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tv   Nathaniel Philbrick Travels with George  CSPAN  February 24, 2022 7:21pm-8:21pm EST

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once you start seeing these parallels to tactics of suffragist, you cannot unsee them. another one. picketing the white house. no one had ever done this before. this was the national women's party idea. so not only is picketing in the white house now incredibly common, this is an image from the summer when there were so many black lives matter protesters that they started adding their signs to the fence that the white house had put between the protesters and itself. but what are these women doing? they are making a message go viral. this is the 1917 equivalent of a tweet. right? sure, it reaches the people who are standing in front of the white house, one but it reaches many more people in the picture, in the newspaper. >> watch the full program and thousands more at slash history. >> in troubles with george, no fan you'll feel bergh both
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recounts the historical journey is made by george washington through the new new nighted states, and describes his own experience as he followed the same roots in the present day. as phil birx progress and thoughts are recorded in this book, washington's own words are preserved in his diaries. transcriptions of those diaries and his correspondents are freely available on founders online, a searchable website hosted by the national archives through the national historical publications and records commission. founders online has transcriptions of thousands of documents written by and to the nation's founders. there, you can find washington's letter to this cabinet written before sitting off or savannah, georgia. laying out his itinerary and instructions should any serious matter occur in his absence. you can also read entries from his diary which required the places he stopped, the conditions of the roads and lodgings, the weather, and the terrain, and the major crops of the area. following washington's path,
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nathanael fuller came to know our first president, not as a monumental figure of our history, but as a man, a traveler like himself. and reading the words preserved in traditional and digital archives, we too can become more familiar with washington and the other founders. nathanael phil burke is the author of award-winning books, including the new york times bestseller mayflower, which was a finalist for both the pulitzer prize in history and the los angeles times book prize. his book in the heart of the seawall in the national book award for nonfiction i was adapted for film in 2015. joining him in conversation is evan thomas, the author of numerous books including the very famous man, robert kennedy. the war lovers, sea of thunder, and joel payne jones. let's hear from nathanael nathaniel philbrick and evan thomas. thank you for joining us today. >> hello, to the national archives. we are both delighted to be
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here. lots to talk about, both of us are veterans of speaking in the national archives and know a lot of you are history buffs and so we are glad to have you. this is a bit of a departure for you, you have written all these great books but haven't gotten to -- have been written about that before. tell us about your thought process, how you got into that, how you went down this road metaphorically and literally, and maybe you could start with a chariot? >> yes, that's where it began. evan, it's so great to hang out with you for this hour, to see you in this post -- in the midst of the aftermath of covid. but yeah, it all began for me really during a research trip for my last book about the american revolution, in the hurricane -- in the -- yorktown. and there was a late inning
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research trip. and i made my way to the john brown house. now, this is in john brown the abolitionist. this is john brown -- quite the opposite, slave trader and cofounder of brown university. and in the back of his magisterial home is a little annex where there is john brown's chariot and it's tiny. i compared the single forward facing c to the back seat of a vw bug. it's this tiny little thing. and according to family tradition, when the newly inaugurated president, george washington, was visiting providence, john brown gave washington a ride in that chariot down to the shipyard where he was building a ship named for the new president. and that call me to wondering, because, in the book i was writing, washington visited providence several times, but i
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had no idea he had come to providence once he was president. why? why was he there? and that led me to realize, you know, he went on a series of presidential trips in an attempt to create a sense of nationhood among 13 former colonies. so i was finished shaking up this book of straight history, it was one close to a dozen books that i had written in the past 25 years, i live on and to get a island which is all 14 mile long miles long. i grew up in pittsburgh, the -- where i needed to travel just to sail. and i love to put my sunfish on the top of my vw bud and traveling all over the country for sailboat races. and i was getting itchy after 25 years, we being held up on
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the island where it takes 25 minutes to dry from one into the other, and i thought, i would love to go on a road trip. and washington went on a series of tours across this country. and, as it turned out, my wife melissa had just retired and, hey, she could join me. so one of my favorite books of all-time is john steinbeck's travels with charlie, where he famously gets in his truck with his faithful charlie, ten year old standard poodle at his side, and they head out in search of the meaning of america. and i thought, well what if we had a new puppy, named aura, not a sad day ten years old, this is a mound full, she is a nova scotia duct holding retriever. pretty hyperactive. but the three of us went -- did our steinbeck imitation,
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and followed washington across this country. it's been said over and over again that we are in the midst of unprecedented political division. and i thought, we would be kind of interesting to get -- what's historical perspective would i get on to where we are today by following washington in his attempt to unite this country at the very beginning of our history? off we went. >> your very warm and sunny guy, and your basic message is one of unity, but i was struck, when i was reading, i was struck by the fact that you put moral ambiguity in mayhem. the dark side of history, if you will. so talk us through that. both sides. this is a message of unity, i know you are writing this to inspire us to be more unified, and it succeeds on those terms, i should say. but also talk to us a little bit about your being drawn to
