Focus; His Excellency George Washington
In this second hour of focus our guest is Joseph Ellis He's an historian well-known for writing about revolutionary America. He has authored a number of books about some of the founding fathers he won the Pulitzer Prize for a book titled Founding Brothers. He's also author of another book American Sphinx that is a biography of Charles Jefferson and that won the National Book Award. This morning we'll be talking about the subject of his most recent book George Washington. He's author of a new biography titled his Excellency George Washington it's published by Knopf and it is out now in the bookstores and as he explains in the preface to the book what he has set out to do what he is trying to do is to take a figure that is at the same time both from Mill year and to a lot of us really unknown George Washington for milieu in the sense that we recognize these image. It is on our currency. It is on Mt. Rushmore. We have seen the statues and the paintings and Washington crossing the Delaware. The difficulty is taking those images and imagining this person George Washington as a real living breathing flesh and blood human being. That is the challenge that he takes on in the book and I just would like to read a little bit of the last paragraph of his preface where he talks a little bit about the challenge of understanding the life of Washington. He writes It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was a wiser than Washington. Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant. John Adams was better read. Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated. James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledge that Washington was their unquestioned superior within the gallery of great so often mythologized and capitalized as founding fathers Washington was recognized as the founding as Father of them all. And then Mr. Ellis raises the question why was that. He goes on to write in the pages that follow. I've looked for an answer which lies buried within the folds of the most ambitious determined and potent personality of an age not lacking for worthy rivals how he became that way and what he did with it. It's the story that I tried to tell.
As we talked this morning with our guest Joseph Ellis questions and calls are certainly welcome we always only ask people to be brief when they call in so that we could keep the program moving and get in as many different people as possible. But of course Anyone's welcome to call here in Champaign-Urbana 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 and toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5 Those are the numbers. Joseph Ellis Hello.
Hello David how are you need it. That's what that quote sounded wonderful. Yeah pretty good writing don't you think. We appreciate you joining us this morning.
Well it is a fascinating fascinating subject and certainly a challenge and that is you know I think probably and the time that you talk about any of the men that you have mentioned and I think that probably over time I've spoken with some writers who have written about others and you and I talked you probably don't remember but you and I talked about about American things the challenge seems to be much the same. That is we know these men from statues and from paintings and from what we remember of the history that we got in school. And in any of them it seems to be a big challenge to try to imagine them as real people. But of all of those somehow in the case of George Washington it is even more difficult.
That's right he's the. There's a real challenge with any of these people because there's a kind of electromagnetic field around them. They become mythologized nations probably need to create mythical heroes. You know you know Britain had King Arthur and France had Else it. Rome had Romulus and Remus but and each of those cases those were fictional characters. These were real people obviously imperfect. But the tendency the interpretive tendency over the past 200 years has been either to make them into canonized saints demi gods which they surely were not.
Or to go the other way especially within the academy now as the deadest whitest males in American history as the people who stablished racism imperialism patriarchy and that's a kind of swoon ish swing between those two extremes we need to want to idealise and idolise them we're all sort of disarrayed them.
And as is often the case in history the truth lies at some other place not in those two extremes and I guess my own. Conviction for this book and other work I've done is that each of these creatures that we've mentioned in Washington too is imperfect but taken together the greatest collection of political talent that we've ever had. Apologies to Mr. Brokaw for the greatest generation he's talking about the entire generation I'm talking about the leadership of the early republic here. And I mean and you're also right that I think Washington is the most prominent figure in American history about whom most Americans including most well-read and well educated Americans know virtually nothing and often what they know is wrong like he chopped down a cherry tree and then cannot tell a lie that itself is a lie not told by Washington but by his first popular biographer a guy called parson weans would be good wouldn't tease. They don't have wooden teeth he had these weird dentures. Different sets at different times at Mt. Vernon now that one of the sets of Washington's dentures is the most. The most favorite tourist exhibit that more people are going to find out memorable. There's one gory story in 1784 after the war Washington is back in Mount Vernon and a French dentist name a year comes by and claims to be a specialist in implants. Now you can imagine the level of dental science at that stage of time but the gory part is where do you get the teeth from. And the answer is from slaves. And Washington went down and paid slaves to have their teeth pulled so they could be put in his mouth that eventually never took the by the time he was present I think he still had some slave teeth in his mouth.
