A new “Presidential Precinct” will link leaders and proponents of democracy from around the planet with two universities and three U.S. presidencies. The Founding Fathers of Central Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, were at the core of America’s early debates about how best to develop and defend basic rights and freedoms within a democracy, ideas that continue to reverberate around the globe.
A partnership between the University of Virginia, Morven, William & Mary, Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison’s Montpelier and Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland, the Presidential Precinct unites the three Founders’ homes, a World Heritage Site, two of the nation’s top public universities and a constellation of affiliated scholarly institutions to offer resources to citizens and leaders of democracies and civil societies around the world.
“This area is the Silicon Valley of American ideas and thinkers about democracy, starting with Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and continuing today with our critical mass of leading scholars and experts on America’s founding era, the fundamentals of civil society and related issues,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello.
“All of the partners in the Presidential Precinct understand the power of place,” she said. “It’s a much different experience to discuss Jefferson’s ideas while visiting Monticello than while simply reading a book about him. Combining the power of place with the power of ideas creates something uniquely influential.”
In partnership with the U.S. State Department, the Presidential Precinct will offer its first pilot program Dec. 10-12 for two groups: 10 senior diplomats who make up the executive committee of the Community of Democracies, an organization of democratic countries established in 2000 to strengthen democratic norms and practices worldwide; and a delegation of civil society leaders from 25 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, visiting the U.S. as part of a U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program exchange.
The 25 civil society leaders were nominated by U.S. embassies around the world. Upon their return home, they will serve as representatives of new civil society working groups that are being established as part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. “Civil society is a cornerstone of democracy, and this visit will help activists from every region of the world develop the tools they need to build stronger, more successful countries and communities,” said Tomicah Tillemann, Clinton’s senior advisor for civil society and emerging democracies. “The State Department is grateful for the outstanding collaboration we've developed with the Presidential Precinct during this project, and we look forward to continuing our partnership.”
The visiting leaders will spend Dec. 11 at U.Va. and U.Va.’s Morven Farm, a farm adjacent to Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland that was purchased in 1796 by Jefferson on behalf of his protégé and adoptive son William Short, America's first career diplomat and – like Monroe and Jefferson – an alumnus of William & Mary.
The group will visit Monticello and Montpelier the following day. More than 20 scholars and leaders representing all the Presidential Precinct partner institutions will address the group or join small group discussions on topics like social media and civil society or challenges to democracy in the 21st century.
“The precinct will be a place for dialogue – with an emphasis on the free exchange of ideas, rather than lecturing or prescribing,” said Jeffrey Legro, vice provost for global affairs at U.Va. “The ideas that prevailed in America's founding era were responsive to the unique circumstances of that era, and today’s emerging democracies face far different challenges. But many of the fundamental debates of America’s founding era addressed key foundations of democracy and trade-offs – like the relative strength of a central government versus state governments – that are still relevant to every democracy and civil society.”
“Two hundred-fifty years after Jefferson completed his studies at William & Mary, with world affairs intertwined as never before in human history, an acute need exists for a new, effective forum for global conversation about how to sustain democracy,” Taylor Reveley, president of William & Mary, said. “William & Mary and Ash Lawn-Highland are proud to be partners in this important, potentially transformative initiative.”
“The Presidential Precinct is a resource that can help emerging leaders and citizens from around the world shape their own visions of democracy and its underlying principles. Montpelier and the Center for the Constitution bring to life the origins and the arc of citizenship, suffrage and constitutionalism in the history of our nation,” said Sean T. O'Brien, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Montpelier.
“The Presidential Precinct offers a singular combination of historical legacy and contemporary competencies,” said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of Ash Lawn-Highland, which is owned by William & Mary.
The precinct will offer both a physical and virtual place for dialogue. Its website aggregates an ever-growing digital library of resources, drawn from the partner institutions and beyond. These resources reflect and engage with the international development of ideas about democracy, building upon a core of lessons drawn from America’s founding era, said Stewart Gamage, director of Morven programs, who is leading U.Va.’s participation in the precinct. “The precinct will distill 18th century values and lessons and apply them to 21st-century problem-solving.”
The virtual precinct will offer a platform for distinguished academic research, the expression of diverse opinions and online courses. It will harness social media and will be linked to the LEND network, a new online forum providing “on-demand democracy support” to new leaders in emerging democracies like Kyrgyzstan, as Clinton explained at the network’s launch in July in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
The Presidential Precinct is a Virginia non-stock charitable corporation funded by contributions from the partner institutions and private donations. Early private donors, said Jim Murray, former rector of William & Mary, include Murray; Jim Justice, chief executive officer of the James C. Justice Companies and owner of the Wintergreen and Greenbrier resorts; and Paul Manning, president and CEO of PBM Capital Group and a member of the U.Va. Health Foundation Board of Trustees.
“This is a big idea,” Manning said. “I like big ideas.”