Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Scott R Nelson


The National Park Service's (NPS) George Washington Birthplace National Monument has commemorated Washington and his life for over seventy-five years. For much of that time, the NPS worked closely with the memorial's progenitors, the 'ladies' of the Wakefield National Memorial Association (WNMA). Although equally committed to the preservation of Washington's legacy, these two groups clashed over questions of authenticity, historical authority, and proper commemorative strategy. This dissertation explores their relationship for what it reveals about the rise of public history in this country and Federal involvement therein.;We witness at Washington's birthplace a collision between old-order Colonial Revivalists (led for a time by renowned preservationist Louise DuPont Crowninshield) and a new generation of male museum professionals under NPS Director Horace Albright. The WNMA erected a 'replica' Memorial House atop a site marked in 1815 by George Washington Parke Custis. The NPS determined the Memorial House was neither properly located nor an authentic replica. Still, the WNMA defended the building's veracity. "Birthing Washington" argues that the two groups defined authenticity differently and that those definitions reflected not only gendered difference and political motivation, but also new ways of constituting historical knowledge available during the first half of the twentieth century.;What began as a confused argument about authenticity manifested publicly in decisions made about what kind of objects to display at Washington's birthplace and how to display them. The WNMA preferred charming interiors to the NPS's stark historical realism. Both methods created considerable interpretive possibilities and limitations. Buoyed by national trends, historical realism prevailed at Washington's birthplace. But 'living history' only created new interpretive dilemmas by failing to grapple with old questions about authenticity perpetuated by the Memorial House's ongoing presence. I conclude that sites of public memory cannot help but reify the historical currents of their formative moments and, for that reason, the NPS must challenge itself to interpret the history of commemoration at sites like Washington's birthplace.



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