It seems that the part of the challenge here of getting to understand Washington comes from his own reluctance to reveal himself. I thought if you write something like that Washington was plenty willing to tell us those things that he did but he didn't wasn't really interested in telling us what he thought about what he had to write.
That's right he told Martha his wife to destroy their correspondence after he died and she did that so you don't have the kind of letters you have between Abigail and John Adams. And it Diary unlike say Adams's which is a real you know emotionally honest discussion of his thoughts even his feelings. Watching his diaries about the weather and when he talks about which way the wind is blowing he is not being metaphorical. So for example on the last day of his public life on May 6 1797 when he's stepping down from his second term as president. You go to his diary and it says you know the date and it says a day like all days. Temperature 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Now is that what he was really thinking. I don't I don't think so but he's not going to tell you what he's really thinking. And he's there for a real challenge for a biographer. Washington's ideas and convictions get shaped not by reading. So you can't go back to texts and see what he was or this much is by experience as a young soldier in the French and Indian War and then in the revolution. So he is more elemental figure he is as much as Franklin By the way a self-made man and he's not to the manner born he's not a wealthy Virginian. He marries up. Martha is the wealthiest widow in Virginia when they marry in 1759 and that sort of catapult him to the top of the Virginia social hierarchy. But I mean one of the things that Mount Vernon is trying to do they've brought in historians and anthropologists and graphic artists to try to create a historically authentic picture of what Washington looked like when he was a young man in his 20s because all of the images we have as you mentioned are those you know those portraits done in the 1790s. There's a marvelous exhibit of those at the Met right now and it's a kind of grandfatherly iconic Washington whereas the young man is a physical specimen. Six three and a half hundred ninety eight pounds. He's. Kind of like it an action hero a gentle warrior maybe like John Wayne circa 1939 in Stagecoach. Adam said we always chose Washington to lead us whenever we gathered together because he was the tallest man in the room. He's a head taller than the average American who's 5 7 at that time and he's six three and a half so that recovering the flesh and blood man in all his imperfections in the end leads me to the conclusion he says it doesn't undermine his greatness. I mean after all he was a demi god we would have anything to learn from him because none of us are. But I really come away from the writing of the book thinking that he is the most prominent and the most important leader among the revolutionary generation and perhaps in all of American history.
Our guest in this hour focused 580 is Joseph Ellis He's a Pulitzer Prize winning historian has authored biographies of the founding fathers and back was a book that looks at them as a group titled Founding Brothers and then also a biography devoted just to the life of Thomas Jefferson that won the National Book Award he has a new book. That's a biography of George Washington. It's titled his Excellency George Washington and it's published by Cannot fan questions are welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 2 2 2 9 4 5 5. I think that it's interesting you point out and actually I think if you if you go back and you read some of the things that his contemporaries said about Washington you do find people saying that he was a man of great passions. He was full of great anger he was a man who was ambitious he was a man who had an ego and that apparently he struggled to control that now. Also what things the things that people have said about him that his his contemporaries seem to make a point of saying that he was a master of his passions and use you seem to suggest that one key to perhaps understanding Washington is that he was he may have been a master of his passions but it was that mastery was imperfect then. And particularly when he was a younger man there there was a strong ego there was perhaps almost a kind of a recklessness and then maybe that was something that he had to master and did to a large extent over his lifetime.
I think that you've got it right at least as far as I'm trying to explain him that. That the you know that there is this facade that he's able to put up in a kind of protective field around him. There's a story it's probably apocryphal that you'll see in a lot of history books at the Constitutional Convention which Washington is presiding over. There is a moment of recess and Alexander Hamilton goes up to another man called Gouverneur Morris who is himself a terribly interesting character a pegleg guy. And says I dare you to go up to Washington put your arm on his shoulder and say How you doing George. And Morris takes up the bat and goes up to Washington and Washington lifts his hand off the shoulder of what Maher says and spares it him. And Morris backs away and there is this interior space that he's not going to let very many people into. I think that part of his own aloofness is a is conceit that.
