tv Book Discussion on The Return of George Washington CSPAN September 27, 2015 8:15am-9:09am EDT
difficulty. that's the answer. >> we're out of time. i think we could go on for another hour, however, we must be reasonable. i want to thank secretary schultz and professor for a wonderful presentation. [applause] [inaudible conversations] >> this is book tv on c-span2, television for serious readers. coming up tonight at 7:00 eastern, discuss
perspective on race. former congressmen allen west talks about book "guardian of the republic". and then at 11:00 collection of accounts of holocaust survivors. it happens tonight at c-span's book tv. surprise winning historian is next on book tv, he examines the political career of george washington.
[inaudible conversations] >> good afternoon. my name is adam kushner, our weekly session for analysis and essay, arguments, investigative journalism and for this day nonfiction book coverage. it's amazing. i am extremely excite today introduce today -- excited to introduce today eric larson, few university professor there.
the professor has nine books and won summer of the gods, and disputed debate science and policy. he has written for the washington output section, outlook section is not one of them. it's something that we decided to fix. latest book is the return of george washington and what's great about it is that it takes a figure we know very well for his role in fighting the british and being the first president and looks at a lesser part of his life. after the war the nation faced a crisis and in need of a constitution many of the parties couldn't come together, didn't
trust one another and needed somebody to whom they could look at a convening power. this book is a great -- is a great tone about that period. they were not nearly fighting the british but instrumental all the way through. to talk about that i want to welcome please edward larson. [applause] >> well, thank you all. it is incredible delight to be back at the -- this particular book festival with such wonderful book speakers. i just came back from the one with marian robinson. it sort of caught me up. one of the things she was asked at the end, she works out of
iowa, she's not a mid-western by birth, she was asked what makes mid-westerners distinctive and unique and what is the character she sees, well, lack of -- you're not supposed to pride yourself. [laughter] >> the person who won the humility award but every time he bragged about it they took it away. and then before that, what a treat that was, what a wonderful speaker. he's even a better speaker than he is writer. we all know he's a great writer but wonderful conversational speaker. that was a -- very interesting
event too. she was telling me -- telling us that sh -- she went where humble went, so she went to wonderful places. what i'd thought i do is read to you. i thought i would read a passage and then use that to talk without reading. i we will do a very washingtonian thing now. one of the most famous -- washington was a, as you'll find out, a political actor, john adams who never said anything about anything else, he didn't have a bite in it. he was not from the midwest.
it's not john adams. and he said -- george washington political actor he had ever seen and he could command by a gesture, one of the famous acts, many of you probably do, was when the troops were going to revolt, some of them were pushing him to become king. this was before -- after it was clear the british -- after the british were going to give up but before they formally treaty had been signed. the british were occupying new york, otherwise had pulled back and the army was in new york
waiting to go, and because the british had effectively stopped the war, the state stopped paying congress any money. they were getting rebellious and ready to overthrow. and so washington put down the revolt by making an appearance in a meeting of the officers where they are plotting a revolt, one of the great motions, washington is not a very good public speaker because he didn't have any teeth. he had fake teeth and sort of mumbled. he pulled out a letter and pretended he couldn't read it and pulled out the glasses, i'm
just saying because i had to do to read this, he looked at his men and said, i'm not only grown gray in your service but also gone blind. according to legend, at least, this humanized him and the troops began to cry and they felt like he was for them, and that more than anything according to legend made it for washington to do and not become king, resign power and made him beloved and set the tone for american history. think about the revolutions that ended with a leader becoming a
dictator at some sort, napoleón, think of all them around the world today and what makes america different when a part of it is willingness to go back to private life, live on great men, great people who set the tone that is continued to live. that's one of the reasons today because south africa is different, mandela set a tone. it wasn't just washington. it was a team of people. but he pulled out the glasses and read said, going blind in service, and because i've been reading too many archival
notes. watching the sunrise slowly over the river, the west facing door on his first floor office stood directly behind me. washington would have seen much the same view 225 years earlier knowing it might be a long time before he observed it again. the american people had called him and he was prepare to go -- preparing to leave beloved plantation in april 1789. this vista the one that washington loved survived unchanged in the mist of when you urban virginia.
