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George Washington’s Library at the Athenæum: Transatlantic Dialogues of Slavery and Freedom

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 - 6:00pm to 7:00pm
Reception to follow
Credit Library of Congress
Credit Library of Congress.

George Washington’s Library at the Athenæum: Transatlantic Dialogues of Slavery and Freedom

François Furstenberg

Why might an obscure pamphlet collection housed in the Boston Athenæum archives offer new insights on the abolition movement of the late eighteenth century? It’s simple: the tract collection belonged to George Washington. In this lecture, Professor of History François Furstenberg will explore the early history of abolitionist debates from the perspective of book history, using these leaflets to link Mount Vernon to a broad transatlantic conversation about slavery and freedom.

François Furstenberg grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Columbia University, he taught for several years in Paris and Montreal before pursuing a PhD at Johns Hopkins University. His first book, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (Penguin Press, 2006) explores the mythology surrounding George Washington in the nineteenth century and its connection to early American nationalism. His second book, When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees who Shaped a Nation (Penguin Press, 2014) seeks to connect the US to the French Atlantic during the eighteenth century Age of Revolutions through the stories of five aristocratic French émigrés who fled the French Revolution and settled in Philadelphia. He is currently a Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore with his spouse and young daughter Sofía.

This is the first program in Rookie Republic: Early America and Its Place on the Global Stage, a three-part series that highlights diverse and lesser-told stories of life, culture, and commerce in the burgeoning American nation. Join us on Wednesday, November 16, for Black Pepper: Taste a Revolutionary Story and on Tuesday, December 13, for Muslims in America since 1619.

Tracts, or pamphlets, are vital to the story of early US history. The Athenæum holds a substantial collection of tracts, ranging in subject from slavery to religion, from politics to crime, thanks in large part to the voracious collecting of William Smith Shaw, the Athenæum’s first librarian. Judge William Tudor mocked Shaw for his collecting habits: “Gentlemen, said he, that dog Shaw goes everywhere. He knows everybody. Everybody knows him. If he sees a book, pamphlet, or manuscript - Oh! Sir! the Athenæum must have this. Well, have it he will and have it he must and have it he does …” (Quoted in “A Rich and Increasing Treasure: The Growth of the Book Collections of the Boston Athenæum,” by Stanley Ellis Cushing in Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum, 2007, 15-16.)

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