March 27, 2014, Washington, DC — What made George Washington the icon that he became? That’s the question that David Bruce Smith, creator of the Grateful American™ Series, asked this month of Doug Bradburn, PhD, executive director of the new presidential library at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, in Alexandria, VA.
Bradburn doesn’t claim that the nation’s first president was perfect. In fact, Washington had adversity and failures, Bradburn points out. What makes him stand out is that “he just overcomes them.”
Knowing about Washington’s successes and his failures are part of what make him admirable, and what makes learning about him interesting. And learning about him, and history in general, is a mission of Publisher David Bruce Smith.
“You have to know where you came from to know where you are going,” Smith says. That philosophy explains why he launched the the Grateful American™ Series in January 2014.
The interactive, multimedia program is designed to restore enthusiasm in American history in children—and grown-ups, too. Throughout the year, Smith will be recording interviews for the Inkandescent Radio Network with the executives who run the nation’s presidential homes, as well as historians, authors, and educators who know the importance of keeping our nation’s history alive.
Smith, and his co-host Hope Katz Gibbs, executive director of the Grateful American™ Foundation, visited Mount Vernon to interview Bradburn, founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
Their conversation took place in the new presidential library, which includes Martha Washington’s papers and books owned by George Washington himself.
Bradburn, an acclaimed historian and author, was a professor and director of Graduate Studies in the History Department at Binghamton University. He has taught college-level classes at a variety of institutions, held two year-long fellowships, and earned his PhD in history from the University of Chicago.
Bradburn’s numerous articles and book chapters are on topics related to the great problems of the Revolutionary Age. A specialist in the history of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, his book is, “The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804” (UVA Press 2009).
Following are excerpts of the conversation between Smith and Bradburn, part of the Grateful American™ Series, featured in Smith’s monthly History column on Be Inkandescent magazine.
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.
David Bruce Smith: The Grateful American™ Series is focused on restoring enthusiasm in American history, so I’m curious—how do you think we can spark kids’ interest in history?
Doug Bradburn: 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. 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.
David Bruce Smith: 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. Any 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, maybe because Washington doesn’t seem quite as “human” as Lincoln. How do you humanize a man who became a true legend?
Doug Bradburn: 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, the Washington Monument is an abstract structure rather than a man sitting in his chair with his words around him.
David Bruce Smith: Another thing is that Washington is not defined by tragedy. Lincoln was assassinated; Jefferson was a widower. You don’t hear of anything similarly tragic about Washington.
Doug Bradburn: That’s probably because Washington’s accomplishments overshadow his life. But 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.
Washington experienced similar challenges at Fort Necessity, where he was captured at the beginning of the French and Indian War. It was a great blunder and could have been the end of him. However, he was able to survive and learn from it.
David Bruce Smith: I also have a lot of respect for Martha Washington. 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.
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 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.”
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 had a shad fishery on the Potomac River that was quite successful.
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 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 improve.
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 for the common good. 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.
Visit Mount Vernon’s website: www.mountvernon.org.
The Grateful American™ Series includes:
- The Grateful American™ Radio Show on the Inkandescent Radio Network features interviews about historical figures (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc.) with the chief executives of the nation’s presidential homes, historians, and other experts: www.InkandescentRadio.com.
- A TV series on YouTube, public access, and national TV stations.
- The Grateful American™ Guidebooks: Features insights from the leaders of the presidential homes, and interactive exercises that explore, engage, and help readers develop an interest in American history.
- The Grateful American™ Events: Dovetails with and promoting the events-in-progress currently going on at each of the nation’s top presidential homes.
- An interactive website: Students post art, photos, writing, music, and other creative works about what excites them about American history.
About David Bruce Smith
Author and publisher David Bruce Smith is the creator of The Grateful American™ Series, an interactive multimedia program that is focused on restoring enthusiasm for American history in children — and grown-ups, too.
A graduate of The George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in American Literature, and a master’s in journalism from New York University, Smith has spent decades as a real estate executive and the Editor-in-Chief/ Publisher of Crystal City Magazine.
He is also the author of 11 books, including his most recent, “American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.”
For more information:
Learn more about the Grateful American ™ Foundation at GratefulAmericanFoundation.com.
Questions: Contact Hope Katz Gibbs at firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-346-6975.