By Edinburgh history alumnus, Dr Jane Judge PhD
For the last several years, the University of Edinburgh main library’s video suite has hosted a transatlantic video seminar that brings together the Early American doctoral communities of the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Virginia. Held at least twice a semester, the seminars facilitate hour-long discussion of a pre-circulated work-in-progress paper. The idea is to expose students in the British system to the more competitive American doctoral seminar atmosphere while also providing opportunities to make contacts with academics working on similar research at a university halfway around the world. Last month these groups were able to finally meet in person, as PhD students, post-docs, and professors from Edinburgh and Glasgow talked Jefferson, jobs, and publishing under sunny Virginia skies on a trip to Charlottesville.
The week proved a success. From the meet-up in Washington DC’s impressive Union Station and the scenic train to Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of Appalachian Virginia, to evenings spent amicably talking of academe and life more generally at the friendly craft beer sports bar, a block from our hotel, the trip amplified feelings of camaraderie and collaboration for the British university contingent. This bonding complemented the informative and entertaining daytime activities at the University of Virginia and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home now owned and maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
During our first full day in town, the staff at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia filled our morning with a custom tour of the library’s exhibition about the Declaration of Independence, including what is believed to be Washington’s copy of the document’s facsimile; a wonderful consultation of special collections sources related to Jefferson, including the bibles he cut apart to create his own miracle-free account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; letters demanding that no Germans be hired as professors for Jefferson’s inchoate University of Virginia; and a fascinating look into the process behind the library’s phenomenal digitisation projects, where we were able to see how giant digital cameras take pristine images of manuscripts and printed pages to create the digital collections that many of us rely on for our research.
In the afternoon, in the grand setting of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies (ICJS), just around the bend from Jefferson’s own Monticello, the group expanded to bring together video seminar participants with those who normally attend the University of Virginia’s Early American work-in-progress seminar, which also includes members of ICJS, including Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Saunders Director of the center and VP of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. There, we did what we do best, discussing a chapter of a current student’s doctoral dissertation. As we were the guests to the occasion, it was fitting that the paper came from Ryan McGuinness, one of our Edinburgh contingent who’s hoping to submit his work in the next month. After the formal seminar, discussion and advice continued to flow in, and amongst giant pizzas and pitchers of beer at the local restaurant, the Virginia cohort habitually drop in on after their Tuesday session. There, the (perhaps more important) work of bonding among Americanists and 18th Century-ists spiced up the heretofore purely academic relationships among the participants.
If Tuesday was the quintessential demonstration of the relationship between our university units, Wednesday was the icing on our Jefferson cake. The day began with the Founder’s Day ceremonies – to fete Jefferson’s 273rd birthday – on top of “the Mountain.” We had been formally invited to attend the festivities on the West Lawn – the expanse of garden and lawn that stretches out from Monticello’s parlor facing west. With the neoclassical columns of Jefferson’s stately home in front of us (which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever seen an American 5-cent nickel), we watched as a Revolutionary Era fife and drum band accompanied the presentation of American military colors and the Jefferson Foundation’s president, Leslie Greene Bowman, welcomed us warmly. This year’s recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership was the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman. The first black woman to be admitted to the Mississippi Bar in the mid-1960s, Edelman gave a moving speech that urged her audience to act with regard to education and equal opportunities for children, as well as civil rights in general, receiving a deserved standing ovation. Afterwards, as the (literal) cake was sliced and we all lined up to get some, Ms Edelman took pictures with a school group of young African-American women and greeted admirers and well-wishers.
Our day at Monticello was rounded out by an enthusiastic behind-the-scenes tour. Having been refitted several times since the 1930s for public visits, the grounds of Monticello are a rich archaeological site (in fact, the largest archaeological operation in the country, we learned) and our tour began with an informal Q&A with some of the archaeologists working along what is called Mulberry Row, digging for information to reconstruct the small street that ran alongside Jefferson’s grand house. It had more than 20 dwellings, including housing for the enslaved house servants. These days the Foundation and Monticello do a good job of exposing the reality of Jefferson’s slave society, including his relationship with Sally Hemmings, whose family (both her own extended family and the children and grand-children she had through Jefferson’s relations with her) figures prominently in the story of Mulberry Row’s “servant houses” (as Jefferson referred to them in his diagrams), joinery, and blacksmith’s forge. Fittingly, given that history PhD candidates at Edinburgh work alongside colleagues in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, the archaeologists with whom we spoke emphasized the link between their physical work and the thousands of documents in the Foundation’s collection, many of which they use to guide their work as they choose where and how to excavate. From Mulberry Row, we continued into the vegetable gardens, overlooking beautiful Mont Alto to the southwest and lush with fragrant herbs, many of which we know Jefferson had growing when he lived there.
Our tour of the house itself did not disappoint. From the weathervane that connects to a wind dial to Thomas Jefferson’s polygraph machine, which allowed him to have a copy of everything he wrote, the 18th century enlightenment sense of curiosity and innovation pervaded. His library, which includes some original books as well as a large collection of the exact editions we know Jefferson owned, was probably a favorite with the group, as was the pleasant study Jefferson had furnished with a comfortable reading chair and revolving five-book stand (something I think every one of us would happily have appropriated for our own desks!). Excitingly, we were given a private tour of the upstairs, where we saw how the rest of Jefferson’s (white) family lived. We especially enjoyed the elegant and large Dome Room on the third floor, with its bright yellow walls and round windows allowing the Virginia sunshine to pour in – it was the perfect spot for several charming group photos. What’s more it highlighted the more puzzling side of this private tour, namely the quirks of Jefferson’s designs that created such a large space that ultimately went unused, or certainly underused, because he did not want his first floor vision disrupted. Indeed, the often-cramped size of the rooms reserved for the rest of his family, including his own daughters and many granddaughters, surprised us as we walked through and realized that windows that looked so stately and uniform from outside sat at the bottom of the walls inside, giving a curious feel to these less prestigious spaces. As with the documents we’d seen in the University’s special collections, Jefferson’s home proved an embodiment of the complexity of the man.
Our third day culminated in our most productive effort to engage our doctoral community. Professors Frank Cogliano (Edinburgh), Simon Newman (Glasgow), Alan Taylor (Virginia), and Max Edelson (Virginia) gave advice and fielded questions about job opportunities and career moves before we had a fruitful conversation with Dick Holway, history editor for University of Virginia Press. Then, our best ice-breaker turned out to be the five-minute-thesis round in which the doctoral students each had to present their research in under five minutes and then received feedback from the academics and post-docs in the room. The session was a resounding success, as Virginia students professed enthusiasm for bringing the practice to their own programmes and the opportunity gave us all deeper insight into what each of us actually studies. If you’re a postgraduate reading this, do yourself a favour and either formally participate in or round up your friends and create a five-minute-thesis presentation. You (and your public speaking skills) won’t regret it.
Finally, our week ended with a delicious meal at Charlottesville’s acclaimed C&O restaurant. The food was exquisite and the conversation flowed easily among the three tables, which were quickly forgotten after dessert as people mingled in the upstairs room we’d reserved, chatting about research and the stuff of life between glasses of wine and local beers. That is perhaps the surest sign of a week gone well: outside of the classrooms and our discussions of what we discover in archives and whom we cite in footnotes, our real connections come through socialising and sharing stories of what we discover in archives and where we last had a great piece of pizza. That is ultimately what this trip was all about, and I’ve no doubt the students from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as those we met from Virginia, gained invaluable insights from our trip to Charlottesville.