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the dark side. >> yeah, well, i am a big stephen king fan. i lost -- my wife will attest, and our children. i do have a dark side. i'm fascinated by the darkness of life, and one of my books, heart of the sea, is a light hearted tale of a survival in belies them. and i love this stuff. even in my story of the pilgrims, i did not want to make this a inspiring story, where the climax is thanksgiving. it seems to me like other things happened out as well. and one of the convictions i had in writing history is that, there is this tendency to look on the past as a simpler time. when people knew what they were about and seen faded to make
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the journey and life that has led to where we are today. and that is hogwash. >> the pass was just as conflicted and terrifying as the president is, if not more so. and that's what interests me. because i think we learn a lot more about who we are as human beings. when we look at the dark side. and, yes, there is light there and i have to say, traveling with george was one of my few books where i really wanted to purposely go out there, and not focus on the divisions. we all know what is going on with the divisions. what i wanted to know is what is still holding us together. so, that's what i was looking for. i wasn't looking to go into the depths of that discord. that seems so painfully obvious to me when -- i wanted to know wet historical
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perspective could i get on a time when washington tried as desperately as he could to pull us all together. >> so set the stage a little bit for those who don't know who the federalists are. why was he faced with? >> i think it's a surprise for a lot of people that we did not invent partisanship. it has been around from the absolute beginning. when there was the revolution, it was patriots and loyalist. it was a civil war as much as it was anything directed against great britain. and what i think a lot of people don't realize is how much the constitution divided this country. it was a very controversial document. there were no organized political parties. there were two factions, the federal goers who are fans of the constitution in a strong national government created, and there were others that
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distrusted the very fact that there was the strong national government. they were known as anti federalists who believe the state should retain the power that they had under the articles of confederation. which the constitution had supplanted. so, when washington was inaugurated, two states, rhode island and north carolina, had not even ratify the constitution. they had participated in his election. so there was a deep divide in america. and there was another overlay which -- there were these profound regional differences. when the governor of virginia said, my country, he did not mean the united states. he met virginia. and this held true in all the states. so washington felt a real need to try to create, a, a sense of nationhood, and also attempt to
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include both sides. those who are for his government and those who weren't so sure it was a good idea. so off he went. >> i was struck when he gave his inauguration, you think of the great mighty george washington, confident guy. he was so staggered by the whole thing. he fell off his chair. that's not my picture of george washington. >> no, no, this is not the george washington -- he's not the guy in the $1 bill looking at us and almost -- in judgment. because i did it. no, that wasn't washington. he was the most reluctant presidents we have ever had. he sincerely did not want to become president of the united states. he had somehow won the american revolution. he was a hero bigger than anyone else in the world, really. and all he had to do was lose when it came to taking on the
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presidency of the united states. so his diary account from his journey from run into new york, which was the temporary capital of the country, his one long lament of everybody's applauding me now, but, man, they are going to tear me down as soon as they try to do anything. remember, this was a people who had rebelled against the strongest military power on earth over the issue of taxation. how is he going to lead these people? he knew that all the divisions that had been there from the very beginning where latent. yet, everyone loved him. but as soon as his policies came into clear focus, he knew these old divisions were going to come back. there's this account of the inauguration, 15 year old girl elijah, she is on the roof of a
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house across the street from federal hall where washington is about to be sworn in on the second floor balcony. and he is up there, immense crowd all around, everybody is excited. and washington is not excited by his side all. he's terrified. at one point, it's so staggers him, before he takes the oath of office, as you refer to, evan, he staggers back and falls into a chair and everyone goes silent. they know, he's on the brink of what looks like a nervous breakdown. this is not the washington most of us grew up with. for me, i've had some people say, well, that's not it. well, this makes them all the more heroic, in my eyes. if someone is blindly brave, they are not experiencing the inner turmoil that goes with
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someone who knows the risks, is completely aware of them, and goes forward just the same. >> you know, i had that experience a little bit following politicians on the trail. some of bill clinton, every crowd he got, he loved it. he loved the people, and he was fed off of. it but other politicians, it was hard for them. richard nixon, not a hero to many people, was actually a brave guy. every time he walked into a room, he was brave because he didn't to be there, he was shy. and he had to muster the courage -- a more recent figure, john kerry was not someone who likes crowds. i remember traveling with him and i can see him mustering the courage to go up there and i kind of admire it. one of the things really get out and talk to us about is this interesting -- you can be a guy who projects confidence like washington, but be insecure.