i was able to enjoy this and other scenes on washington's plantation many times over the course of the year. the view became my favorite too specially in sunrise in the spring when trees gave off a warm glow in the morning light. it was obvious why washington was reluctant to leave in a job that he neither sought or wanted. by 1789, six years since the united states secured independence, washington had come to believed that the country faced threat by internal as it had by external. now, his country again called on his service, this time elected
leader of the world's extended republic. couldcountless books tell about army and near as many relating the history of role as the first president of the united states. in the books about washington could fill a library. they fill up bookcase in mind. few of them, however, focused on the six years between wartime and presidential service which is the subject of my last book. even the finest lose military life to preserve as virginia planter. they typically present him as a stiff silent figure who mainly contributed his prestige and dignity for the proceedings, the standard narrative through
ratification debate until federal election until called presidency. i tell the story of washington's resignation, not meaning to diminish, i stress his critical role and political leader during crucial years between the revolutionary war and the start of the federal government in 1989. i promise, that's all i'm going to read. that's from the preface. it's not called an introduction. it's called a preface, two type of opening books should be distinguished. i'm kind of curious, how many of you here when you read a book you read the preface and how many of you read the
introduction. how many don't read the preface? just a fair warning, you never should skip an introduction. the book doesn't make sense without reading the introduction. i wrote an introduction on the book mentioned earlier and it sets the stage for the whole book, actually includes the dramatic interrogation by williams james at the trial pulled up to the front. in contrast you can skip a preface. that's fine, there's nothing wrong, but you don't need to. a preface by definition is not -- it often includes
acknowledgments, you can certainly skip acknowledgments. thousand an author shouldn't skip acknowledgment. briefly, what does this preface, what does it tell about me as an author and about the book, i thought i would use that in a way to introduce what i've done here before taking questions. frankly what does it say about me as an author. i like to be on-site. do i as well. i like to use what archives. i work in quotes a lot. i try to get a feel for the person through archives and working on-site. place is very important to me.
he was one of the joint prosecutors. i could walk to that big upstairs warehouse where 20 med -- 200 med aware situated. i could go where the boarding house. by that, i could get a feel more for what -- and i could go in the summer when it was hot and that was one of the memorable things about the trial and still didn't have a lot of air-conditioning when i was there. it was the old thermometer and still registering the temperature over a 100 some days, just like they experienced. that helped me get a feel for the place. i did learn from that experience going over a dozen times to change my subjects and my next book and after that early science an -- antarctica, i'm
not going to write dayton, tennessee anymore. i got to live with all the scientists and then got to go down for a three months thanks to you all and go over explorers went. now, this made this a perfect book for me because mount vernon is a tremendous source. mount vernon captures washington the same way that jefferson's home captures thomas jefferson. it was a product. it was a modest building.
second-story that sort of, attic-like. he married well so he had lots of money. he built farms around it. he transformed, he built the mill for grinding grain, he changed it from tobacco and all those things tell a story about washington. his resource, tobacco trade was controlled by the british, he did not want to be under the control of the british even in the 1750's. you can get a feel for those aspects of this very complicated person. it's also a wonderful archive
they built in the w. smith library. they also have all the preserved, his farm legers and notebooks. washington as i said, was not a great public speaker, if you had teeth made back then, you could see the false teeth. mount vernon has preserved -- it never went to public hands. it was never dispersed from his collection, i think it's about 17 of false teeth. he had one tooth of his own and rest on this one molar that he had as an anchor but you couldn't tell it was anchored really well so he would not
speall very -- speak very well. and with the archives there, you can dig deep into the person and from the notebooks you can follow what he was doing every day and who was visiting him at mount vernon and those people visit were very telling. i'll get to that. that was brought by the person that introduced me, what i did with this book and what i like to do with my writing is how i take a book, so i try to take a book that -- it's going to seem odd. let me prepare you. i try to take a book -- i tried to pick a topic that people think they know a lot of about but the received wisdom is
off-quilter somewhat. everybody knows and seen spencer tracy, you know, win the trial and inherent many times. it does not tell the scope of the trial, it was really more about mccarthy. they were using the trial as a vehicle to tell a story about try bring down mccarthy. it's very different, and so i was the first historian to ever write a book about the scope's trial, no historian had ever written it. most people had heard about it but people didn't know what had happened, no one brought historical techniques and therefore i was able to write a new account that surprised people and surprised them enough to knock me off my feet and give
me an award for my book. that's what i tried to do with many of my books. everything thinks and it helped make the story much more significant and it also won prices. and looking at the early science and not be dye -- distracted to a race to a poll. it was a center for science. now, in the 1800 election group, i spoke before, no one had ever tried to write the story of the 1800 election, adams versus jefferson. as a blow-by-blow as opiosed to put it in a broad historical perspective which other books
