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  • The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President by Matthew R. Costello
  • Sarah J. Purcell (bio)

George Washington, Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Presidential history

The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President. By Matthew R. Costello. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019. Pp. 336. Cloth, $45.00.)

Matthew Costello’s The Property of the Nation examines the cultural importance of George Washington’s tomb at his Mount Vernon estate to argue that it helped to gradually transform “his image from that of an aristocratic gentleman and symbol of republicanism into a figure of American democracy” (8). Costello contributes to the overall historiography on George Washington’s memory by setting aside questions about how Washington, as a symbol, contributed to American national identity and instead “exploring the interconnections between democracy, celebrity culture, and the forging of a popular, collective memory” (9). Costello’s work contains elements of cultural, social, and political history, and it will interest a wide variety of American historians. The Property of the Nation is well written, the kind of book that students, popular readers, and scholars are likely to enjoy—even if the last group is left wishing, at times, that Costello had pushed the significance of his own argument even further.

Costello organizes the chapters in The Property of the Nation thematically, rather than chronologically, in a bid to explore the relationship between Washington’s tomb and his memory “from diff erent perspectives” (9). The thematic organization suits some sections of the book better than others. The book opens with a great chapter on “the politics of disinterment” that examines how “following George Washington’s death, political parties, government assemblies, and fraternal organizations sought Washington’s body for their own ideological and partisan purposes” between his death in 1799 and 1833, and the chapter clearly delineates Costello’s argument about how “the people” felt entitled to access Washington’s remains because no government entity or organization was able to lay claim to his burial (13). It also sets up the love–hate relationship between the owners of Mount Vernon—Washington’s heirs and then the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA)—and the heterogeneous public who flocked to the property to see Washington’s grave and pay respects to his memory. Equally effective is the final chapter that charts how Anne Pamela Cunningham founded the MVLA in 1853, raised funds, and purchased the estate in 1858, tying one of the country’s first historic [End Page 486] preservation efforts to the public demand for access to Washington’s “sacred” tomb.

Unfortunately, the thematic organization also dulls the impact of other chapters because of repetition and the need to insert recurrent contextual narratives. The struggles of Bushrod Washington, John Augustine Washington Jr., and Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington (and her son John Augustine Washington III) to balance their desires to earn money from the entire estate, their care of Washington’s remains, their cautious engagement with tourism, and their political and religious commitments appear in fits and starts throughout the book, blunting an interesting theme of contest between public entitlement to Washington’s memory and the private ownership of his estate. Some material, such as anecdotes about visitors taking pieces of Washington’s coffin shroud and the trees that overhung his grave, appear in multiple chapters, without a full explanation of how the practices changed over time, even as the estate changed hands and as the family built a larger tomb for the Washington family in the 1830s.

Costello’s best chapter focuses on “enslaved storytellers at Mount Vernon” who guarded the tomb, guided visitors, sold souvenirs and refreshments, and buffered the Washington family from the curious public to become “the first interpreters and agents of an emerging form of historical tourism” (82, 84). Costello vividly narrates how enslaved people interacted with free Black workers (many of them family), immigrant hired laborers, Washington family members, visitors, and the press to shape public memory of George Washington, and thereby to give themselves some agency in framing his memory, even as they were sometimes viewed as...


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pp. 486-488
Launched on MUSE
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