Photo: Courtesy

Historian’s Story

by | Jul 1, 2019 | Culture, Spring/Summer 2019, Young Achievers

Lindsay Chervinsky, Ph.D. ’17, fondly recalls an elementary school curriculum that had her making candles, learning to sew and dressing in colonial garb — and the impact it would have on her career path.

“It kind of stuck from there,” said Chervinsky, whose Ph.D. is in history with a concentration on early America.

Chervinsky was appointed White House historian for the White House Historical Association earlier this year. Her job is to give the public an idea of what living and working in the White House is like. She focuses on the presidency itself and not the person currently in the position.

She’s also working on her forthcoming book, The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, which will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2020. In it, she argues that Washington established the principle that presidents would be able to select their own advisors and define the nature of those relationships.

So what important lessons can be learned from studying history?

“Certainly people can learn from themes and issues and fears that repeat and have a better understanding of where we are,” she said. “You can’t understand the current moment without understanding what came before.”

Here, Chervinsky shares some of her best historical references.

Historical figure I’d most like to have met:

“John Quincy Adams — I have a soft spot for the Adams family, and I think his life encompassed so many incredible events in American history. I would have really liked to have chatted with him. I have a dog who is named John Quincy Dog Adams, Quincy for short.”

Undervalued historical figures:

“A lot of first ladies for political reasons often kept their influence with their husbands discreet. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for some of the private conversations between first ladies and presidents because I think they often had a tremendous impact in ways we don’t often appreciate.”

Favorite historical place to visit:

“Mount Vernon. I had the great privilege of being a fellow at the library there, and one of the perks was having access to the grounds 24 hours a day. So I was able to go out at sunrise or sunset and sit on the piazza. You have a better sense of why the place was so special to Washington when you can do that when tourists aren’t around.”

Second favorite historical time period:

“Probably Tudor England. We think of the 18th century as being a whole different world and it is, but it’s [difficult to understand] what royalty lived like then and how different it was from the average life. I find that so fascinating.”

Most historic event of my lifetime:

“I would pick two: The terrorist attacks on 9/11 pretty fundamentally changed the way the world works and the way the United States works. And then I was actually in D.C. when President Obama was elected and I attended the inauguration.”

Photo: Russ Thébaud/UC Davis

Best random fact to share at parties:

“One of my favorite stories is that Thomas Jefferson had a pet mockingbird that lived in his private library in the White House. It was trained and would sometimes perch on his shoulders. He would feed it treats from his lips. Can’t make it up!”