Skip to main content

tv   Nathaniel Philbrick Travels with George  CSPAN  August 23, 2022 1:12pm-2:13pm EDT

1:12 pm
nathaniel philbrick recounts
1:13 pm
the historical journey made by george washington through the new united states, and describes his own experience as he followed the same routes in the present day. as philbrick 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
1:14 pm
which recorded 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, nathaniel 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 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
1:15 pm
thunder, and john pauljones. let's hear from nathaniel philbrick and evan thomas. thank you for joining us today. >> hello, to the national archives. we are both delighted to be 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
1:16 pm
hurricane's eye in the year yorktown. and there was a late inning 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 got me to wondering,
1:17 pm
because, in the book i was writing, washington visited providence several times, but i 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 nantucket 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
1:18 pm
getting itchy after 25 years, we being held up on the island where it takes 25 minutes to drive from one end 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 nora, not a
1:19 pm
sedate 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, 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. >> you're a 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
1:20 pm
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 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 canibalism. 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
1:21 pm
tendency to look on the past as a simpler time. when people knew what they were about and seen fated to make 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
1:22 pm
into the depths of that discord. that seems so painfully obvious to me when -- i wanted to know what historical 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
1:23 pm
factions, the federalists who are fans of the constitution in a strong national government created, and there were others that 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
1:24 pm
states. so washington felt a real need to try to create, a, a sense of nationhood, and also attempt to 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
1:25 pm
bigger than anyone else in the world, really. and all he had to do was lose when it came to taking on the presidency of the united states. so his diary account from his journey from mount vernon 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 tax these people? he knew that all the divisions that had been there from the very beginning were 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.
1:26 pm
there's this account of the inauguration, 15 year old girl elisah, she is on the roof of a 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 this at all. he's terrified. at one point, it 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 him all
1:27 pm
the more heroic, in my eyes. if someone is blindly brave, they are not experiencing the inner turmoil that goes with 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 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 want 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 --
1:28 pm
you can be a guy who projects confidence like washington, >> 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 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 fated 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
1:29 pm
throughout the nation, looked at him as the symbolic presence of the nation -- if he should crack, if he 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.
1:30 pm
and he has to somehow get 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
1:31 pm
could go either way. so this is washington's great gift i think. to hide that insecurity, to project this aura of absolute invincability. 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 mount vernon to new york. that's what he was wearing when he entered new
1:32 pm
york and he met the huge crowd. but when it came time for his inauguration, he realized that, 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 manufactury in 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
1:33 pm
must have been a bit of a shock for people when he stepped out of the carriage in front of federal hall to be inaugurated, to see him suddenly, not as resplendent with golden epilets on his 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 aura 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
1:34 pm
america. how you project this aura of 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 in 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 compromising. 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
1:35 pm
cabinet of a team of rivals. i think you can look to washington doing that. because he brought aboard, the two most brilliant people in america that time. alexander hamilton as his financial -- treasury secretary. as smart 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 state 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 constitutional convention, but
1:36 pm
his good friend james madison had, and he was a supporter of 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 recognizes his 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
1:37 pm
of that power. for him, hamilton is looking to the 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 the french revolutionary fervor. he comes from the opposite side. that's not what
1:38 pm
the republican is about. we don't want to be like england. we want to be passionate and 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 he 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 shame 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
1:39 pm
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 to do it, but they had pamphlets, they had a way of getting the message across. and they were just as unreasonable and mean as we are today. >> absolutely, and underhanded. in jefferson's case, here he is, 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 miserable, this paper.
