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Kevin Starr on George Washington

The University Professor of USC Dornsife delivers a lecture at the new Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon on the first president’s fascination with the West.

University Professor Kevin Starr of USC Dornsife speaks at Virginia's Mount Vernon about George Washington's plan to extend the Western frontier of the nation. Photo by Edward Graham.
University Professor Kevin Starr of USC Dornsife speaks at Virginia's Mount Vernon about George Washington's plan to extend the Western frontier of the nation. Photo by Edward Graham.

The country’s first president had a lifelong fascination with the West and was committed to making the then-uncharted Western territory a unifying part of America, said University Professor Kevin Starr of USC Dornsife as he delivered the inaugural George Washington Leadership Lecture at Virginia’s Mount Vernon.

As Starr explained, Washington’s “sense of western destiny” envisioned the unexplored territories — “from sea to shining sea” — becoming part of America and serving to unify the nation.

With Washington’s beloved estate as a backdrop, Starr delivered his address, “George Washington Looks West: An Enduring Preoccupation,” Oct. 17 at the new Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. It was the library’s first formal lecture and the first event marking the partnership between the USC Price School of Public Policy and the library. The lecture series will be an annual, bicoastal event, with speakers examining the life and legacy of Washington at both Mount Vernon and USC.

The Partnership for the Study of George Washington at USC and Mount Vernon was established thanks to the support of Maribeth and William Borthwick. The partnership will provide students and faculty at USC Price School of Public Policy with a chance to better understand Washington’s impact on governance, planning, public policy and leadership. USC Price Professor David Sloane will direct the program elements at USC. Maribeth Borthwick ’73, vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, was among the USC alumni and other distinguished guests in the audience for the first lecture.

Starr served as California’s State Librarian from 1994 to 2004 and is associate dean of the USC Libraries and professor of history at USC Dornsife. He received the National Humanities Medal in 2006 from President George W. Bush, among many other awards, and is the author of a highly regarded six-volume history of California.

Although Washington did not have the benefit of a college education at Harvard or Yale universities, as did many of his political contemporaries, Starr noted that Washington was a self-taught man of great intellect who mastered surveying, mathematics, real estate and accounting.

For Washington, “the frontier occurs and reoccurs as a motif” in his career.

“His lifelong relationship with the Western frontier of Virginia, and by extension the Western frontier of the nation . . . was a continuing preoccupation of his life,” Starr said, and his intrigue with the West also was fueled by his connection with the Masonic movement.

The English-speaking colonies had no western boundaries, and it was unknown how far the West went. In 1748, Washington, who was only 16 at the time, joined family friend Lord Fairfax in an expedition to survey the vast Fairfax landholdings in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and the two-year venture, Starr said, proved to be a transformative period in his life.

Seeing these Western lands, coming in contact with Native Americans and learning about surveying “constituted his higher education,” Starr said, and triggered the fascination with the West that would dominate Washington’s life from that point forward.

In Washington’s era, Virginia was still a frontier, and the headwaters of the Potomac River were regarded as an entry point to the West, Starr said.

People like Washington “saw the West as a way to bring order to the country,” said Douglas Bradburn, founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library, during a Q-and-A session following Starr’s lecture.

“Virginia was the California of its time,” Bradburn said. Although Washington avidly studied maps, Bradburn said, “he doesn’t know where the headwaters of the Potomac go.”

In addition, after giving up his commission in the Continental Army, Washington’s “frenetic energy” was directed toward finding a way to help settlers move to Kentucky and points farther West, Bradburn noted. He became president of the Potomac Canal Co. and had a vision of rivers “going to the door of every American” and “connecting the country in every way.”