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>> right. >> those things are not necessarily a contradiction. can you talk to us a little bit about george washington's confidence and insecurity? >> he spent eight years of as commander-in-chief of the continental army. those eight years had been, i think, probably the best training anyone could have in putting a good face on a disaster. the war effort, washington did not win the war, he survived it. this was -- anyone who thinks, you, know this was faded that we would throw off the chains of british tyranny, that's baloney. he knew better than anyone that it could've been lost countless times. and yet, he also knew that everyone, not only in his army, but throughout the nation, looked at him as the symbolic presence of the year -- if he should crack, if he
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should show a lack of optimism and strength, everything was done. so he had spent eight years doing that. this guy knew how to make an impression. he knew how to hide his innermost feelings. he knew how to -- he loved the theater. he was -- he wasn't an outgoing guy, but he had a sense of the dramatic, the theatrical. and he knew that, you know, i -- i wonder sometimes if he looked at a mirror and wondered what is the pose i need to have here, even though i am dying on the inside, how do i look? completely decisive. he had that. so here he is on his way to -- he arrives in new york by water, and there is the biggest party new york has ever seen. and he has to somehow get
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through the crowd to his new residents and, it's packed. they are unable to go by carriage because nothing can fit down the road. so he gets off the boat and there is the head of the militia, that has to escort him to his quarters. the officer says, i'm here to escort you, and washington says, thank you. and then he looks around and says, but the people are the only escort i need. i mean -- that's theater. as his diary reveals, that's not the confidence he feels. he's feeling, they are screaming for me now, but soon, they will be screaming against me. so he saw these people as a force that could go either way. so this is washington's great
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gift i think. to hide that insecurity, to project this aura of absolute convince ability. and yet, not audacity, necessarily. but he was able -- and you hear people refer to it constantly of, he doesn't come off as a braggart, or whatever. there's a modesty about him as well. >> tell us about the brown suit. i was struck by his brown suit. >> washington was, of course, a general from the revolution. and people were used to seeing him in his generals uniform. in fact, that's what he wore during his pre-inaugural journey from vernon to new york. that's what he was wearing when he entered new york and he met the huge crowd. but when it came time for his inauguration, he realized that,
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you know, i am now the leader of a republic, i do not want to project a sense of, i am the dictator in waiting. i don't want to be accused of being a monarch. i want to be seen as one of the people. so washington, the great role player, realizes he needs to dress differently. and he was great with symbolism. and there was a new, very embryonic cloth manufacture, textile manufacturing and hartford. and he asks for them to send him some dark brown cloth out of which he creates the suit in which he will be inaugurated in. and it's as drab and nondescript as you can have. and i think it must have been a bit of a shock for people when he stepped out of the carriage in front of federal hall to be
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inaugurated, to see him suddenly, not as resplendent but golden it bullets on his so shoulders, but this drab suit that was, as washington admitted, not of the greatest cloth whatsoever, but it was american made. that was his point. and that was the -- washington, from the beginning realized, it was -- he was tiptoeing the line where he wanted to project this or of being in command, but he also wanted to make sure that he wasn't accused of being a king. he had to be of the people. and i think presidents to this day are flirting with that edge. and this is the nature of what was created in america. how you project this aura of
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command, and yet are one of the people. washington, i think, established -- played that role beautifully. thank goodness he was our first president because, you know, i think there are a few people who were capable of just that kind of -- seeing it so clearly, that dichotomy. >> he was a federalist but he was willing to, of course, he had to deal with the anti federalists. he was a believer and compromise. that too was important. we think of the country we live in now, they're not big on the compromise. maybe they're thinking about this on capitol hill. but we live in an age where people are morally superior, better than, you and i am not -- that was not washington. but that was some of the people around him. >> absolutely. >> talk to us about how he fit in on that. >> lincoln did not invent a cabinet of a team of rivals. i think you can look to washington doing that.