1:40 pm
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 stomach 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
1:41 pm
washington was. he didn't care who was right, who was 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
1:42 pm
give up 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 looked to what was better for people, for everyone, rather than himself. and i think he honestly wanted to be remembered as that. and, basically, he is going for political immortality. it is the high -- so, you can say,
1:43 pm
yes, he is being selfless and all of that. but i also think at some point 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 want. he -- you know, and so -- i'm probably being a little cynical here. but i think there 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
1:44 pm
washington, yes, 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 -- he had to learn how to be
1:45 pm
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
1:46 pm
to him, yet, somehow, you revere him. she even said love him. 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
1:47 pm
something like this. the chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life. i think washington had a little 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
1:48 pm
under a tree. and an officer at midnight comes up and hesitates to wake 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
1:49 pm
thinking. and that's how he got through the revolution and that would 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
1:50 pm
that bothered him more than anything was the slavery. he had come to realize, it was 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
1:51 pm
property of the grandchildren. and washington is responsible 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 groups -- it's a very complex situation. so there are these accounts of washington at the fireside with his family at mount vernon, after the presidency, and he is not there sort of looking back with a benign smile on his face. he's tortured. his lips, you know, i think he is wrestling with what the heck do i do when it comes to slavery. he didn't want to create a situation for martha -- it was just so complicated! i think he recognized that this would be
1:52 pm
the biggest challenge for his legacy in the future. it would be his involvement with slavery. one of the things people do to get to this point is a sense of how far washington traveled. not just a miles across the country but as a human being. he is born into the institution of slavery. he comes to doubt the assumptions of his childhood. he is not able to completely free himself from them, given the entangled nature of his personal life. you know, yes, he frees his enslaved workers. the only slave owning founding father to do that. i mean, it is pretty extraordinary. yet in the final years of his life he is actively preserving, ona judge, the enslaved servant of martha who enslaved from philadelphia to new hampshire and to
1:53 pm
freedom. how do you reconcile that? washington is a paradox, like all of us. he is not consistent. i think it negates everything he was working towards. the concept of an union that could inspire lincoln to issue the emancipation proclamation was what washington was working so hard to create during his travels and during his presidency. >> you have a line in there, the past is not always a pretty place. the president isn't either. talk to us about washington's teeth. >> yeah, you know. one of the things, there are a couple historical jokes that are associated with washington. one is washington slept here. you know, he was sleeping around. ha. but following washington i
1:54 pm
came to realize that each one of those stops was not fun for washington. he was working tremendously hard to hold this country together. the other joke is washington's teeth. you know, that he had dentures made of wood. he had dentures, they were not made of wood. they were made of teeth from various animals. ivory from a hippopotamus. before he ended up with those dentures, he, in desperation, he had only a few teats left in his mouth by the time the revolution was over. back at mount vernon and there was a new technology, dentistry, of tooth transplants. the way it worked was a dentist would extract the disease tooth and then a person would be paid
1:55 pm
enough to donate their healthy tooth that was then extracted and then stuck into the jaws of the person who's paying for the procedure. it almost never worked! sometimes the twos would hang in there for a year, sometimes five years, sometimes it would be rejected from the beginning. washington, at some point, invites a french dentist to mount vernon. this is really very recent that we have become aware of this. mary thompson, a fabulous researcher at george washington's mount vernon uncovered this evidence where he paid several -- it seems clear that they must have been enslaved workers to donate their teeth, 19th. what happened? i think the scenario is pretty obvious. they were
1:56 pm
probably inserted into his jaws. just one of the scenarios that is just awful, awful to contemplate! and yet, i purposely include this in the book because this is where i come from with history. i think 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. >> you know, there is an interesting moment driving back with melissa, she says, you know what? we have this diary but i'm not sure if we know what he is really thinking. we have touched on this a little bit. this is an interesting question, to me, as a fellow
1:57 pm
popular historian, writer's craft when you don't really know what they're thinking. the diary just says well i slept here, i ate here, 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 barebones and you are trying to get in their heads? what the heck do you do? >> right. and you can't make it up. you really can't. >> right, you can't make it up! >> i mean -- >> let me interrupt you for a second because i think a lot of people don't really understand that. there is historical fiction when people do make it up. there is another genre that does do this. in our trade you can't make it up. >> no, you can't make it up. you can speculate but you have to have a basis for it. one of my books, in the heart of the sea, that
1:58 pm
is the thing with history it is all in the evidence. so often there are situations where, you and i tell narrative history. we are telling a story. there is a plot. often there isn't the evidence to fill in what must have happened there. so, what i would do in a lot of my books is, well, we don't know what happened here. but in a very similar situation this is what happened. try to insert that into the narrative without breaking the historical purity that you are writing. it is a challenge. those are the kinds of challenge i do enjoy. when it comes to a historical person such as washington, or george armstrong custer, or the battle of little big horn. inevitably, what are these guys thinking?
