Discover more from Living With History
Profiles and Posterity
Personal branding is nothing new
After opening a new hire search at work recently, I spent hours culling through carefully curated profiles on LinkedIn and online portfolios. We’re all familiar with our friends’ and families’ Facebook pages and Instagram posts. Consciously or not, everyone is building a brand—associating themselves with particular people, products, and organizations. I once observed a social studies classroom where the teacher instructed students to create a social media presence for George Washington. The effort to curate a personal brand would not have been foreign to him.
Although branding might seem like a phenomenon that started with the rise of social media, the truth is that people have been branding themselves for much longer than that. For instance, Washington and the other Founding Fathers and Mothers paid close attention to their reputations and the causes and colleagues they associated themselves with.
Washington aspired to belong to the Virginia gentry and strove to convey gentility and refinement. As a youth, he copied a list of 110 precepts from The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation and became obsessed with deportment and self-control. He took advantage of circumstances that arose with a dramatic flair, whether it was winning the hand of wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis or showing up at the Continental Congress in full military uniform and escorted by 500 riders while modestly insisting he wasn’t seeking a commission.
Women of the era also carefully associated themselves with behavior that would accord them high status in their domestic sphere as good wives and mothers and exemplary housekeepers. “Duty” was their watchword, and it might include supporting a righteous cause. Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren’s correspondence demonstrates how eager they were to be seen as committed revolutionaries. Both considered British historian Catharine Macauley—an outspoken supporter of the colonists—to be a mentor and strove for her approval. Martha Washington spent winters encamped with George and the army, self-consciously dressed in American-made homespun as she cared for the soldiers. Likely inspired by Martha, Esther Reed, wife of a prominent revolutionary, penned “Sentiments of an American Woman” in 1780, driving a popular movement for women to wear simpler clothes and less elegant hairstyles and donate the savings to the troops.
Just as it does today, one’s public character—one’s brand—mattered. As historian Joseph Ellis notes about the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr:
“Eventually the United States might develop into a nation of laws and established institutions capable of surviving corrupt or incompetent public officials. But it was not there yet. It still required honorable and virtuous leaders to endure. Both Burr and Hamilton came to the interview because they wished to be regarded as part of such company.”
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams’ correspondence at the end of their lives was also self-consciously designed for posterity. With every letter, they promoted their personal brands as honorable and virtuous leaders of the new nation. Later in his life, Washington returned to his letterbook to correct spelling and syntax errors.
Branding didn’t end with the founders. In 1860, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness guided women who aspired to be seen as a member of the “right crowd.” In 1936, Dale Carnegie published the still best-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People. And, when I was growing up in the ‘80s, middle-class white people aspired to model Eastern elites as described in the tongue-in-cheek Preppy Handbook.
But no matter what brand we’re trying to convey, we should all realize that our personal history of our actions over time—intended or no—comprise our brand. And, just as product brands suffer when companies are caught lying, so are people punished when the brand they are trying to convey doesn’t align with past actions. (Think Virginia ex-governor Ralph Northam who apologized for wearing black-face at a Halloween party and posing for a photo with someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit in his younger years.)
It’s necessary to see many, many years of consistently better actions before we can trust that the brand has truly learned from the past and cleaned up its act.
Bryant, Jessica. Homespun: The Economic Impact of Women on the American Revolution. https://www.frauncestavernmuseum.org/homespun
Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Vintage Books: NY, 2000).
Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington (Vintage Books: NY, 2004).
Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (HaperCollins: NY), 2004.
“Lee’s statue is gone. What it unleashed remains.” This Washington Post article by Theresa Vargas details the latest chapter in the story of removing the statue of Robert E. Lee that stood in a small park in the city of Charlottesville. Sadly, since the violent events of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 that resulted in the death of a counter-protestor, a contingent of citizens tied up plans for the statue’s removal in court. When they lost their appeals, the statue came down and was just recently melted in an undisclosed forge, the metal to be used for a future public art project.
The article details how the process was shrouded in secrecy to protect those involved from retaliation amid ongoing death threats to the organizers. I've mentioned before in this newsletter how this statue was only blocks from my home when I lived in Charlottesville 20 years ago. I’m glad to see it’s finally gone. Read the story.
What I’m Reading
The amazing George Saunders is the author of one of my favorite books, Lincoln in the Bardo, and his new collection of short stories in Liberation Day (2023) is equally masterful. Characters are real and dialogue spot-on as Saunders takes on a dystopian near-future in a few of the stories with the satirical wit that makes you laugh even as the world he describes makes you want to cry. Other stories are heartwarming and just as real. You will not be disappointed for investing your time engaging with the complex ideas behind these stories.
My publisher just announced that they have secured a contract to distribute our books through Simon & Schuster in the near future. This is quite a coup, as S&S is very well-respected in publishing and among booksellers and librarians. They also have a broader reach than our current distributor. My book will be included in their lists and any retailer trying to order the book for resale should have an easier time of it.
Got a reader on your Christmas list? Why not consider a copy of Folly Park? It’s been getting positive reviews from books clubs as a thoughtful and entertaining read. Order on Amazon or Bookshop at a slight discount.
Florence Hereth Hackford (left) and Agnes ? (1926). My paternal grandmother, Florence Hereth Hackford, kept a diary from 1927 through 1928 that was given to her by my grandfather before they were married. She was 19 years old when she started to write in it, and her entries note the dances, movies, dinner parties, and shows she attended, along with the friends—like Agnes in the photo above—and family she attended them with.
For example, on January 1, 1927, she wrote: “Am awfully tired. Attended the New Year’s Eve Ball, at K.C. Auditorium. Had a most wonderful time. Agnes, Lil + I went to Lowe’s to see “Marriage License.” Agnes is no doubt the same girl in the photo. The movie was billed as a British detective mystery according to its entry in IMBDB. I wonder what she thought of it.
Like today’s social media voyeurs, I find a weird satisfaction in knowing exactly what my grandmother was doing nearly 100 years ago. No doubt she would have made good use of social media if it was available to her.
Thanks for reading Living With History! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.