Virginia has produced more presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson — than any other state.
The College of William & Mary, my alma mater, claims only one less presidential alumnus than Harvard and Yale, which tie for first place. Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler all walked the red brick paths surrounding the oldest academic building in America before I did. While George Washington didn’t enroll in William & Mary’s liberal arts curriculum, he did earn his surveyor’s license from the college, so his name also appears in William & Mary’s alumni database.
Although chances remain slim that I’m destined for the same office as any of these men, I’ve always loved election season. Even as a young child, my parents, especially my father, never hesitated to engage me in political discussion. I was 8 years old during the 2004 presidential election, but lack of years didn’t stop me from wanting to stick a campaign sign in our front yard, the only sign that’s sat at my parents’ house to date. When I started writing school papers, rarely did I need to look any further than the B.E.B. Library — the name my mother and I have given my father’s collection of books. I’d simply ask about a topic and after a few minutes of searching, Dad reappeared — book in hand. I had at my fingertips scholarly work that explained the origins and endurance of American democracy and shaped the core of my political beliefs.
When I started college and moved out of my parents’ house, I quickly made two discoveries. If you request a title at a library’s circulation desk, horror of horrors, the librarians will not fetch it for you; they will point you in the general direction and send you on your merry way. If you engage the average American in a political conversation, nine out of 10 will divorce current political thought from the country’s founding documents, or worse, they’ll invoke founding documents without grounding them in historical context.
Rewind. We cannot continue this great experiment of individual liberty and representative government without a fundamental understanding of original intent. An examination of letters and journals and pamphlets reveals the Founders disagreed on everything from the regulation and taxation of commerce to the strength of a national banking system, but they agreed upon self-determination and limited government … with the exception of Patrick Henry, who at one point during a particularly perilous time during the American Revolution, broke with standard philosophy and suggested he become, essentially, dictator of Virginia. Every political movement has a nut or two.
Growing up in the landscape where some of history’s most brilliant minds created a nation and then a governing structure that has endured civil war, rapid industrialization and unprecedented economic depression was a privilege. I wish all Americans could visit the homes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Henry and William Henry Lee as frequently as I have. I wish all Americans could walk the halls of Virginia’s colonial capitol in Williamsburg to understand British legal principals on which our own system rests. I wish all Americans could understand the thrill of electing people to office in a state whose government predates our federal government and on which, thanks largely to George Mason and James Madison, the structure of our federal government is modeled.
This year, I experienced my first election cycle outside my native state — if you exclude the 2016 presidential primaries when I mailed an absentee ballot from Scotland. Although I’m in Iowa — the political litmus test for the nation — and have already met a couple 2020 presidential hopefuls while out on assignment for the paper, I feel largely divorced from the roots of the American political tradition.
As this election season closes, I encourage you to pick up a history book. Break out one of the six volumes in Dumas Malone’s Jefferson biography. Dust off Bernard Bailyn’s “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.” Pick up a copy of William J. Bennett’s “Our Sacred Honor.” I’ll do the same: I may not have the B.E.B. Library at my fingertips, but I still have plenty of history books in my tiny one-bedroom apartment. We can all always use a reminder of the political thought and principals that created a country unlike any other.
Contact Phoebe Marie Brannock at