Inside the vaulted stacks at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, you’ll find Doug Bradburn, the founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
While he’s not a self-proclaimed bookworm, Bradburn often finds himself seated in the stacks, alongside Martha Washington’s papers and near the room filled with centuries-old books owned by Washington himself. History fans would have to agree, that’s something special.
So it was a pleasure to interview Bradburn in this special place to talk about why he believes it’s essential for children to understand American history, why George Washington is more than a myth — but actually a great businessman and leader, and how the tragedies in Washington’s life (often unknown by most Americans) helped to shape his character.
Before we launch into our Q&A, here’s a little background on Doug Bradburn:
Doug is an acclaimed historian who was a professor and director of Graduate Studies in the History Department at Binghamton University.
He taught college-level classes at a variety of institutions, held two year-long fellowships, earned a PhD in History from the University of Chicago, and got his BA in History and Economics from the University of Virginia.
Doug is a specialist in the history of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, and has written numerous articles and book chapters on topics related to the great problems of the Revolutionary Age.
His book, The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804 (UVA Press 2009), represents a thorough reconsideration of the meaning of the founding of the nation from the perspective of political fights over the meaning of individual rights and states’ rights within a changing federal Union.
Doug, how and when did you develop a passion for American history?
Doug Bradburn: I believe that I came to love American History through a very strong interest in storytelling and stories. From an early age I wanted to be a writer. I was more attracted to stories of our past than in fiction, so that was the genesis of my interest. My father was also very interested in history and that had a huge impact. Having parents who read history and took us to historical sights definitely spurred my interest as well.
David Bruce Smith: Why do you think it is important to learn history?
Doug Bradburn: We learn about the past to understand the present. In fact, the stories of the past are not just fun fantasies—they can be very instructive tales that allow us to understand the choices that were made before we were here that impact our own lives.
There is a basic need to know these stories, just like any child needs to know their parents’ history so they can better understand where they have come from. For instance, kids love learning how their parents met, what it was like when they were kids, etc. We all live based on the choices of others who came before us. It is something that kids crave.
Hope Katz Gibbs: The Grateful American™ Series is focused on restoring enthusiasm in American history for children, and grown-ups, too! We are curious to learn how you believe we can spark kids’ interest.
Doug Bradburn: It’s a great question, because this job gives me the ability to speak to multiple audiences about the experiences of the past. I love being able to directly communicate with the public—with school age children as well as leaders in military affairs and in politics.
That is what the new presidential library gives me an opportunity to do. Not only do we stimulate scholarship and encourage it through fellowship and academic programs, but also we figure out imaginative ways to distribute it to the interest level of different people.
But in the case of kids, K-12, it is a great challenge. Each child seems to learn in different ways, but what we can do at this institution is aggressively court and create material for them that is appealing. When it comes to the house at Mount Vernon itself, well, if we can get them here that makes a difference. This estate offers a tremendous insight into the past.
Hope Katz Gibbs: You have two sons. How have you gotten them to be excited about American history?
Doug Bradburn: My kids are 8 and 10, and they think Mount Vernon is the coolest place ever because they get to run around and see everything. The average student can also come here, go to the museum and the house, and get a sense of the man George Washington was. Simply by being here, all kids have the opportunity and ability to connect to the past in an exciting way.
David Bruce Smith: I always felt that Abraham Lincoln was beloved, and George Washington was admired. But Washington doesn’t seem quite as “human” as Lincoln. How do you humanize a man who became a true legend?
Doug Bradburn: It’s a challenge, and I think you’re right about the difference in these two men who became presidents. Washington was referred to as the father of his country, even before the American Revolution was over. After that, he would have another career, as the first president and the president of the Constitutional Convention.
The greatness of Washington can be overwhelming, making it difficult to find the man beneath the icon. He’s on the dollar bill, he’s in your pocket on every quarter, and his monument is an icon, too. Unlike the Lincoln Memorial, his is an abstract structure rather than a man sitting in his chair with his words around him.
Hope Katz Gibbs: For most of us, our image and ideas about Washington are not defined by the fact that his life was tragic. Lincoln was assassinated; Jefferson was a widower. You don’t hear of anything similarly tragic about Washington. But that’s not the case is it?
Doug Bradburn: Probably that’s because his accomplishments overshadow his life. When you examine his history, you learn that Washington’s father died when he was 11. His little sister also died, and his half-brother, Lawrence, was a mentor to him and helped him make his way in Colonial society—but he died when Washington was in his early teens. That left him quite alone in the world.
Tremendous responsibility was also cast on him at a very early age. The house he grew up in, Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, is a property that he managed himself but ended up selling. This is very rare for Washington, who was quite a good businessman, but it seems he sold it in part to distance himself from the very painful and difficult times he had there. In fact, the gravesite of his sister, the only Washington family member buried on the property, is where he started a survey of the property before he put it on the market.