Commits him to a disguise and to to prevent from people from seeing how emotional and passionate he can be on occasion and certain battles during the war he loses temper when officers don't behave the way he wants to. Specially on the courthouse in. And in that one of the eulogies given right after Washington died that same man that I mentioned earlier Gouverneur Morris describes as a man of that anybody that knew him well had seen him lose his temper and it was terrible. And cabinet meetings during the presidency.
And so this is not a man that is. He has control of his passions but his internal muscularity is just as impressive as his external muscularity in order to contain those passions. Some people can be composed and iconic easily because they don't have much inside to begin with. But he really did. And he looked you know from a certain point in his life long road by the by the Revolutionary War for sure. Everything he did was designed to make him the greatest hero in American history and every word he wrote.
He knew we would be reading later on it makes it again makes it interpretively difficult because it's you know he's kind of posing for posterity. And and you know he wouldn't be surprised that he has the tallest monument in Washington D.C. these days.
You know a novel idea is made of not only the heights to which he rose the fact that he was the commander of the Continental Army who was the first president States but also his his not only his ability to achieve power but his willingness to give it up. And the fact that after the war he resigned as I intially as the commander of the of the army and then I. After his second term said that that was that was it he was finished.
The two term president.
It's an incredibly important part to understand Washington because if you think of other revolutionary leaders in history whether they were Caesar or Cromwell or later on the Polian Stalin Mao Castro all of them believe that they and only they can embody the revolution and they set up a what becomes a despotic or to Tallaght Tarion state it which they then grew as the equivalent of monarchs and Washington was offered that opportunity when his army was it new burg New York right after the war waiting to see the Treaty of Paris eventually concluded. He rejects it he gives a famous speech to 500 officers pulls a set of glasses out of his breast pocket. Recently given to him by David Rittenhouse from Philadelphia none of the officers ever seen him wear glasses before and he says Gentlemen you must excuse me but I have grown blind as well as gray gray in service to my country. We cannot repudiate the values that we've been fighting for by imposing some kind of despotism and monarchy monarchy on on this new nation. And yet. Down to Annapolis to surrender his sword.
And in this they have a ball in which there's all these ladies lined up to dance with him he's a very good dancer and he dances every dance. And that witness says they were all lined up to get a touch of him. I love that he has the horses waiting at the door and he's off to Mount Vernon. They wave him off and it's in my judgment the greatest exit in American history. But it is one of his greatest gifts is not how to exercise power. He's good at that too to be sure but how to surrender it because he knows that the surrender. No I think George the Third one apprised that Washington would not accept the crown and was stepping away from power. I said if it's true and if he does it will be the greatest man in the world. Well he did and he was.
We have a couple of callers to bring into our conversation in the nearby community of Belgium and we'll go first to someone online number four.
Hello. Hello. OK.
I'm not sure if this is true or not. This information I got from actually a mystery buck. But in this supposedly Washington during the French and Indian wars he was in the first battle against the French contingent of British forces I guess. Is this true. See now.
Yeah yeah it's a different unit in war hasn't started in. There is a skirmish. It's not a full scale battle there's only like 30 people involved on each side. Washington is leading a group of Virginia militia and Native Americans and they come upon a french. Contingent asleep in a place called Juman Ville Glen in western Pennsylvania not too far from modern day Pittsburgh and they ambushed him.
And in the ensuing struggle the Indians under a man called the half king whose Indian name is kind of sheriffs and essentially massacre the wounded and it's the first shot and the French and Indian War and the French have epic poems they write about Washington and in France and in Canada making him a diabolical figure who you know who has launched this war. Washington isn't responsible for the massacre. It's a it's a gory scene where they have kin walks up to the wounded humans kill humans was trying to explain he's on a diplomatic mission but he's speaking French and Washington and can understand French. But the half king can understand French and he realizes that they're going to surrender and he's not going to get any scalps and so he walks up to Bill splits his skull down the middle with a tomahawk washes his hands in his brain tissue and then the Indians proceed to kill all the other wounded Frenchmen all the sons of the horrified of George Washington.
