The Property of the Nation: George Washington's Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President

Time Period
1623 to 1763
1764 to 1824
Media Type
Politics & Government
Matthew Costello

On December 10, 2019, Matthew Costello delivered the Banner Lecture, “The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President.”

George Washington was an affluent slaveowner 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. This memory, we learn in The Property of the Nation, 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. Though 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 focus is the memory-making process that took place among American citizens.

Dr. Matthew R. Costello is the Acting Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at the White House Historical Association. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in American history at Marquette University, and his B.A. in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He previously worked on the George Washington Bibliography Project for the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President.

This lecture was cosponsored by The White House Historical Association.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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