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because he brought aboard, the two most brilliant people in america that time. alexander hamilton as his financial -- treasury secretary. let's mart as anyone, eloquent, but also a numbers guy, and there was no one like him. but he also brought in thomas jefferson. a fellow virginian who had been an absolute disaster as a wartime governor, basically saying, i cannot do this, and abandoned the stage at the worst of times. but also a brilliant man. this is the guy who wrote the declaration of independence. he had spent the last five years as minister to france. so what he thought -- he had not participated in the constitution convention, but his good friend james madison had, and he was a supporter of
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it. he actually worked in concert with hamilton. in promoting the constitution. so, washington decides, you know, he brings in hamilton, but he also reaches out to thomas jefferson. whom he'd had a bit of a prickly relationship with during the revolution. but he recognized these gifts. in typical fashion, jefferson takes a while to respond, he's responding from france. it wasn't until march, almost a year after washington's inauguration, that he becomes a part of washington's cabinet. and from the start, he is very skeptical about what is going on. he distrusts this thing called the presidency with all of that power. for him, liu hamilton is
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looking to him as a british model in creating an economic basis for this country. because washington, both washington and hamilton knew after fighting the revolution that, if they lost, it wasn't because of what's happening on the battlefield, it was because a british economic might. they had a national bank because they had the ability to borrow. they could outlast anyone economically. and that is what would've ultimately given him superiority. that's what washington wanted. he wanted a strong economic basis for the country. after his time in france, jefferson is seduced by a french revolutionary. he comes from the opposite side. that's not what the republicans about. we don't want to be like england. we want to be passionate and
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idealistic. we know where the french revolution would go, but that didn't even bother jefferson. he was someone who was an idealogue. he really was and he was willing to ignore reality if -- i think you would be very happy today. >> i thought about that, he's so all in. he would fit right in on twitter, on social media. >> and framing people -- shaming people. which he did with john adams accusing him of monarchy. john adams did not want to create a king. come on! but it was the tagline that worked. you say, monarchy, that's a code word. a kind of code words we have today. >> it's sort of reassuring that they were just as vicious with each other as we are today. they didn't have the internet
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to do it, but they had pamphlets, they had a way of getting the message across. and they were just as reasonable and mean as we are today. >> absolutely, and under him. in jefferson's case, curious, serving in washington's cabinet, getting increasingly alienated by washington and hamilton's economic policies, and he decides he's going to do everything he can to secretly undercut washington's administration. so what does he do? yes, he didn't have the internet, but remember, the internet of the day was, you know, the newspaper. so, he hires a guy, supposedly as a translator for the state department, but his job is to start a newspaper that is critical of the government and makes washington's life
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miserable, this paper. jefferson betrays absolutely no knowledge of what is going on, by this time, madison and him are the ringleaders and what will ultimately be the opposition party. the republican party. so this is going on in washington's cabinet. and it baffled him and infuriated him because he had no -- luck for this idealogue -- hamilton was just as bad. he was on the other side. he has this letter to hamilton and i quote in the book where he says, basically, dude, when you are this far on one side and another guy, jefferson, is that far on the other side, maybe a middle course is the one that is best. doesn't that sound a little familiar? this is where washington was. he didn't care who was right,
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who is wrong, he just wanted to make things work. >> my favorite song in the show hamilton which i'm sure a lot of our viewers have watched is where hamilton comes up, and he's all hot about jefferson. jefferson is quitting and hamilton wants to get him. come on, let's take it to him! and washington says, calm down, son. let's sit down, have a drink, and talk about this. and let's show them how it is done. one last time. let's show them how it's done. i am resigning. i am not going to run again. i am going to -- we will peacefully turnover power here, we are not going to have a fight. we are going to show them how it's done. democracy can go on, after i have left the stage, we can still have a country. and it made me cry listening to this. it was just such a powerful scene. and it made me wonder, what made washington so wise and so selfless that he could give up
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this a lust for power unlike today politicians. how could he do that, where did it come from? >> you know, it seems enigmatic, but this is my take on it. i think washington was the most ambitious person we have ever seen, but he knew how to hide it. he was swing and for the fences. he wanted to be remember as he is largely remember today as someone who is above the fray, who always look to what was better for people, for everyone, rather than himself. and i think he honestly wanted to be remembered as fat. and, basically, he is going for political immortality. it is the high -- so, you can say, yes, he is being selfless and all of that. but i also think at some point
