While researching early American political figures, Cassandra Good noticed something about America’s first first family: The Washingtons were notably absent from public and political life.
The assistant editor of the papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington was intrigued by the lack of public involvement by the family of one of the most deified characters in American history.
“It’s the story of a family, how they shaped a public identity and how America deals with political dynasties,” said Good, who has now been awarded a fellowship with Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to research the Washington family’s legacy.
Good is one of 18 recipients of the grant this year and will be using the time at the library to research an upcoming book on what happened to Washington’s descendents and why they chose against getting involved in politics.
To answer those questions, Good will use the library’s letters, George Washington’s will, and objects at Mount Vernon and other area historic sites. She will also be conducting research at the Smithsonian Institution and hopes to find documents from descendants, some of whom still live in the area.
Washington never had children, but raised two from his wife Martha’s previous marriage, two of her grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
Living in Arlington, the majority of which was owned by Washington’s stepgrandson, fueled Good’s interest in the project further. She said the family’s history is deeply entrenched in the area even where it isn’t obvious, as it is at Ferry Farm and Kenmore.
“Americans have a fascination with George Washington and what could have happened if we had a monarchy,” she said.
Good developed the idea for a project on the Washingtons while working on her upcoming book, “Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in America’s Founding Era,” which argues that male and female friendships around the time of the American Revolution helped build the U.S. That book is scheduled for release in 2015.
Douglas Bradburn, founding director of Mount Vernon’s library, said projects like Good’s are what the grant program hopes to encourage: new thinking on the founding fathers.
He said the project is a perfect complement to the library’s collection.
“We have a very strong archive of descendants on both sides,” he said. “This is an interesting project that speaks to George Washington’s legacy.”
This is the second year the fellowships have been offered. The 18 fellowship recipients will utilize the resources available at Mount Vernon and its new library to conduct research between September 2014 and August 2015 in six-month, three-month and one-month terms.
Good will research at the library during a one-month term.
Other proposed research topics range from the slave trade to Washington’s role in early American agriculture to the process of defining executive powers.
“One of the great things we can offer scholars is time, that special time away to focus on work,” Bradburn said about the fellowship.
The grant provides housing at Mount Vernon and a community of historians to talk to about the research.
He also said that by living on the estate, historians can see firsthand how Washington lived.
Even though she’s researching the project now, don’t expect to see it on bookshelves soon, Good said. A book like this could take anywhere from seven years to a decade to complete.
“We are living right here, where the family lived,” she said. “I’m excited to use the resources in the area that haven’t been tapped yet.”
Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976
THE PAPERS OF JAMES MONROE
As assistant editor of the papers of James Monroe, Cassandra Good spends her days at UMW tracking down, verifying and transcribing writings of Monroe.
Four volumes of Monroe’s papers have been published so far.
The newest, and fifth, volume of the papers will cover Monroe’s life between 1803 and 1811, when he was involved with the Louisiana Purchase and went to Spain, England and France for the U.S. government. It will be released this fall.
MOUNT VERNON’S GEORGE WASHINGTON LIBRARY
The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. by appointment.
The library’s collection includes scholarly work on George Washington, Colonial America and the Revolutionary era.
Call 703/780-3600 or visit mountvernon.org/library for more information.