Hill historian: O'Shaughnessy's revolution

Something is rotten in the Jefferson Library at Monticello. But it isn't a newly discovered 18th century scandal– no, a small animal has crawled into the ventilation system of the $5.5 million state-of-the-art building and died. But even fetid air can't dim the smile of Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, who six months ago took over as Saunders Director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

A British-born specialist in American Revolutionary history, O'Shaughnessy, 44, recalls how he first became interested in the U.S. as a child while visiting his parents in New York, where his father was a Columbia University professor. Back in England, he began researching a family in his small hometown of Blunham. An ancestor of that family had been a West Indian planter.

"It intrigued me to think of families crossing the Atlantic in the 18th century," he says, "as my family was crossing the Atlantic in the late 20th century."

O'Shaughnessy's youthful curiosity evolved into a passion for American colonial history, and, after earning three degrees at Oxford, he moved to the U.S. permanently.

"America," he explains, "is a much better place to study the 18th century."

He spent a year in Texas on a post-doctoral fellowship before heading north to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Ten years later, he was chair of the Oshkosh history department, but O'Shaughnessy had his eye on becoming director of the ICJS.

What made the position so attractive? "Partly Monticello, which I think is a marvelous place, partly my interest in Jefferson," he says. "I've always loved the idea of living in Virginia. In some ways, it represents the best of Europe and the best of America."

The same could be said of him. Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, calls O'Shaughnessy "the perfect choice to be Saunders Director."

"In addition to being an outstanding scholar and an experienced administrator," Jordan says, "he is a true internationalist. His contacts at Oxford and elsewhere will help make the program truly global."

O'Shaughnessy is the first ICJS director to benefit from the award-winning new library, and he's eager to get the public involved in the research center. His ever-present smile widens as he lists the projects he plans to make available on-line, including a cutting-edge archaeological study of plantation life and a digital version of Thomas Jefferson's retirement papers.

As for the button-down style of Monticello, O'Shaughnessy says it suits him well. "I find it more difficult to dress informally than formally," he admits, joking about how he was relieved to discover that people wear coats-and-ties to UVA football games.

So far the job has exceeded his expectations, O'Shaughnessy reports. "It's an idyllic situation," he says. (As long as nothing else dies in the ventilation system.)

Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy