notes

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pp. 205-232

Bibliography

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pp. 233-247

Index

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pp. 249-260


E-ISBN-13: 9780820342726
E-ISBN-10: 0820342726
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820331775
Print-ISBN-10: 0820331775

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 19 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • National monuments -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • George Washington Birthplace National Monument (Va.) -- History.
  • Material culture -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Material culture -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Nationalism -- United States.
  • Patriotism -- United States.
  • Public history -- United States.
  • Collective memory -- United States.
  • National monuments -- Political aspects -- United States.
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