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Fathoming Founding Father, Local History

Leesburg author studies original documents to tell story.

July 25, 2002

<bt>Leesburg author John Phillips takes history like he takes food.

He is at the Lightfoot Restaurant in Leesburg eating fried tomatoes, waiting until the plate is cleared before ordering the entree. He takes each bite slow, seeming to pore over the details of the taste.

Phillips has just returned from traveling to places like Williamsburg, Winchester, Mount Vernon, the Library of Congress and New York to conduct research for the history projects he has underway and to attend a few book signings.

The schedule of the past two weeks is nothing new for the colonial historian, though it is time for him to slow down to take this meal on a hot Thursday afternoon.

Beside Phillips are copies of some of his published works, including his first book "The Historian's Guide to Loudoun County, Virginia, Volume I: Colonial Laws of Virginia and County Court Orders, 1757-1766," published in 1996, and "George Washington's Rules of Civility," first published in 1999 as a limited edition and again in 2000 and 2001 as a Collector's Classic Edition. The book is scheduled for a fourth printing later this year.

"This is reality. This is not fiction," Phillips said. "We don't have to invent the story."

PHILLIPS BEGAN his study of colonial history following a nearly fatal automobile accident in 1993. He had been practicing law for 17 years and not enjoying the work, so he decided to pursue research and writing full-time instead of working on the projects in his spare time. He had realized he has no control over how long he is here.

"Everybody thought I was nuts," Phillips said.

Phillips began conducting his research by studying and analyzing original materials and primary sources, traveling to wherever the documents are located. He finds something that intrigues him and wants to find out the details.

"It takes being a detective," Phillips said. "I've always enjoyed ... solving the puzzle, the challenge of applying logic to an incomplete set of facts to find out what really happened."

Phillips' friend Meredith Bean McMath described Phillips' enthusiasm for history as "infectious."

"He'll start talking about the subject and gets you excited about it," McMath said. "John, as anyone can tell you, is completely immersed in his subjects of interest, and he can talk about them until the sun sets."

McMath's book "Pella's Angel," published in 2001, is the only work of fiction Phillips published through Goose Creek Publications, where he is the managing editor. In 1995, he started the history publishing company in Leesburg and publishes one to three non-fiction books a year.

"I'm serious about history in the same way, just a different era," McMath said referring to her interest in the Civil War. "He's so sure of what he knows that can come off as arrogance to some people. When you get to know him, you realize it's enthusiasm."

SINCE 1996, Phillips has written seven books and is working on research for another six books. Most of his books focus on colonial law and culture, along with the culture of colonial and revolutionary Virginia and the life and times of the young George Washington.

One of Phillip's recent projects involves completing the second book of a trilogy, "The Historian's Guide to Loudoun County, Virginia, Volume II." The trilogy analyzes the way Loudoun residents lived under colonial law and the influence the law had on their society and culture from 1757-1766 in the first volume, from 1766 through the eve of the American Revolution in the second volume and through the Revolution in the final volume.

"You have to understand how people created their own record," Phillips said. "To me, it's to get to the underpinning of what colonial culture is about, what the American Revolution was about. I'm saying, 'This is the way they were living, the way law changed in response to the way people needed law.'"

Phillips also is working on a second series about George Washington and is completing "George Washington Colonial Surveyor," his next book will be published this fall.

"Fundamentally, how does he get to be a great person, that's what I find intriguing," Phillips said about Washington.

Washington's leadership abilities are well documented, since he was the first president and an army general during the American Revolution, but Phillips focuses on his younger years to find out what led him to become a leader. Since Sept. 11, Phillips said Washington may be more respected and honored, possibly due to an increase in patriotism.

IN HIS "George Washington's Rules of Civility," Phillips suggests the 110 rules explained in the book acted as a foundation for the early colonists. Phillips adds that the rules were 200 to 300 years old when Washington was taught them as a young teenager in the 1740s. "A great number of rules have to do with respect for others ... including other people's feelings," Phillips said.

The May 2001 edition of the book is a nominee for the Virginia Literary Award to be presented in Richmond in September. Phillips will attend a series of book signings in Colonial Williamsburg July 29 at the request of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which is featuring the book this month.

"I admire his business acumen. He's an entrepreneur at heart," McMath said. "He's always thinking of the next way to get history out there. ... Anyone who can make a living at history is doing all right."

Phillips is an American history lecturer at the University of Virginia in Falls Church, a consulting historian and the president of the Northern Virginia Association for History for the 2001-03 term. He also conducts river history trips. He has lived in Leesburg since 1994 and in Loudoun since his infancy, though he was born in California. "I don't like that. I'm still a Virginian," he said.