had. i looked for gaps in the record. other people who you will see later, can take a topic that everybody knows, everybody can love it and i love it, but i need to have the advantage of a book that either plays to my specialty, legal history, and hopefully something that too many people haven't shreded on before. how can you do that about george washington? i had often said it. i was just being general. one time i was introduced and some person introducing me said that there were about 10,000
books with george washington in the title. that exceeded the number of books. the surprising thing about the book is people don't focus on this period as i mentioned. well, i had been a history teacher for years at the university of george for 20 years. and everybody who has been a history teacher would know the same story. when you use any standard textbook, when you cover american history f you get to stop with the civil war and don't have to bring it up to date and you have a whole semester to do it, you'll spend a couple of days in the revolutionary war and washington is all over the place. then you have the collapse of the confederation. why the confederation did not work, inability to control trade and tariffs, inability to raise any funds, well, confederation
-- created a friendship among 13 sovereign states. each of those states even after the threat, external threat of the british each went their own way trying to make life better for their people, at the expense of who? you compete against your brothers and sisters, against your species. lions compete against lions. every state was competing against the other state. new york was doing whatever it could by reaming connecticut and new jersey, basically putting you have tariffs so they could export taxes to new jersey and connecticut. they still want to do that today. that's part of the problem of europe. europe is still acting that way.
hungary, greece, all completing against each other with short-term gain. no one would pay any government -- money, they were competing against each other. the place was falling apart. and we till that story as historians, but we hear nothing about washington. i think partly because washington chose to create a stepping away from power and so we have to repeat that story of washington stepping away from power and mount vernon pending his farm. then suddenly washington is barely mentioned and then we spend several days talking about the first federal administration. washington, the administration into adams. washington is all over the place again as president.
so what happened to him in this middle period? washington ended the revolution as the most famous and beloved person in the america's perhaps in the world, certainly world famous all over europe and revered amazing leader who had led against the british, strongest power in the world and gained independ which -- independence which had never happened before. liberty, freedom, republican rule rather than a monarchy, these were the ideas that were shaking europe and americas at this time and washington person -- personafied them. he did not come from the midwest. the early accounts, what do i
want. he would analyze himself as franklin would, as adams would and washington always came to the same conclusion, he did not really care about money, though he became very wealthy, he did not care about power, though he became very powerful. what he said as a youth, what i want is to be famous. now that's more -- they call it more a of a legacy but he cared most about reputation as a republican leader, as a founder of the first extended republic for any sort of precedent. would he given his status, be willing to -- i would i was think if i was teaching this, just sit in mount vernon and farm when his entire legacy was in doubt. every american knew at that
time, every leading america, i don't know what every america, we can read franklin, adams, jefferson, all these people that what made america difference was a frontier. people weren't trapped in old models. in england you had to be like your ancestors were. and they knew the key to that was the frontier. the frontier was always pushing west. now one of the reasons they were over against britain is they had taken the frontier. they built a wall and america was filling up and washington and jefferson, we need the
frontier. well, during this period of the confederation, of course, the states were focused on where they were on the east coast. they were ignoring the frontier. they could -- georgia had claimed to mississippi. but nobody was defending it and the central government such as it was, that was the phrase washington would use the central government, such as it is, he would put it in quotes or in comas. he was deeply involved. but the frontier was being lost and he himself had may swror holdings in the valley.
they were all being lost because there was no way virginia, pennsylvania or georgia was going to defend the frontier. they were arming the indians extensively to -- they would trade with the british. you can use the same guns against settlers and the native americans had pushed way back in, taken back most of georgia, for example, pushed back into the area of the western virginia, western pennsylvania, washington's own agent had been captured by the native americans by this period, roasted alive and then killed. washington himself during this period, during this period had
gone to visit, he loved camping out, getting soaked in rain. he had not been born with money. he was the second, third -- first son of the second wife of a moderately wealthy person. he wasn't going to inherit anything. he surveyed and went back there to look at the holdings and he could not get to his holdings because he had been-the native americans were going to capture him and he couldn't get to holdings. one of the holdings, they wouldn't pay him and wouldn't
leave. there was no affected government that could protect property or investments and if that's where the future was, what sort of future that we have if we don't have a central government that opens the west. he divides actually in the closing years after the revolution after york town and began planning the future, future that he's going to retire. he produced a letter to the states and military establishment where the plan of progressive seating, open the frontier, ohio, illinois, indiana and make them into states. all that was being lost without a central government. there was no effective control over interstate commerce. he couldn't get his own goods to market across state lines.
