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When the hero of Hacksaw Ridge had lunch at the VHS

11/21/2016

Months ago when I read that a new movie produced by Mel Gibson was based on the story of Virginian Desmond Doss, a flood of sweet memories of visiting with Desmond and his (second) wife, Frances, came to mind.

Advertisement about Desmond T. Doss,

VHS capital campaign advertisement about Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Hacksaw Ridge during the battle of Okinawa.

It was 1994 and the VHS had recently completed its first capital campaign. I was the director of development and public affairs. The biggest challenge to raising the money in that very first campaign was creating interest in what the VHS had to offer without encouraging visitors because the building was closed to the public during a lengthy construction period. The solution was an ad campaign—what became an award-winning pro bono campaign donated by Kerry Feuerman and Carolyn McGeorge, both at Earle Palmer Brown Advertising Agency. The last ad in the series (by that time Kerry and Carolyn were working at the Martin Agency, and the building had reopened) was the story of Desmond Doss, conscientious objector.

Frances and Desmond lived in Rising Fawn, Georgia. We invited them to the VHS for lunch, to approve the ad and to talk to Desmond about loaning his medal of honor to the VHS for an exhibit on V-J Day.  More than twenty years after that lunch, I can still say that I have never met a more compelling person.  He was slight in build, elderly, and fragile from injuries suffered in Okinawa. Even with hearing aids, he had a hard time hearing. What he might have lacked in physical strength was completely overcome by the obvious strength of his character and the truth of his beliefs. He was a spellbinding speaker. It was comforting and easy to listen to him as he spoke. He talked about his home in Georgia, about gardening, about God’s love, about the beauty of nature, about the greatness of this country, about his first wife Dorothy and her trials. He talked about the joy that Frances had brought to his life. And though he clearly loved Virginia, Georgia had won his heart.  He spoke with humor, laughing often and drawing frequent chuckles from Frances.

My boss at the time, Charlie Bryan, one of the best historians and most talented administrators in the museum field, kept encouraging Desmond to talk about Okinawa and the fateful action that day and into the evening on Hacksaw Ridge. Charlie asked questions about Harry Truman and the ceremony when President Truman presented the medal of honor to Desmond. What was Desmond thinking at the time? What was the president like?

Desmond was so unaffected in his responses. There was no trace of ego and no personal pride. He didn’t use exaggeration or hyperbole in his retelling of the story. No great descriptors in the narrative—only a simple telling of facts. Above all, Desmond exuded a sense of wonder that we were interested.

After that lunch, I stayed in touch with Desmond and Frances for a while. They visited the VHS a time or two after that when they were on their way to Lynchburg.

When I see the new movie, it will be quite reassuring to know already how it ends.  That Desmond, though injured, survived to live a long life. And most of all that the hero of Hacksaw Ridge remained a hero all his life.

Pam Seay is the Senior Vice President for Advancement at the Virginia Historical Society.

 

 

 

 

 

The Declaration of Independence—Its Roots Are Found in a Virginia Document, Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America

11/17/2016

The Continental Congress assigned to Thomas Jefferson the task of drafting a Declaration of Independence and then cut one-quarter of what he wrote. The original text survives, however, as does a copy made by John Adams of what remained after a first edit. Those copies, plus a 1776 printing of the finished document, are displayed in The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the special exhibition now at the Virginia Historical Society.

A Summary View of the Rights of British America

This copy of A Summary View of the Rights of British America was printed by Clementina Rind, a printer in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Virginia Historical Society, call no. Rare E211 .J45 1774)

Jefferson got the job because he essentially had already written the declaration in his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, a landmark in Virginia history. A contemporary printing (Williamsburg, 1774) is displayed at the VHS in The Story of Virginia exhibition. Jefferson’s goal was to persuade the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress to take a forceful posture toward Great Britain, but in 1774 he stepped back from the brink: “It is not our wish, nor our interest, to separate from her.” The pamphlet stated the logical conclusion to the colonial protest movement that had begun in 1765: “the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.”

The importance of Summary View is proven by the reappearance in the Declaration of most of its ideas, beginning with Jefferson’s relentless attack of the king. For instance, in Summary View, Jefferson wrote that rights are derived from the laws of nature and are given by God to all people; that “free trade with all parts of the world” is a “natural right” that has been cut off by Great Britain; that “a series of oppressions” have been pursued by the king; that he has suspended colonial legislatures; that he has “laid his governors under such restrictions that they can pass no law”; and that he is “send[ing] over . . . mercenaries to invade & deluge us in blood.”

