7 Places Every Amateur Presidential Historian Should Visit

As any student of history knows, the best way to experience the past is to make it come alive in the present. That’s the purpose of the more than 80,000 National Register of Historic Places sites, 2,400 National Historic Landmark sites, and 19 presidential libraries across the country, each of which preserves the memory and accomplishments of our commander-in-chiefs from the past century. Presidential history is perhaps the most interesting subcategory of American history, as an abundance of gifted yet complex individuals has ascended to the apex of our democratic system. The life and times of some the most significant figures in our nation’s history, those who made the greatest impact, can be experienced at the seven places listed below. No true red, white, and blue cross-country excursion is complete without a visit to at least a couple of these sites.

  1. Mount Vernon — near Alexandria, Virginia
    Picturesque Mount Vernon is located on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia, our first president George Washington’s home state. Designated a National Historical Site in 1960, the plantation style home has been preserved to mimic how it appeared when Washington resided in the premises more than 200 years ago. The grounds are illuminated by gardens and feature a four-acre farm site with heritage-breed animals — Washington considered his true calling to be farming. Galleries and exhibits with artifacts and personal belongings of Washington can be found in the Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center. Visitors often leave with a bottle of whiskey produced at Washington’s distillery and gristmill as a souvenir to remember their visit.
  2. Monticello — Charlottesville, Virginia
    One hundred and ten miles from Mount Vernon is Monticello, the home of founding father and third president Thomas Jefferson. The mountaintop home was entirely designed by Jefferson, took him four decades to build, and had an estimated value of $6,300 in 1800, a hefty sum in those days. Its neoclassical design consists of a proud dome and porticos, making it stand out from other historic presidential residences. Jefferson once wrote about Monticello: “I am as happy nowhere else and in no other society.” Given his impressive resume of accomplishments, it certainly enabled him to recharge his batteries when he was afforded a brief respite.
  3. The Hermitage — Davidson County, Tennessee
    Andrew Jackson retired from public life to The Hermitage in 1837 and resided there until his death eight years later. Under the ownership of Andrew Jackson Jr., later his wife Sarah, and finally the state of Tennessee, the property fell into disrepair and served little purpose. Legislators discussed making it a branch of West Point, transforming it into a hospital for Confederate veterans, or simply turning it into the governor’s mansion. Eventually the Ladies’ Hermitage Association assumed control of the mansion, farm and other historic buildings on the premises and made it a museum. Today, it exemplifies Southern beauty with a wide array of gardens that resemble the very ones maintained by Jackson during his leisure time.
  4. Ford’s Theater — Washington D.C.
    From a house of worship to a house of mourning, Ford’s Theatre has seen both the best and worst of times in America. An ominous mood still lingers at the site of Lincoln’s assassination, which poetically occurred on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. The booth in which Lincoln and Mary Todd watched the performance of Our American Cousin is still intact, with vintage American flags draped over the ledges. John Wilkes Booth’s Derringer pistol, the weapon he used to kill the president, and the coat worn by Lincoln on the occasion are on display for the morbidly curious. It’s an interesting destination for those who understand its historical significance as the site of perhaps the most devastating event in U.S. history.
  5. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum — Hyde Park, New York
    Roosevelt is routinely recognized as one of America’s finest presidents because of his stewardship when our nation faced some of its greatest perils. His implementation of The New Deal during the Great Depression and swift response to the attack on Pearl Harbor were essential to our survival. Those who admire FDR and wish to discover what made him tick can visit his library, where extensive galleries track his life from the early years to his time as commander-in-chief. Visitors can see his oval office desk, authentic private study room, and famous 1936 Ford Phaeton, which was modified to enable him to drive despite his disability caused by polio.
  6. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum — Boston, Massachusetts
    It wasn’t long after Kennedy’s death that plans were drafted for a library to serve as a memorial, a site that would enable the nation to heal and simultaneously remember his legacy. After years of setbacks, the library finally opened in 1979, and for the last three decades, has given visitors a chance to examine his presidency, including events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, from his perspective. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of his inauguration, the library has displayed a bevy of artifacts and documents from the big day. It’s one of two temporary exhibits that will be available for viewing for a limited time.
  7. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library — Simi Valley, California
    The Reagan Library holds the distinction of being the largest of the presidential libraries, boasting a 7-year-old, 90,000-square-foot Air Force One Pavilion that puts it over the top. Reaganites and casual observers of presidential history can pace his oval office and stand in the shadow of a piece of the Berlin Wall, where he famously demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Perhaps the most revered figure in the history of the Republican Party — excluding Lincoln, of course — Reagan’s name was invoked countless times during the debates held at the library during the 2008 Republican primary, proof that it’s a bit more meaningful than your average dusty museum.