this country, we think of hamilton worried about those things, but jefferson -- and jefferson swell, but washington more than any was living it every day and his letters are filled with these concerns. during this period when he is supposedly retired and if you carefully read the letters and who was visiting mount vernon, you will see that mount vernon was a cross roads, that he was communicating with ham -- hamiltons and john hancock, all these people were visiting him, spending time in mount vernon planning for a nation, planning for a unified country and weren't was writing the letters. when you live in the south
wherever you want to travel you seem to go to atlanta, mount vernon was at will -- was the at will >> we often here that james madison was the architect of the constitution. he would spend months in the time in the time leading up living in mount vernon. you can see the room where he was staying, talking with washington, plotting out what this new government had to have. you can see him writing letters to john jay. john jay, to henry knox, head of the military forces which was a
confederation congress and to james madison asking him if we go to philadelphia, what sort of government would we trade. you can lock -- look back at the letters and said, we need to have government, it has to have the power of taxation, military force, it has to progressively open the frontier, we need to open the west. we have to have a central government that can defend us against european powers, that consolidates what's necessary for the nation and make an economy. they were coming from washington or washington was fully a partner to them. but washington also realized.
this was another thing that was characteristic of this period, is washington was a great listener. now, that my come in part because he wasn't a particular good order but he was a great listener, you could see this before he was a general, before every battle, he would pull together all the officers and listened to all of them about how the battle should take place, what should we do, how should we handle crossing the delaware, yorktown and collectively draw the ideas together, compromise, work out and then from that a plan would develop. we know how he was as president. he invent it had -- invented the cabinet. the cabinet is no where in the
constitution. that's nothing compared to washington. washington put in jefferson, hamilton and knox and john adams is his vice president. you talk about human rivals, there's a team of rivals. they could write memos and from those work out an overall planning. they all recognized he had great wisdom. he wasn't the brightest or most technically research person, he wasn't policy like madison. he was very wise man who had definite clear goals and we can see these all along to create a more perfect union, to turn
league of friendship into an effective country that could be respected abroad, create prosperity at home because prosperity was being lost because of the competition and the lack of national market economy and competition between the states and expand westward. those are what everyone knew he stood for, basically known platform when elected president but that's what he believed during his period. he would listen to others. he would be writing to john jay, john jay was a very close con -- confidant. he would write to benjamin franklin. when he got the letters back to
mount vernon, he created summary of the letters he had received from all these different people into a single written summary which he then took to the constitution convention, and the remarkable thing is it looks almost like the summary. it doesn't look like madison originally wanted. he would be furious during the constitutional convention because he wouldn't get his way on something like grant write for lower federal courts or one particular way of choosing the president. he would be chosen by congress. washington, instead would listen to all the ideas. he would hear what was coming from the small states, he would hear what was coming from the big states, so-called big
states, and he would be willing as long as his fundamental goals were reached, he was able to compromise on means to get an effective result. you can see that in so much of what he did in philadelphia. if you look at the record of philadelphia, washington is almost invisible at the philadelphia convention because what we have is madison's notice -- notes and contains what was said officially and washington was the presiding officer and just as today with the house of representatives, the speaker can't speak during debate in house of representatives. boehner can't speak. they decide who is called on.
they're meeting with people outside the main sessions working out the compromises, if you follow the constitutional convention closely, you can see washington working very closely with benjamin franklin playing that role that madison would have these ideas, people who read the constitution convention close i will say how madison had the originally plan, the virginia plan and then he continued to get reamed on all the details. there's some truth to that. washington wasn't. ..