I explained in a blog posted on va-rep.org that Jefferson’s condemnation of the king for the trafficking of slaves was argued in the Summary View and then reappeared in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration but was deleted by Congress from the final document.

Jefferson, unhappy with the changes made by the Continental Congress to his draft of the Declaration of Independence, made several copies of the text "as originally framed," including this one, to show friends and colleagues how his text had been altered. (Original manuscript from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Jefferson, unhappy with the changes made by the Continental Congress to his draft of the Declaration of Independence, made several copies of the text “as originally framed,” including this one, to show friends and colleagues how his text had been altered. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Another interesting passage was reduced to the following sentence in both the first and final versions of the Declaration: “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.”  In his Summary View, Jefferson had theorized at length that the first settlers to America had made a clean break from the mother country when they emigrated at their own expense in order to live freely and harmoniously, without kings or lords, as had their Saxon ancestors before the Norman Conquest. If the Saxons left their native wilds in the north of Europe to settle in England, and no “claim of superiority or dependence [was] asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated,” why should George III and parliament assert a claim of superiority over the American colonies?

Jefferson’s famous statements about equality and unalienable rights (which take up less than one-fifth of the document) use language influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, written a month earlier in June 1776. Both Jefferson and Mason drew heavily from the English philosopher John Locke, whose Treatises of Government were written a hundred years earlier. Check out Mason’s Declaration of Rights; you may be surprised.

The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is sponsored by Altria with additional support from The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and The Elmon T. Gray Fund for Virginia History.

William M. S. Rasmussen is lead curator and Lora M. Robins curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

The Genius of Thomas Jefferson

10/15/2016
Thomas Jefferson, attributed to John Trumbull

This watercolor image, attributed to John Trumbull, appears in his famous painting of the presentation to Congress of the Declaration of Independence by its five-man draft committee. (Virginia Historical Society, accession # 1978.22)

The special exhibition The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is currently on view at the VHS. The Massachusetts collection was placed there in 1898 by the president’s great-grandson, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge of Boston.

We all know at least a little about the public Jefferson. To remind visitors of his service as governor of Virginia, congressman, minister to France, secretary of state under George Washington, vice president under John Adams, and third president of the United States, the VHS is presenting a complementary display of eighteen objects from its collection that point to the public Jefferson. These objects range from a 1785 printing of Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” and letters by him regarding the war between England and France to 1801 and 1814 editions of Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice (still partly in use in the House of Representatives) and Meriwether Lewis’s report of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

What do you know about the private Jefferson? Did you know that he was one of the greatest American architects or that he introduced hundreds of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees to the United States? His genius in architecture, gardening, and agriculture was as extraordinary as were his writing skills (John Adams told him “you write ten times better than I can”) or his understanding of science and governing.

Jefferson was arguably the greatest American architect, because two of his creations—Monticello and the University of Virginia—are included on the United Nations World Heritage List, and no other American architect has been so honored. His Virginia Capitol had international influence and established monumental classicism (the architecture of the temples of ancient Greece and Rome) as the style to be used for the large public buildings of America.

Thomas Jefferson's plan of Poplar Forest

Thomas Jefferson’s original plan for Poplar Forest shows a rectangular building with an octagonal central room, but the plan evolved into one of his most interesting designs: a purely octagonal building with all of the challenges that its odd room layout entailed. (Original manuscript from The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Jefferson was a member of America’s first great artistic generation, which included the painters John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, and Charles Willson Peale, all born in the 1740s. He was creative. He taught himself architecture by studying European pattern books (mostly out-of-date), which convinced him that the ancients had developed a perfect architecture based on the unchanging Laws of Nature (by that he meant the Greeks and Romans found the right proportions). Then Jefferson moved beyond the books and tradition. He innovated. He introduced octagons and the dome to American architecture, he took from contemporary France the flowing space and convenience of rooms on a single floor, he stretched out long decks and walkways along shallow rooms (at Monticello and the University of Virginia), and he incorporated his love of natural scenery by providing views from windows and doors and by building his house in the sky—all to achieve the “light and airy effect” that he described to friends as the goal. Today, that effect is what we want! Jefferson was ahead of his time. And so his buildings impact the viewer today, just as they always have.