He somewhat distorts the report on this back to the region your governors name is Dinwiddie So it's it's a kind of cover up.
OK. All right so you're right. I'm giving you more detail that you might want but that's not really not in the book. Yeah I love the detail. Thank you.
Well thanks for the call. Let's go on to someone else here in the actually this caller is also in Belgium line number one.
Hello. Yes good morning sir. Interesting topic on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. I didn't even know I'm in Boston by the way around Washington by the way Washington said he wasn't.
He didn't he didn't approve them to destroying all the tea but he thought they were politically right.
The question I was wondering about is Washington wanted a commission in the British Army didn't want it did he wanted it and they refused it. If he was such an only refused it they gave it to him.
Now they know he they did not give it to him.
He had a commission in the Virginia militia at the rank of colonel and all the regular British officers said that that rank of colonel. Did not match a colonel in the British army and it was the equivalent of a lieutenant. It's one of the things they have he held against the British for the rest of his life that they conducted themselves as if they were his superiors socially and that they were aristocrats and he was a mere provincial American. And Washington didn't think that Washington's response to that was not to say oh my god I guess I'm not as good as them. His response was This is these are idiots. I am better than them. I know how to fight this kind of war against an Indian and French force better than they do. So he really did internalize a sense of hostility to the British Army because of the way they treated him.
I think thank you very much.
All right thanks for the call. Other questions again are welcome. Our guest is Joseph Elysees a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. He's the author of the book Founding Brothers. He is also the author of biography of Thomas Jefferson the book title American Sphinx. It won the National Book Award and a new book his Excellency George Washington a biography of Washington and it's published by can up. And the questions are welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. I don't realize we're sketching out a number of major points but I guess one of the things that comes to my mind that you do mention it and came up to be even a conversation I was having with somebody about Washington the other day was that given all of the the action that he saw all of the fighting the saw. It's remarkable that he survived without some serious injury.
You know let alone at the Battle of the Managua healer right outside of Pittsburgh along with General Braddock. He was part of a 2000 man army that was marching on what was then called Fort Duquesne which is Pittsburgh now. And they're ambushed by French and Canadian French and Indians and only 200 survived the 2000 man force.
And there's an Indian chief on the other side who claimed later that he had directed 17 of his braves to fire exclusively at Washington because they thought he was the commander because he was riding around on a horse.
They had to worse is shot out from under him. He had three bullet holes through his coat one through his hat one that creased his pants and he was never scratched. And the Indian chief said he told them his but his braves to stop firing after a certain period of time that the Great Spirit. This man and. And Washington and there are similar stories during the revolution. Various battles.
By all rights he should have gone down at the monogamy that he knew that he used to go back to that story in his later years and in his letters.
And it it was one of those experiences that made him believe that somehow Providence or destiny was on his side.
He was for all the fact that we think of him as being the successful leader of the of the army in the revolution over his lifetime I'm not sure that you would exactly say that he had been particularly successful in battle.
In fact he was on it good. He was not active.
He had only commanded a regiment before the war before the Revolutionary War and during the French and Indian War he commanded five hundred men regiment but he was not good at moving troops over a larger battle field where he couldn't see all of the players. He tended to develop tactical plans that were too complex complex and broke down. I mean even at the successful crossing of the dollar where there were supposed to be four columns going across the river three never made it across. He decided to risk it anyway. His greatness was not and how in later Clinton outmaneuvered him and watts of different battles. Part of the problem was that the Continental Army was simply not capable of competing on equal terms with the professional British army which was the finest military force in the world. The great redeeming factor that makes all the other things meaningless is we had great strategic insight. And later I mean other generals you know like Robert E. Lee and in the Polian and Hannibal never had this. He came to the realization that he did not have to win the war. The British had to win the war. And therefore he didn't have to when he had to just not lose and that just that meant never risking the entire continental army in one engagement. That might and I related. And once he gets inside he didn't get it until 1777 and it went against a lot of his own aggressive instincts.