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in his life, he said, you know, i want to be remembered as that person who had never wanted anything, and yet, you know, there's a part of him that did wanted. he -- you know, and so -- i'm probably being a little cynical here. but i think it was a part of washington -- washington was hugely ambitious. and he was playing the longest of games. it was posterity. he didn't have to have the power now because he wanted to be remembered in future generations. and, that's a deep game. most of us want it now. we don't have enough faith in the future or in ourselves to do the right thing because it is right. so i think with washington, yes,
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he is doing it for all the right reasons. yet, there's a part of him. i'm not saying he is manipulative, but there is a part of him that knows, well, you know, if i want to come off the way off i come off, i need asked -- people to ask me to do it. >> all that experience in the revolution that you wrote about so well played a long game. he's not winning battles, but he is staying alive. and he's playing a sort of rope a dope strategy with the british on staying one step ahead of them, waiting for his moment, basically waiting for the french to arrive. but, whatever, you know. he stays alive. and it's just incredible patience when all the others wanted to fight the big battle and come on let's have it. he said, no, be patient. and he -- i wonder, he --
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he had to learn how to be modest. one thing that interested me, he's one founder who has been a college. and he is a kind of -- he has a modesty about it. he's insecure about it. but there is a kind of modesty he gets from his minor attainments in the intellectual field. i wonder if that helps some. i'm just thinking. >> absolutely. what he would -- you know, you see people, abigail adams, has this wonderful description of him. soon after she met him after he came to boston during the revolution as the new leader of the continental army. and she said, you, know she is taken by him about how there is a reserve in him and yet a modesty about him. where you don't feel like you are close to him, yet, somehow, you revere him. she even said love him.
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and i think that really comes back -- i think people who incite that kind of response and people, they project an element of modesty, and i think it comes from washington -- his father died when he was 11, he did not go to the finishing schools in england that his step brothers went to, so he has the sense of not -- i've been kind of abandoned. he had a very strong mother, with which he had a conflicted relationship. but it's one of these things where, he has the sense of not measuring up. it's kind of like tom brady who was undrafted until the 30th round or something like this. the chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life. i think washington had a little
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bit of that. he desperately wanted to be a -- part of the british army. that was tonight him. he didn't go to college. people like jefferson and adams really would refer to that and all sorts of ways. he doesn't know his latin and greet -- that kind of thing. and yet, washington was quickly -- we don't think of him as -- he wasn't brilliant the way hamilton, jefferson, and madison were, but he was a great thinker. i remember one of my books were i'm talking about the battle of mouth and it all goes very well for washington, and that night, he sleeps on the field of battle with his man, with his cloak under a tree. and an officer at midnight comes up and hesitates to wake
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him. and he says, go ahead, i am not sleeping, i am here to think. and i thought, that's washington. he would just think about things. and i think it has a lot to do with how our cultures have changed. here we are on the twitter world, being, bang, no one has any kind of ability to concentrate on anything. washington had this incredible ability to dial out the static and just figure out what is the most important thing for me to do. that's pretty -- that's incredible in any age. but i think it gets back to his lack of formal education. this is a guy who, as a young surveyor, spent countless nights out there in the wilderness, just thinking. and that's how he got through the revolution and that would
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be a big part of his presidency. >> towards the end of his life, he's retired, and he's able to go back and sit under his victory. you think it would be all right. but it's not. think about thinking. you have this seen of him thinking at mount vernon towards the end where he is troubled and talk to us about that. what is he troubled about, or what do we think he is troubled about. >> throughout this, throughout my research on -- i wanted washington to have a high five moment. where he said, yes, i did it! endeavor comes. it never comes. he never gets that sense of satisfying his accomplishment because there's always another catastrophe looming. and for washington, i said that he was swinging defenses when it came to prosperity, one of the things that bothered him more than anything was the slavery. he had come to realize, it was
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a pernicious institution, this is a guy who became a slave holder at age 11 when his father died, and he inherited slave people. he had befriended lafayette, the idealistic frenchman who had later said, had i known earlier that i had created a country of -- washington overheard, and this is recorded in jefferson's -- jefferson writes it down, overheard saying it if there were -- there were three hundreds inside people in mount vernon. half of them are owned by washington, and half of them are owned by -- becomes the property of the grandchildren. and washington is responsible