Thomas Jefferson's plan of the Monticello mountaintop layout

Thomas Jefferson’s plan shows the general layout of the mountaintop, showing the lawn, garden, and roundabout for the first Monitcello. (Original manuscript from The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Jefferson ranked his introduction to America of olive trees and upland rice from Italy as among his major contributions to the nation. He argued, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add [a] useful plant to its culture.” Jefferson the gardener stated, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.” He built a 1,000-foot terrace into the side of the Monticello mountain so he could experiment there with vegetables and herbs—with 330 varieties of 99 species. He introduced 125 varieties of fruit trees. Having toured gardens in England with John Adams in the 1780s, Jefferson designed pavilions to serve as focal points for his gardens at Monticello (they were never built). Among the extensive farm records he kept are tables of crop rotations and lists of harvest times. Gardening and farming are wholesome, he concluded, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural.”

If this information is not enough to lure you to visit The Private Jefferson, let me mention that the Massachusetts Historical Society has added to the show three stars drawn from its other collections: a copy handwritten by Jefferson of his first (and longer) draft of the Declaration of Independence; a copy of the Declaration handwritten by John Adams; and a printed copy of the Declaration that was issued in Philadelphia in 1776. Those three documents are among the most important in American history.

Want to learn more about Thomas Jefferson? Check out this blog that William Rasmussen contributed to the Virginia Repertory Theatre.

The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is sponsored by Altria with additional support from The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and The Elmon T. Gray Fund for Virginia History.

William M. S. Rasmussen is lead curator and Lora M. Robins curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

The Markham Book Collection: First Steps in a New Project

10/12/2016

Perceptive patrons who regularly use the library’s online catalog will likely notice a new collection designation appearing in their searches—CMLS. The CMLS, or Confederate Memorial Literary Society, collections encompass manuscripts, rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, and other paper materials relating to the Civil War, its coming and its aftermath, from the Museum of the Confederacy’s Eleanor S. Brockenbrough library.

cmls-cataloging-screenshot

In 2014, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) entered into an agreement with the American Civil War Museum (ACWM)—the institution created by the merger in 2013 of the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy—to store, process, digitize and serve CMLS collections as part of the VHS’s Civil War Research Center. While it will be several years before all the targeted materials are available to researchers, as these collections are actively being transferred to the VHS they are being sequentially processed. Rather than holding back materials for several years until the project has been completed, the VHS is making materials available to researchers as they are processed.

markham_signature

The George F. Markham, Jr. book collection is the first set of materials that will be available to researchers. George F. Markham, Jr. (1916–2009) was a native of Wisconsin with a keen interest in the Civil War. He attended the University of Virginia and joined the Navy during World War II, where he served as a naval aviator in the Pacific, including at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. After retiring from the Navy, Markham lived in Wisconsin, where he collected Civil War books and artifacts. He amassed a respected private collection of more than 3,000 items, which he donated to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1992.

When the Markham collection first arrived at the VHS last year, the initial task was to get it on the shelves in the CMLS storage area and cross-check the inventory of contents. After validating the inventory, the volumes were organized using standard library protocols, and staff began the process of accessioning books into the VHS collections.

Over the past few months, staff has begun cataloging the collection, which involves creating a detailed catalog record for each book so that it is easily accessible for researchers. The condition of each book is also assessed and housing is created to store items in the best way possible to ensure that the collection will be maintained properly to be used for years to come.

cmls-ref-005-copy

 

The Markham collection is an exciting addition to the VHS’s Civil War Research Center as it expands the current VHS collections on the Civil War—Markham’s scope was not limited to Virginia so there are research materials relating to other states, especially Union states, which will supply researchers with resources for a well-rounded view of the Civil War.  Markham’s collection also includes rare Confederate Imprints, works signed by the actual Civil War veterans who authored them, foreign works on the Civil War, and even some artwork, including a set of original ink drawings Civil War artist Charles W. Reed created for John D. Billings’s best-selling memoir, Hardtack and Coffee.

While cataloging of the Markham collection is still underway, the VHS is adding newly described books from this collection to the library catalog weekly. In addition to the Markham collection, the VHS will eventually receive numerous rare books, broadsides, newspapers, and other published materials, as well as manuscript collections, from the Confederate Memorial Literary Society that will be cataloged and made available to researchers. The VHS is also conducting a digitization project on the images collection belonging to the American Civil War Museum, which will give researchers access to thousands of images of Civil War-related photographs and imagery once completed.

Until these additional materials are transferred to be made available through the VHS online catalog, questions related to the Confederate Memorial Literary Society collections should be directed to Robert Hancock, Director of the Collections Department at the American Civil War Museum, at rhancock@acwm.org.

Amber Jones is the Project Cataloging/Digital Librarian at the Virginia Historical Society.

Meet the Staff: Caroline Legros

09/06/2016

From answering phone inquiries to photographing new acquisitions, the staff at the VHS have a wide range of talents that help make our collections accessible to the world. Who are the talented men and women of the VHS? In a series of “Meet the Staff” blog posts, we will introduce you to the people who work behind the scenes to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia history.

