By Alaina Seguin ’17, Garfield Presidency Scholar
Every semester the Garfield Presidency Scholars (led by Douglas Brattebo, Ph.D., associate professor of political science) venture off to see what they have studied and to physically immerse themselves in the ideas and complexities of the president about whom they are learning. The 2016-17 Year of Thomas Jefferson commenced with a biography thicker than most of the textbooks I have had in college and ended with a trip to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. For some scholars this was their first year, and for many seniors, including me, this was – wistfully – their last trip.
For the first time I can remember we boarded a bus at 6 p.m. instead of 6 a.m., upon the completion of the last scheduled final exam of the day. As always, the first couple hours were full of loud chatter and excitement before most of the students on the bus napped in hopes of being prepared for long, busy days ahead.
The first morning featured a walking tour of the “Old City” section of Philadelphia, where sites such as Christ Church and the Betsy Ross House gave us glimpses of what life was like in the late 1700s. Seeing fossils collected by Thomas Jefferson and plant samples collected Lewis and Clark at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University proved a highlight of the day.
The next day we headed to the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin, to learn more about Jefferson by looking at original documents including one of the journals of Lewis and Clark. We then proceeded to the interactive and entertaining National Constitution Center, which elucidates every facet of the Constitution, and to the Woodlands House, owned by a contemporary of Jefferson, and the estate’s adjacent historic cemetery.
The next two days in D.C. took us on Jefferson-centric tours of the Library of Congress, which his books helped to start, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Archives. A lot of this focused on how Jefferson’s work as an intellectual contributed to his shaping of the nation with his ideas and command of classical readings. Then began a favorite afternoon for most of the Garfield Scholars: a presentation from Ms. Candace Shireman, the curator at Blair House, The President’s Guest House. The day closed by watching Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre.
The next day we took a VIP tour of Mount Vernon, including access to the third floor, to further explore the relationship between George Washington and Jefferson. The day ended with a performance by the political satire group The Capitol Steps.
The trip concluded with an Easter Sunday service at the famous and gorgeous National Cathedral followed by a sunny morning walk around the National Mall to see the Jefferson, Lincoln, and MLK Memorials. Dr. King will play a central role in the Garfield Presidency Scholars’ 2017-18 examination of President Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As always, at the end of the trip we were tired, but also satisfied that we were able to piece together the mystery of Thomas Jefferson a little bit more. While none of us truly can claim to know the inner life of this enigmatic Enlightenment genius, some of his complexities have become a little clearer.