By Jon Singerton, current PhD student, American History, the University of Edinburgh
Exactly a month ago, a group of scholars made their way to Charlottesville for a week of exchange, workshops and sightseeing as members of the Transatlantic Seminar. For the last decade this gathering has taken place twice a semester, forming a vital link between the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow on one side and the University of Virginia (UVA) on the other. Over those years the TA saw many generations of postgraduate scholars shuffle through but this latest generation were fortunate enough to be the first to meet their transatlantic counterparts in person.
Although we arrived on Monday, April 11th, our first ‘real’ day began on the Tuesday – especially for those of us who were staving off jetlag – with a tour of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library on the Grounds at UVA. Of course, at Thomas Jefferson’s University his presence is hard to miss but our Jeffersonian appetites were enlarged thanks to Edward Gaynor, the Chief Librarian for Virginia who laid out a historian’s dream platter of Jefferson material. My personal highlight was being able to see up-close the sobering inventory record of Jefferson’s estate which listed Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings at the price of $50.
The first afternoon featured a variety of events for our group: postgraduates attended Professor Max Edelson’s graduate seminar, postdoctoral students in our cohort sat down with Professor Alan Taylor, and the senior academics got to explore the archival holdings at UVA. We all reassembled though for the Early American History Seminar held at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies (ICJS).
For many of us it was also a bit of homecoming, or rather second-homecoming. Since the doors opened to the ICJS in 1994, it has become the leading center worldwide for all-things Jeffersonian and at the same time has seen hundreds of scholars pass through thanks to the generous support that it offers in the form of several fellowships.
I myself was lucky to live, work, and enjoy the lush surroundings of the Monticello area last June, and so were a good proportion of our group: Professor Frank Cogliano, Dr. Matthew Dziennik, and Dr. Jane Judge from Edinburgh; Dr. Felicity Donohoe and Professor Simon Newman from Glasgow.
In fact our trip coincided with Glaswegian student Nelson Mundell’s very own fellowship at the ICJS – which didn’t make us jealous at all when he got to return ‘home’ each evening. But home is exactly what the ICJS is; a real community of scholars nestled in the piedmont of Virginia.
As our group arrived for the Early American History Seminar, two of us could not resist quickly dashing to the favoured spot – a hallowed point for the Edinburgh fellows – under the gazebo next to the ICJS library where, for historians from Scotland, the chance to work out in the sun was an undeniable daily opportunity.
Inside though it really felt like home again; to be in the familiar grandeur of Kenwood House, where the bi-weekly lunches formed a stable sense of familial atmosphere between fellows and the staff who work there. Reuniting in particular with Dr Gaye Wilson and Professor Andrew O’Shaughnessy, two people who really made my time there last June a delight, was a joyous occasion. We left the ICJS after the seminar, well delivered by Edinburgh’s own Ryan McGuiness, for a downtown pizza dinner. But we would be back, because we all know what special day follows 12 April in Charlottesville…
13 April saw the 273rd anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth and Founders Day. We were invited to take part in the celebratory events which featured the US Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp and a speech by this year’s recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership to the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman, who poignantly and personally spoke about equality for everyone. There was also the all-famous Jefferson birthday cake, which the Director of Enrichment Programs, Mary Scott-Fleming, had been tormenting me about since my time at the ICJS. This year I was glad to finally have my cake slice and eat it.
After the ceremony and festivities, we received an amazing extended tour of the grounds and house by tour guide extraordinaire Liz Marshall, whom Felicity became great friends which during her fellowship and greeted each other as long lost family members – another testament to show no fellow is without a surrogate family member at the Foundation.
As we walked amid the ongoing archaeological digs and efforts to reconstruct mulberry row, the stunning vista from the top of Monticello came into view. Cushioned below the Blue Ridge mountain line was Tufton Farm, which represented for many of us the physical home as our time as fellows. Inside Monticello we were given the extended tour by Liz and her son, who even though touring a group of historians and Jefferson experts taught us many new insights into the life, times, and home of Thomas Jefferson.
Sadly our time at the time at the top of the mountain drew to an end by lunchtime and we descended by the Jefferson Family grave site in order to attend the annual Cross Lecture at UVA given by Professor Gary Gallagher. That morning concluded our all too brief homecoming. The next day, the workshops began in earnest with discussion on publishing, career development and PhD students from all three institutions presenting their research to one another. Our final evening finished with a meal at C&O where many of the ICJS staff couldn’t resist the opportunity to come and say goodbye to our group and the members of their international family.