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for all of this. and the two groups are intermarriage. washington has decided that he is going to free his slaves. but by that time, the their these accounts of washington at the fireside with his family at mount vernon, is not there looking back with a benign smile on his face. his lips, his wrestling with what do i do when it comes to slavery? didn't want create a situation for martha, it was so complicated. i think he recognized this would be the biggest challenge, his involvement with slavery. one of the things i did people
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to get from this book is a sense of how far washington travels not in terms of miles across the country but as a human being. he is almost born into the institution of slavery. he comes to doubt the assumptions of his childhood. but he's not able to completely free himself from them given the entangled nature of his personal life and yes, he freezes enslaved workers, the only slave owning founding father to do that. and yet in the final year of his life he is actively pursuing the enslaved servant of martha's who have escaped from philadelphia to portsmouth, new hampshire in search of freedom. how to reconcile? washington is a paradox like all of us. he's not consistent like all of
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us. i don't think it negates everything he's working towards. the concept of the union that would inspire lincoln to issue the emancipation proclamation was what washington was working so hard to create during his travels in his presidency. >> host: it is not always a pretty place. talk to was about washington's teeth. a little grim. >> guest: one of the things, there are a couple historical jokes associated with washington. one is washington slept here. that sort of sleeping around but following washington, came to realize each one of those was not -- this was not fun for washington. he was working tremendously
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hard to pull the country together. the other joke is washington's teeth, dentures made of wood. he had dentures, they weren't made of wood. they were made of teeth from various animals, from ivory, the hippopotamus, even before he ended up with those dentures, in desperation, only a few teeth left in his mouth by the time we see the revolution -- back at mount vernon, a new technology, dentistry with two transplants, a dentist would extract the tooth, the diseased tooth and a person would be paid enough to donate their healthy tooth the was then extracted and stuck into the jaws of the person
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paying for the procedure. it almost never worked. sometimes the tooth would hang in for a year, sometimes five years, sometimes it would be rejected from the beginning but washington at some point invite a french dentist to mount vernon and this is -- very recently we have become aware of this, mary thompson, a fabulous researcher at george washington's mount vernon and uncovers this evidence of that he paid several -- it seems clear they must have been enslaved workers to donate their teeth, nine teeth. what happens? the scenario is obvious, they were inserted into his jaws, one of these scenarios that is awful, awful, to contemplate.
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i purposely include this in the book. this is where i come from with history. you have to look into the deep dark recesses of the past to put what happens in a positive way in the proper context. this is part of washington that speaks to the original sin that is still plaguing our society today. >> host: and interesting moment when you are driving back and she says we have this diary but i'm not sure i know what he is really thinking. we touch on this a little bit. as a fellow popular historian, the writers craft, you don't really know and in the diary he says i slept here or i ate here
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but doesn't really reveal thoughts, what is that like for you? what do you do then? how do you proceed when the record is pretty bare-bones and you are trying to get in their head. >> you can't make it up. >> host: i need to interview for second. a lot don't understand that but there is historical fiction where people do make it up. that is another genre that does do this. in our trade you don't make it up. >> guest: you can speculate but you have to have a basis for it. one of my books, in the heart of the sea, that is the thing with history, it is all in the evidence. so often there are situations,
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you and i tell narrative history, we are telling the story and there's a plot and often there is in the evidence to fill in what must've happened there. what i would do in a lot of my books is say we don't know what happened here but in a similar situation this is what happened and try to insert that into the narrative without breaking the historical period in which you are writing. those are the challenges i enjoy and when it comes to a historical personage such as washington or george armstrong custer in my book about the battle of little bighorn, inevitable, what were these guys thinking? you can't make it up and so i find myself doing is saying this is what was happening
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around, this is what they would do, this is what perhaps they were thinking. you have to have evidence to go on. you have to go there, as someone writing about history. to leave it a blank is to leave out what it is like to be alive at that time. we come from a journalistic background where we are creating a sense of life is lived today as a journalist and the way we both tell history we are trying to create a sense of lives in the past because for me the past is only is relevant as can be related to us by now.
