With the ever-increasing cost of a college education and the mountain of debt that graduates will now carry into their Social Security years, it’s good to know there are some alternatives.
There’s a new survey course of Virginia and U.S. history, based in primary sources and taught by the senior curator and the president of the Virginia Historical Society. The grading system: Everyone emerges a savant. No papers are required, the class location is your armchair, and the cost? $39.95.
“The Story of Virginia: Highlights from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture” is a 200-page, full-color book that joins the long list of distinguished publications from the Virginia Historical Society.
Jamie Bosket, the aforementioned president of the Historical Society and coauthor, does indeed liken it to a survey course. Using pictures of carefully selected artifacts from the museum’s collection and brief captions by the authors, the book covers centuries of history. And as Bosket points out, nearly every major event or turning point in U.S. history happened in Virginia or prominently featured Virginians, so Virginia history is U.S. history to a large extent.
Of course, we know about the Founding Fathers—and the book features many of their documents—and about the Battle of Yorktown, and the Civil War. But what about after Reconstruction? The first electric streetcar, a steam whistle from the Newport News shipbuilding company, primary shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy in the world wars and today; a photo of an early sit-in at the Alexandria public library—these are few of the artifacts that will bring you up to speed on Virginia’s post-Civil War history.
The book was two years in the making. In 2016, Bosket had recently arrived at the Virginia Historical Society after 10 years at Mount Vernon, and he and William M.S. Rasmussen, the senior curator, decided to collaborate on a book that would not only cover all eras, but would also endeavor to include everyone’s story.
“We wanted this book to be as representative of all Virginians as best as possible based on what our collection has to offer,” Bosket said.
At the age of 187, the Virginia Historical Society is the oldest continuously operating cultural institution in the state, and one of the oldest in the country. It has amassed a collection of nearly 9 million items.
One of the biggest challenges for the authors was selecting a mere 400 items for inclusion in the book, while leaving the rest on the proverbial cutting room floor.
One of Rasmussen’s favorite items is the multivolume Record of the Virginia Company of London, 1619–24.
“The original records are lost; ours is an 18th-century copy made for John Randolph of Roanoke. The records are full of hundreds of pages of information about the struggling colony,” he said. “Included is a copy of the 1606 Charter of the Virginia Colony. The Charter promised that all in Virginia ‘and every of their children shall have and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities as if they had been abiding and born within this our Realm of England.’ That promise was remembered in America in 1776 as having been broken.”
Bosket continued, “One of my favorite items is George Washington’s personal diary from his first term as president, where we see him chart the course of the American presidency and also detail his tour of the southern states.” But he also enjoys some of those unexpected finds. “Who knew that Ella Fitzgerald had a connection to Virginia?”
The book’s most powerful contribution to the field of history is not just in the comprehensiveness of eras, or the inclusion of many Virginians’ viewpoints, but in its honesty. It tells the whole story; the good, the bad and the ugly.
“One of the big themes of the book is that the story of Virginia is, and perhaps the greatest example of, the American experience—the best and the worst,” he said. “Virginians have provided the world with some of the greatest notions of freedom and equality … but, at the same time have often allowed great inhumanities. We tried to cover as much of this as possible and in an approachable and interesting way.”
For example, page 41 features a portrait of Robert Carter III, who freed nearly 500 inherited slaves in 1791, while page 101 shows a slave whipping post from Petersburg used years later.
The bell from St. John’s Church in Richmond where Patrick Henry gave his “liberty or death” speech is included, while further on, a photo of the Equal Suffrage League of Richmond shows that women were still fighting for those rights in 1915.
It’s not all wars and government, though. The decorative arts, a copper still—it’s all in there. “Not everyone wants to read an academic tome,” Bosket said. “But they can get a good introduction to the long and rich history of the Commonwealth here.”
Wendy Migdal, a teacher at Spotsylvania County’s Ni River Middle School, is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.