1:59 pm
you can't make it up. but i find myself doing is saying, this is what was happening around. you know? this is what they would do. this is what, perhaps, they were thinking. you know, you have to have evidence to go on. it is -- and, i think you have to go there as someone writing about history because to leave it a blank is to leave out what's it is like to be alive at that time. we both come from a journalistic background. we are riding, creating a sense of life as live today, as journalists. the way we both tell history is we are trying to create a sense of life as lived in the past. for me, the past and is only as relevant as it can be related
2:00 pm
to now bias in the present. >> of course that's tricky because things are different back then. >> absolutely! >> they thought differently. i mean, if you write -- i never half but the 13th century it was totally animated by religion! >> absolutely. >> their thoughts are infused with god. that is how they think, you know? that is true for some of us but we live in a secular age, obviously. a more secular age. it is an interesting translation problem. you have written now about the 18th century, obviously. and the 19th. what are some of the challenges of conveying to us modern's the way they were thinking then? well, the biggest challenge i had with that was writing about the mayflower. writing about plymouth colony. as you were saying before, religion was everything to them. that is why they got on the mayflower and
2:01 pm
sailed across the atlantic. it was a sense of spiritual destiny. very few american people in the 21st century have experienced firsthand. how do you get into that world view? how do you write about their actions and do justice to what is the most important aspect of their lives? for me, in that instance you tried to use their own words. william bradford's plymouth plantation, he is constantly translating what is happening into terms of a new england puritan at that point. he sees everything in terms of gods judgment, you know? if it goes well for you it's because god is on your side in this instance. if it goes bad view it is also, it is a judgment
2:02 pm
upon you, or perhaps the test. you are left to interpret this kind of thing. it is a huge challenge! for the past to be relate-able, there have to be some common ground between then and now. to do justice to the then, you have to push it to a point where most of us go, you know? this is not anything i can relate to! that is the, you know, the tricky -- >> fortunately human nature hasn't changed too much. >> no, exactly. and i think that can be lost. you can deny the fact that we have any access to that past. but i think a historian that claims, just through sheer archival work, they are there. you need to have both that and some kind of a sense of our
2:03 pm
common humanity. >> we have a few good questions from the audience that i want to run by you. here is one, how would washington use social media if it was available during his time? try to imagine washington using social media -- it's a hard leap, but give that one a try. >> first off, it's a good thing there wasn't trip adviser. in his diary it is one long lament about his accommodations, you know? bed's terrible! food, even worse. you know? so, that would not reflect well on washington. i think, the whole -- this is where we are treading on difficult ground. washington lived in just a completely different time with a completely different pace. in talking with dean melissa, now
2:04 pm
retired washington interpreter at mount vernon, he talks about what a pleasure it was inhabiting washington because you are in that past. there is no, what he described as, bubblegum of the mind. twitter, social media, 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. he saw that need to come. and his new england tour of massachusetts, already the tech capital of the world he saw that. he loved all the technology, he was all over the place when it came to mount vernon, the farm on mount vernon. i think if he was here today and was grown up in this whatever, he would've been a very highly functioning person who would have figured it out.
2:05 pm
that is not the washington who was then. to plant someone from that age here, i think probably blood would start coming out of their ears. at all that has happened to the country we started 230 years ago. i think washington might have been a professional athlete if you brought him here today. incredibly physically gifted. >> powerful thighs from riding. >> yeah, yeah. >> another question was was she washington's shyness and humility part of the reason he declined to run more than two terms, not just because he didn't want to be president for life. >> i think it was exhaustion more than anything. he really didn't want to run for a second term. by that time
2:06 pm
hamilton and jefferson were at each other's throats. both sides said, look, federalists and anti federalists will tear this country apart if there isn't you there as president. it is just, of course he gets elected, then the opposition party takes over congress and his life is just heck for the next four years. things just go from bad to worse. by the end of that, he just couldn't go on any longer and he refuses to. now it is time for someone else. by that point, he was done with the. he was just really done with that. the china and humility at that point, he was exasperated, exhausted, and wanted to just get back to mount vernon and hang out with martha. i think that was really where he was. as i referred to early he didn't leave any sense of yes
2:07 pm
i've done this. it was just, i have got to move on! >> in your travels you are running into myths and fables about washington, washington slept here, just a man and all that. stories that were useful but made up. it does raise the interesting question to the degree that we need fables. history your history is a true history. you go to the dark side when it is fascinating and useful. there is also, talk to us about whether there is a place for mythology if you will. we live in a funny age where people are making up a lot of stuff. i have to say i'm a little torn by it. you know? countries do need missed. i just don't need completely fictional ones. i'm gonna shut up. tell me what you think. >> i know exactly what you're getting at. you know we need
2:08 pm
some shared basis of pride about a government and a nation. we live in a nation where our origins were recorded. documented. we know the gritty, ugly, truth of so much of what was once mythologized into this inspiring tale of national origin's. when you go to england or france and look back to 2000 years ago, horrible things were happening. one group emerges. that is in such a distant past. the mythology has whatever. there is the element of it. when it comes to america. i really have no patients with looking back and insisting that it was great.
2:09 pm
everyone was full of light and all of that. i have no stomach for that. yet, i really think we cannot hold historical figures to a level of, a litmus test derived from the 21st century that is tolerating absolutely no deviation from what is now considered acceptable behavior. 100 years from now they will be looking at us and saying, what were they thinking? no one measures up to this! i don't think any of us, we look back 20 years at ourselves and we say, oh my god! you know? this is the nature of being alive on this planet. i think we need to look at our past with as much clarity as possible, but you also have to have -- to be able to recognize
2:10 pm
the times in which they operated. give people, they were doing the best occurred under the terms they had. give them some credit for that rather than expunging them from the record for not towing the line. >> well, a few people maybe nobody does it better than you, telling the stories that are true, meaningful, and moving. helping us get in touch with a pass. it has been a delight for me to have an hour to talk to you. i know our audience has enjoyed it too. thank you, everybody, for tuning into the national archives. i'm sure new fieldwork will be back. >> thank you, evan. >> thank you, evan. >> thank you, evan. >> thank you, evan.
2:11 pm
>> thank you, evan.
2:12 pm
at >> good evening and good welcome. please good evening i'm john the director of the literary bookstore. also please welcome philippe thierry that are at h


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on