Washington experienced similar challenges at Fort Necessity, where he was captured at the beginning of the French and Indian War. It is a great blunder and could have been the end of him. However, he was able to survive and learn from it. The same is true in the American Revolution itself—with his loss in Manhattan. But he ends up winning in Yorktown. So he has adversity and failures; he just overcomes them, and sometimes in a dramatic fashion.
And Washington’s was such a big life that there’s no time to tell all these stories to kids even within a classroom. But knowing his successes and his failures are part of what make us love and admire him.
David Bruce Smith: Fate seems to have played a big role in his life.
Doug Bradburn: It’s so true. Take the story called “The Braddock March,” in which Edward Braddock was the head of command of British soldiers and Washington was helping the Revolutionary Army as a volunteer aide and an expert on the West. Braddock’s job was to march from Alexandria essentially to Fort Duquesne where Pittsburgh is, and destroy it. But they march out into an ambush. Many people were killed, and Braddock is shot and dies.
Washington has four bullet holes in his jacket and multiple horses shot out from under him, but he does not have a scratch on him. He is the only officer not wounded in this battle, and though there are tremendous losses, his help retreating keeps the ambush from being an absolute disaster. It was still a disaster, but it would have been much worse without Washington’s behavior that day.
Later, when he looked back on his life, he remarked that Providence played a role in preserving him and that destiny or fate may have been at work, too.
David Bruce Smith: I also have a lot of respect for Martha Washington, especially in terms of humanizing her husband. She influences him probably more than most people realize.
Doug Bradburn: Yes, and what makes Martha’s story so difficult to know is that their letters to one another were destroyed at or before her death. As a result, we know very little about their personal interactions. But clearly she is influential and provides him with a great estate when they marry and is there for him his entire life.
Theirs is a great love story, but it’s really hard to tell without embellishing because they destroyed the evidence of it.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Was it typical to destroy love letters in that era, or was that specific to their relationship and his status?
Doug Bradburn: A little bit of both. Fortunately, we have a letter here in Mount Vernon that Washington wrote in June 1775. He had just became the commander in chief of this new army and was about to commit treason against Great Britain by marching off to Boston and to take control of the Colonists’ troops, when he wrote to Martha, saying, “I’m surrounded by people, but I just wanted to write to you and say I retain an unutterable amount of love and affection that neither time nor distance can change.” It speaks to a depth of love and affection between the two of them, and we wish we had the body of letters that no doubt was of great importance to them both.
David Bruce Smith: George Washington was also a talented and very successful entrepreneur. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.
Doug Bradburn: Washington was a very good businessman. He understood nature, and how things worked. He was interested in creating products that were helpful to mankind. He did that at the estate by trying to find better ways to grow his crops, make money, and share with other farmers the proper practices of agriculture.
- He sold finely found ground flour to southern Spain and Portugal when Virginia had been dominated by the tobacco culture in the middle of the 17th century.
- He was a leader in terms of finding new products, and new markets, for fishermen. He has a shad fishery on the Potomac River that was quite successful.
- At the end of his life, he looked for innovative ways to grind flour. When he was president, the third patent ever issued was for Oliver Evans Grinding System. Washington approved it, and realized it was something he could use at Mount Vernon. So he incorporated it into his farm decades before others saw the value.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Stories like these make its impossible to understand why everyone doesn’t have a passion for American history. So tell us, why do you think kids don’t know much about history?
Doug Bradburn: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I think the answer is that kids are interested in things that society is interested in. Today, we live in a culture that is celebrity-focused, and emphasizes fleeting things. Unfortunately, the past is not something that is celebrated.
David Bruce Smith: Do you believe standardized tests are also part of the problem?
Doug Bradburn: There are certainly great teachers out there who love history. But they have challenges because there is so much they need to accomplish every day, week, and year. As a result, too many children aren’t exposed to the heart of the material that could bring history alive. Stories are the key. And, as you know, most people learn in two ways—through the head and through the heart. To fully embrace our nation’s early history, you need to be able to relate to the founding fathers and mothers.
David Bruce Smith: If you could pick two things you would want kids to know about George Washington, what would they be?
Doug Bradburn: That’s a great question.
- They have to know that Washington was the first president, and know that he was a great Revolutionary War commander. But what I want them also to know is that Washington never gave up in the face of adversity. He failed many times in his life and learned from those lessons. The challenges of his early life—the loss of his father and brother, the loss in military campaigns—did not bring him down, they made him strive to improvement.
- This is a man who is on the dollar bill, not just because he was the first president—but also because he overcame tremendous challenges. He struggled with things; and he learned from and pushed through them. Having the courage to work through challenges and not give up is a crucial lesson of Washington’s life for children.
- And here’s a third thing: Washington gave up power. At the crucial moment when he could have become a very powerful figure, he was able to walk away from it because he thought it was in the common good, not the most selfish way to live. Live with a mindset that you are trying to do what is right for everyone, not just for yourself and your own interest. That is what would be called in the 18th century “a virtuous life” of public service.
David Bruce Smith: Thank you so much for your time, Doug. This library is magnificent, and everyone should take the opportunity to visit.
Be sure to check out Mount Vernon’s website: www.mountvernon.org.