Meet the Staff - Caroline Legros, School Programs Coordinator

What is your name and job title?

Caroline Legros, School Programs Coordinator

When did you begin working at the VHS?

I first started at the VHS in 2001, as a work-study student. I transitioned to my current position in 2009.

What are your job duties?

Caroline Legros working with a group of students in the Story of Virginia exhibition.

Here I am working with a group of elementary school students in “The Story of Virginia” exhibition.

I wear a bunch of different hats in my position – most importantly, I coordinate all on-site educational programs at the VHS. Whether it’s organizing a field trip for a group of fourth grader students or making arrangements for a tour of our special exhibitions for a retirement home, I’m the person who helps visitors make the most of their visit to the VHS. I also develop and present educational programs for various audiences, and coordinate the Society’s Docent program. Lastly, I work with the Museum staff as a curator for exhibits like The Story of Virginia and Original Art. Read more…

What Is a Sublime Landscape? What Is a Picturesque Landscape? Where Are They Found in Virginia?

08/30/2016

Thomas Jefferson wrote that Natural Bridge is “the most sublime of nature’s works”: “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here.” He purchased the bridge from King George III so that so potent a landmark would remain accessible to the public, and his exclamatory statements about the bridge’s intoxicating power were widely circulated when they appeared in his book Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). The future president made Natural Bridge so famous that it was remembered a half century later by Herman Melville when the author described the sublime whale he created, Moby Dick. He wrote, “The fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and… the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.”

What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he reported “emotions arising from the sublime”? The explanation is that he had been reading Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), which led the future president to search the Virginia landscape to find evidence of sublimity.

NaturalBridge.1995.98

Natural Bridge, 1882, Flavius Fisher, Lora Robins Collection of Virginia Art, 1995.98. A traveler wrote in 1852 of “staring upwards in stupid amazement at so grand a work of the Great Architect.”

The British statesman-to-be Edmund Burke offered a philosophy about the landscape that guided connoisseurs and artists in Europe and America for more than a century. He labeled “beautiful” those things that are smooth, varied in form, or delicate, and induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness—like a rose or the bend of a swan’s neck. More relevant to the painter were those powerful forces of nature and those elements visible in nature that threaten our self-preservation and make us aware of the futility of human arrangements.

Burke considered “sublime” the cataclysmic natural forces—tidal waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, conflagrations. Also “sublime” are extreme conditions that threaten our existence—such total stillness, total darkness, and death. Jefferson found that a human standing beneath the towering arch of Natural Bridge or peering down over its edge feels physically dwarfed and intellectually taken aback. He argued that such a landscape should be visited and it followed that it should be replicated in paint for those not able to see it on location. Read more…

The VHS Brings Out the Big Guns (Literally!) with Arming the Commonwealth

08/04/2016

image of Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Photo by Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis

From protecting yourself from enemy combatants to finding dinner for your family, weapons have played a significant role in Virginia history. Our newest exhibition, Arming the Commonwealth, made possible by the Cecil R. and Edna S. Hopkins Family Foundation, explores how the state became a hub for weapon manufacturing and how Virginians used them in their everyday lives.

Following the American Revolution, Virginia was the only state to arm its militia fully with locally manufactured weapons. In its short operational history, the Virginia Manufactory of Arms produced more than 58,000 muskets and bayonets, 10,000 swords, 4,000 pistols, and 200 artillery pieces for the state militia. Later, the U.S. Congress, recognizing the problem with relying on foreign countries for weapons, designated two sites for armories. One was Springfield, Massachusetts; the other was Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).

The average citizen used weapons for hunting or for personal protection. One of the pieces that always draws in crowds, and one of my personal favorites, is the English Long Fowler, known at the VHS as the “Woodson musket.” I have met several Woodson descendants (and there are a lot of them) wanting to see the musket on display. It’s 7 feet, 4 inches long and has a .80 caliber barrel. It’s huge! It may have been used to hunt stationary birds or in the military as a “wall gun.”

Image of WoodsonMusket (VHS accession number: 1929.8) on display in Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society

English Long Fowler (“Woodson” musket), mid 17th century, Barrel; about 1750, Lock; about 1800, Stock, VHS accession number: 1929.8 (On loan from Charles Granville Scott and conserved with gifts from Woodson descendants). By Woodson family tradition, the oldest part of the gun was used by Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon, who helped Sara Woodson defend her Prince George County home from an Indian attack on April 18, 1644.

Read more…

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