Matthew B. Gilmore
Arcadia Publishing, 2018
This is a history of many of the unusual things that happened in Lafayette Square during the past 200 years. It includes two assassination attempts (and a successful assassination that was conceived by the assassin sitting in the park staring at the White House); a murder by a congressman, who killed the son of Francis Scott Key in broad daylight in front of witnesses, and got away with it; a Confederate spy who operated in a house within sight of the White House; the invention of the White House protest by the leaders of the Women’s suffrage movement, a social fracas that brought the Jackson administration to a standstill; a former slave who wrote the first White House memoir; an incident in the park that led to the suicide of a senator and much more.
Most history follows a storyline of events with an arc from beginning to end. This is different in that it follows a neighborhood, albeit a prominent neighborhood, through the course of history and weaves together stories that show how one event may sow the seeds of an entirely different event. We see, for example, how Stephen Decatur’s death in a duel prompted his widow to rent the Decatur House to several secretaries of state, including Martin Van Buren who played a key role in the social fracas in the Jackson administration. Van Buren also inspired an upstart New York politician who killed the son of Francis Scott Key who died in the house where an assassin tried to kill William Seward. I mean, what are neighbors for? And the forward by Washington Post columnist John Kelly is not to be missed.
My many tours of the Decatur House and the help of its staff as well as of the White House Historical Association. The help of the National Woman’s Party at its headquarters now on Capitol Hill. The many historians I have read over the decades who included so many important details I was able to glean, especially Thomas Keneally, author of “American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.” The staff of the Media General News Service, especially bureau chief Gene Marlowe, who encouraged this. And my fellow members of the National Press Club’s History and Heritage Committee, who cheered me along and offered some good suggestions.
That history is boring. There’s enough sex and violence in this book to keep anyone’s interest. Not that it’s lurid, of course. Just factual.
5.What are the classics in field (if any)?
I don’t know of any books specifically about Lafayette Square that I have seen would be classified as “classics.” However, William Seale, an historian connected with the White House Historical Association, is coming out with one in 2019. Given the detail of his two-volume work on the history of the White House he produced in 1986, I would think his new book would become an instant “classic.”
Researching this over a period of decades, I did not face many deadline challenges. I found so many illustrations available on the Library of Congress website. I got good cooperation in seeking illustrations from the White House Historical Association, including access to the painting that is on the cover, as well as from the George H.W. Bush library and the Wyoming State Archives.
None of these stories is new. I have found many of them over the decades in reading lengthy biographies and histories written by great historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meachem, Walter Stahr, Thomas Keneally and a host of others. But the casual reader may not be ready to delve into these wonderful histories and biographies. After reading this book, perhaps the casual reader will want to know more and will pick up these other books. I hope I have given each of these authors his or her due.
I had what I needed for this type of book.
My audience is people with a casual interest in American and Washington history, certainly not scholars. My hope is that people will read this book for the good stories, but also become interested in the history that surrounds each story and want to find out more. I am particularly interested high school students in American History classes who could use this book as a supplement to their texts to inspire them to understand that history is not dull, but it’s tumultuous and all part of the human experience.
I was a national correspondent for 22 years, writing for the Southern newspapers owned by the Media General Corp. For eight years, I was a journalism professor at American University’s Washington Semester Program. Beginning this fall, I launched the Washington journalism program for the University of Oklahoma. I was president of the National Press Club in 1994, I wrote its centennial history in 2008: “Reliable Sources: 100 Years at the National Press Club.” I am chair of its History and Heritage Committee.
Born in New Jersey, I graduated from Rollins College in Florida where I majored in history but was bitten by the journalism bug. I completed a master’s degree in communication at American University before landing my first real journalism job with the Tampa Tribune covering small towns in the center part of Florida. There I married my wife, Gail. After a brief stint at the Gwinnett County Daily News in Georgia while Gail did graduate work at Emory, we moved back to Tampa where I was the Tribune’s environment and transportation reporter. We moved to Washington in 1985 with our two children. Gail is an elementary school teacher. I still view journalism as the study of history as it happens.
I have always been interested in the history of where I live. I also have always been interested in the history of the White House. As a young reporter freshly arrived in Washington, I would get off the Metro at Farragut West and walk through Lafayette Park on my way to my office in the National Press Building. Later, as a White House correspondent, I spent a lot of time there. Over the years – and we’re talking decades here – I collected these stories. I thought they would make an interesting book and finally was inspired to find a publisher to produce it.
Combining the history of a neighborhood with major events in American history helps bring history alive for the casual reader. Anyone walking through Lafayette Square sees the places where these events took place, sometimes standing on the very spots. You can reach out and touch the history, and since First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was so successful in saving the 19th century architecture around the park, one can just about imagine these events as they happened.
“Reveille in Washington: 1860 to 1865” by Margaret Leech.
“The Creation of Washington D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital” by Kenneth R. Bowling.
I have a contract to write a new history of the National Press Club. Dip down anywhere in the Club’s 111- year history and you can find stories of importance not just to the Club, but to national, international, DC, journalism and social history. I am planning to write it as a series of vignettes that will engage people who may not know anything about the Club, but will be surprised by how many major events in the history had a chapter written there.
see also: Klein’s interview on C-SPAN: https://www.c-span.org/video/?448977-1/washington-dcs-lafayette-square
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