The Property of the Nation

George Washingtons Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President

Matthew R. Costello

Finalist: George Washington Prize

George Washington was an affluent slave owner 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.

“For scholars seeking a prehistory of founding fathers tourism, this work especially evocative. It underlines the ongoing tension of public history, private homes, and political power.

—Journal of Southern History

“Costello has written an engrossing story tracing how [George Washington] has been remembered.

—The Beacon
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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. While 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 main focus is the memory-making process that took place among American citizens. As public access to the tomb increased over time, more and more ordinary Americans were drawn to Mount Vernon, and their participation in this nationalistic ritual helped further democratize Washington in the popular imagination. Shifting our attention from official days of commemoration and publicly orchestrated events to spontaneous visits by citizens, Costello’s book clearly demonstrates in compelling detail how the memory of George Washington slowly but surely became The Property of the Nation.

About the Author

Matthew R. Costello is senior historian at the White House Historical Association and was a project contributor for the George Washington Bibliography Project, George Washington Papers. His work has appeared in such publications as White House History, Journal of History and Cultures, and Essays in History.