According to Google maps it is 3,557 miles from my home in Edinburgh, Scotland, to Monticello. By contrast, my university office is 1.1 miles away from home. At the moment -- I write this during the UK-wide Covid-19 lockdown -- they are both equally inaccessible to me. Here in the UK, as in much of the US, government guidelines stipulate that people can leave their homes only for specific, and limited, reasons: to purchase food or medicine, to travel to work (if one is involved as a key worker in an essential industry relating to public health, delivery of food, etc.) or to exercise once a day. These restrictions have been in place since March 23. The majority of the public seems to have taken the government’s advice and its slogan -- "Stay Home. Protect the NHS [National Health Service]. Save Lives" -- to heart, and most people seem to be complying with the restrictions. Like most higher education institutions around the world the University of Edinburgh closed its campus in early March sending students and staff home and completing the semester online. We’re currently in the midst of grading essays, exams and dissertations online in order to complete the academic year. All the while we’re trying to plan for the new year without a clear idea of whether we’ll have students on campus or not. More than 40 percent of our students come from outside of the UK so it’s possible that some students will be on campus and others will start the academic year online. These challenges are not unique to Edinburgh. Indeed, I know colleagues at Monticello are having serious and difficult discussions about how to continue to engage with and educate the public during the public health emergency. If going into lockdown was difficult, we may find coming out of it may be even more challenging. At any rate, the world we’re entering will likely be different in fundamental ways from the one we left behind.
Against such a backdrop research on Jefferson may not seem that important. Nonetheless I have, when not attending Zoom meetings with colleagues, or grading essays and exams, or having online supervision sessions with graduate students, attempted to carry on research and writing. I’d like to offer a few reflections on how I’m doing so -- thanks in large part because of Monticello’s resources -- as well as why I think doing so is important.
At the moment I’m writing a book about the relationship between Jefferson and George Washington. (I’ll be happy to address its main themes elsewhere, perhaps in another blog post!) As reports of the spread of the Covid-19 around the world in February I began shifting books from my office at work to my home anticipating that we might face a period of quarantine. Shawshank Redemption-style I smuggled the Papers of Thomas Jefferson home, a few volumes each day. These have proven incredibly useful to me over the years and are the essential tools for my research. They are not enough, however. I began this post by describing both Monticello and the University of Edinburgh as inaccessible to me. This isn’t really true. They are physically inaccessible but both have incredibly rich online resources to which I resort on a daily basis. (I should add that the same can be said of Mount Vernon and its Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington upon which I also rely).
I usually have two laptops on my desk--one for writing and the other which is open to a dozen or so webpages at any one time with primary and secondary sources that are essential to my research. Not a day goes by that I don’t utter a quiet word of thanks to Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Jack Robertson, and Anna Berkes and colleagues at the Robert H. Smith ICJS’s Jefferson Library for their foresight in investing wisely and generously in so many valuable databases and online sources. The digital world is not a replacement for the “real” world, and I’m keeping a running list of things I need to check when I can get back to Charlottesville, but thanks to the perspicacity and generosity of Monticello it’s possible for me to carry on writing. I’m incredibly grateful for this.
One might reasonably ask why carry-on researching and writing in the midst of a global pandemic? My wife is a general practitioner in the Scottish NHS and when she leaves for work each morning I have a daily reminder of what’s at stake in the current crisis (and what bravery and public service look like). As I write this the global total of infections has surpassed 3 million cases with more than 212,000 deaths. Both figures are, undoubtedly, low estimates and likely to rise. Against such a backdrop history research would seem not to be a high priority. That’s true … to a point. However, I think there are a couple of reasons why it’s important for scholars in all fields to continue to conduct research if possible.
First, it’s what we do. That might seem like a banal observation, but the research academics carry out informs our teaching. As we navigate a new world of online teaching and graduate supervision scholarship -- in all fields -- will continue to be vital to those endeavors. Research will not cease to be important because the manner in which we share our findings is changing. Second, while the emphasis on the moment is rightly on scientific, medical, and epidemiological research (the search for a Covid-19 vaccine is the most important global research project at the moment), the humanities continue to have an important role to play. As we struggle to understand what the post-Covid-19 world might look like we’ll need to hear from the ethicists, philosophers, economists, poets, writers, political scientists and maybe even the occasional historian. Jefferson lived through (and contributed to) profound, revolutionary, changes during his lifetime. He believed that the application of reason and study was the best way to understand change and to solve the problems and surmount the challenges large and small, arising from unexpected circumstances. Now, more than ever, we need research in all fields and endeavors.
I am incredibly grateful that Monticello continues to make my own research possible. Charlottesville has become a bit of a home-away-from-home for me and I look forward to returning. In the meantime I hope all my friends (and their families) in the Monticello community remain safe and well. I’ll be at home working on my book.
Frank Cogliano, a fellow at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies in 2020, is Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh where he serves as one of the University’s Dean International for North America. He is the author of numerous books on the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson. He is a member of the ICJS Advisory Board and was the 2018-2019 holder of Fritz and Claudine Kundrun Fellowship at Monticello. He can be reached at email@example.com.