that really leaves the small states out and it harms the southern states because only votes count and hav half the pee are slaves who can't vote. if you lose an electoral college son of the south gets a lot more votes because the slaves count. but also the small states get this proportion of us because
they get to electoral vote for each of the senators. it's all a compromise and you get a washington sand and every bit of it. not thinking of the compromised. it tended to be gubernatorial morris, weird things like the electoral college, or ben franklin who was really behind the big states most a compromise and handed it off the roger sherman to get the credit because they thought it was better coming from a small state. these were the guys who could think of the mechanisms but you can look back at the record when they were announced, the people that always met with washington beforehand and would have the person offered a compromise was always with washington the night before and washington would always call him in first. so he was in on it. did he invent everything? i sort of take video washington and the constitution is, well, if madison was the architect of the constitution, and i won't
take that away from them, george washington was the general contractor. any of you who have ever built the house will put an addition on the house now looks a lot more like what the general contractor thought of them with the architect originally designed. that's the role i get to tease out during this exciting period when this man, along with others, definitely along with others, he didn't do it alone, along with others created what we now know is a more perfect union. i have a little time for some questions so i would like if anyone has questions from if not i will just blither on and tell more stories. so please. >> you said washington had a desire to be famous. i know he's not one of the kardashians, but like what motivation did he have to be like the most noble of americans? >> when he was young he would
write in his private notebooks and letters that what he really thought was fame. later on it would be to leave a legacy, and actually during the continental, during the confederation period, his circular letter to the states when the alpine and waited a stronger union which he wrote in 1782 and senator bachus and 83, i guess he wrote it mostly and 7083 can was called washington's legacy. what he did is he wanted, well, lives of great an album like this, footprints on the sense of time. he wanted to leave the. that was characteristic of the enlightenment. the enlightenment followed the reformation and followed the middle ages when people were god's agents or the record find god. the one thing about the enlightenment is we believe people can make a difference. washington deeply believed in
that sense of the role of humans. that humans can make a difference, and you believe in enlightenment values of individual liberty, a representative rule and not having monarchs rule. remember, he volunteered, he volunteered, he made clear that he would be very pleased if the first and second continental congress chose him as the leader of the troops. he came up his military uniform which barely fit in from virginia to show that he, i can come and act, not saying something but this performance that he would be willing to lead the troops, that he would go up to boston to lead the troops. it was fighting for a cause he believed in but he was a visible part of it. he wanted to make a difference for the good. fortunately, for all of us he
believed in these republican as we would call them back then, republican virtues, republican values of liberty, of economic freedom, of private property, deeply believe in the values of private property and not having monarchical rule, and by advancing those causes he would be remembered, he cared greatly that he would be remembered. so that would be what he wanted or not a kardashian sort of thing but a thing of making a difference of transforming being a model. he often, you can read his first, you can read his inaugural address in which he didn't use. you can resume of the private letters. he america almost a john winthrop as the city on a hill, as a model to show that republican rule can work, and that it would be a model for europe and it would change the world.
and in his deep sense of that as he came increasingly personify or connect himself with the united states, his character is washington the man, washington is the one who can transform things. yes. >> washington in his will provide for the freedom of his slaves. during this conversation, during the sort of the making of the republic, putting together the constitution, what was that discussion about in those deliberations, and the constitutional deliberations? >> that's a great question. i spent considerable time keeping with that in my book. washington was a defender of slavery at the constitutional convention. he was part of the compromise that brought out the three-fifths compromise, and the fugitive slave laws. in part he thought that was necessary to maintain the union and to bring the south end,
though many analysts would not agree he did not need to make as many compromises as possible. washington came from a different era. washington grew up in a. and everybody had sliced the everybody had slaves. they were slaves in every country in the world. there were slaves in europe or tara had always been slaves. they were slaves in every state. every member, every person who signed the declaration of independence, except john adams, had owned a slave a least one time. he could not imagine a world without slaves. during the revolution many people were pulling on him. there was a movement against slavery, and so people like some of his aides like henry lawrence of south carolina, or most critically, lafayette of france, or hamilton of new york were saying no, slavery has to end and you should be a leader of it.
he didn't go that far. and he kept his own slaves. of course, many of the slaves were owned i his wife but he was always called by this desire that this is not a trend of the future. ben franklin of course had switched. he owns place we need was younger. he became a leader abolitionist, ben franklin. people can change. on his deathbed he had written two wheels. we don't know what was in one. on his deathbed he asked both will be brought to him. he looked at them both and he tore up one and us that it be burned. he gave the other one, this is my will. that's the one that contains the freeing of the slaves. washington was a man of action, not of works. enough they believed, because this was, this act would send a message to the future. i don't think he wanted to go the wrong side of history. he wanted to send a message and that's how h