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>> host: things were different back then. they thought differently. if you were writing before the thirteenth century totally animated by religion. that is the way they think. that's true for some of us but we live in a secular age. the interesting translation problem, you write about the eighteenth century and the nineteenth. what are some of the challenges of conveying the way they were thinking then? >> guest: the biggest challenge with that was writing about the mayflower, but the plymouth colony. as you were saying before, religion was everything to them. that is why they got on the mayflower and sailed across the atlantic, a sense of spiritual destiny that very few people in
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the 21st century have experienced firsthand and how do you get into that world, how do you write about their actions and do justice to what is the most important aspect of their lives? for me it was in that instance you try to use their own words. william bradford's plymouth plantation, he's constantly translating what is happening in 2 terms of the new england puritan who sees everything in terms of god's judgment. if it goes well for you it is god is on your side. if it goes bad for you it is a judgment upon you and perhaps a test and you are trying to interpret this kind of things so it is a huge challenge and for the past to be relatable there has to be some common
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ground between then and now and yet to do justice to the men you have to push it to a point where most of us go anything i can relate to, that is the trick. >> host: human nature hasn't changed too much. >> guest: that can be lost. you can deny the fact that we have any access to that passed but a historian who claims that they just through sheer archival work, you need to have that and some sense of our common humanity. >> host: a few questions from
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the audience. how would washington use social media if it was available during his time? imagine washington using social media. give that a try. >> guest: good thing there wasn't trip advisor. any diary is one long lament about his accommodations. the food is terrible. that would not reflect well on washington. the whole pace, this is where we are treading on difficult ground because washington lived in a completely different time with a completely different pace. in talking with dean melissa, the retired washington interpreter at mount vernon he talks about what a pleasure it
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was inhabiting washington because you're in that passed where there is no bubblegum of the mind, social media and all that. washington was very sophisticated in his time. he used the technology of his day to his advantage particularly when it came to the industrial revolution. in his new england tour of massachusetts, the tech capital of the world, he saw that and he loved all the technology that was all over the place when it came to mount vernon. if he was here today and had grown up in this he would have been a highly functioning person who would have figured it out but that's not the washington who was then. to plant someone from that age
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here, blood would start coming out of their ears. what has happened in the country we started's 230 years ago, i think washington might have been a professional athlete if you brought him here today, incredibly physically gifted. >> host: another question. washington's humility, why he declined to serve more than two terms not because he felt he shouldn't be president for life. >> guest: i think it was exhaustion more than anything. he didn't want to run for a second term. by that time, hamilton and jefferson were at each other's throats but both sides, federalist and anti-federalist will tear the country apart if there is an you there as
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president and it is just you -- he gets elected and the opposition party takes congress and his life is hell for the next four years. as things go from bad to worse. i just can't go on, and refused to. by that point, he was done with it. he was done with it. the humility at that point, he was exasperated, exhausted and wanted to get back to mount vernon and hang out with martha. that's where he was. he didn't - any sense of yes, i have done this. i've got to move on.
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>> host: you will probably run into myths and fables, washington slept here, just a man, all that, useful but made up. an interesting question to the degree to which we need things. history, your history, true history, you go to the dark side when you have to and are fascinated by it but talk to us whether there's a place for path apology if you will because we live in a funny age where people are making up a lot of stuff. i'm a little torn by it. countries need myths but the -- i'm going to shut up. tell us what you think. >> guest: i know exactly what you are getting at. we need some shared basis of fried about a government and the nation. we live in a nation where our
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origins were recorded with documents. so we know the gritty, ugly truth of so much of what was once mythologized into this inspiring tale of national origin. when you go to england and france, 2000 years ago, horrible things were happening, it is such a distant past, there is that element of it. when it comes to america i have no patience with looking back and insisting it was great and everyone was full of light and all of that. i have no stomach for that.
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we cannot hold historical figures, a litmus test derived in the 21st century that tolerates no deviation from what is now considered acceptable behavior. 100 years from now they will be looking at a saying what were they thinking? no one measures up to this. i don't think any of us, we look back 20 years ourselves and say oh my god. this is the nature of being allies on this planet. we need to look at our past with as much clarity as possible but you also have to be able to recognize the times in which they operated and give people -- they were doing the best they could under the terms
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they had, and give them some credit for that rather than expunging them from the record for not towing the line. >> host: maybe nobody does it better than you at telling these stories that are true and meaningful and helping us get in touch with our past. an hour to talk to you and i know our audience enjoys it too. thanks for tuning in to the national archives.
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