It meant that it was a war of attrition and time and space were on the American side to try to make an analogy to that. He led an insurgency and he came to the realization that of occupying military force even though it was the most powerful military and economic power in the world could not succeed. If the bulk of the indigenous population didn't want to share and that has some echoes for us in Iraq right now other questions let's go to.
Paying for line number one.
Oh yeah several years ago there was a professor at college George Washington for expense account are you. Yes yes it's true. It is true well OK I'm calling because my husband read it and has since looked at a case for me and said I can't believe this is it. You know RB things are rarely true.
Yeah well I'm not sure what yours in Washington when he assumed command of the Continental Army in June of 1775 said he would serve without salary yeah but that he would he would expect the Continental Congress to pay his expenses. And let me tell you he paid for something he made elaborate accounting and they spent tons of money on him I mean he you know he he was very assiduous and insisting that they pay for everything. Yes. And so his ultimate is ultimate pay if you will was his expenses but they were substantial and he because Washington came from way back in the pack he was never he never had the kind of confidence of a Jeffersonian aristocrat and therefore he really. Paid a lot of attention to money and and he charged virtually everything to the Continental Congress that they know he was honest about it I don't think he padded his account. But it is an extremely ornate and lengthy list of expenses and. And when they failed to pay him something towards the end of the war you know he went into the Continental Congress and read him the riot act. So I think what your husband read is is that book in it and it's essentially correct.
OK I thank you very much.
Well let's go to the next caller in Marshall. This is going to hello.
Yeah hi. You make a couple comments I read a biography of Martha and feeling you know you talked about George giving up this and giving up that and coming home I think you really love this home and nonpartisan and oh yeah I mean he sort of regrouped there and gating strange.
I absolutely I mean he couldn't he did not want to be president of the United States more than any man in American history he did not want it. And the bulk of his correspondents in the presidency is letters back to Mount Vernon.
Talking about how to run the farm. Yeah.
That's where he wanted to be under what he called his vine and fig tree and tried to really put up with a lot from hand counts he ran the farm a lot according to them. You know when he was gone and follow him around a lot.
You know she did an ebbing in every winter campaign during the war when the army went into winter quarters. Martha joined Washington not just at Valley Forge but in Morristown and all the other places as well. I think their marriage began as a marriage of convenience but it grew into a warm relationship. He was in love with another woman at the very time he married Martha. He was in love with a woman called Sally Fairfax who happened excuse me. Who happened to be married to his best friend.
You probably don't have an I think time.
He chose he chose Martha because you know because he was the wealthiest widow. But they but but I think their relationship was very close and very warm. And the sadness is that they destroyed their correspondence so that we can't really recover in the detail that we would like to. But Mt. Vernon was where he wanted to be. And again if you read his diary he was happier talking about how to get rid of the Hessian flies a new plow designs than he was in talking about provisions of the Jay Treaty or foreign policy or anything like that guess at Mount Vernon who came in great numbers after he retired. In both of his early retirements after the war and after the presidency you know say when he walked back and forth on the piazza in the back he preferred to talk about agrarian issues rather than political issues have after having Agang at that point.
All right thank you welcom million would go to somebody hog calling on a cell phone I believe you're a card. The car line three Hello.
Hi yeah I'm enjoying this a lot thank you very much or it strikes me that we hear that Washington was sort of be the rock of the revolution it was his determination that sort of kept people focused on doing this and helped things together and likewise it was Lincoln whose determination held the Union together a little more than half a century later. Can I ask the guests to contrast that to a man can give an idea of their special characteristics that allow them to do these remarkable things.
Well I think that's a that's a big question.
I think the three greatest presidents of the United States are Washington Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and historians then disagree among those three as to which is the greatest.
I think that Lincoln is more lyrical more articulate. More profound in some sense a Lincoln second inaugural address is pure poetry. Yeah. And he did face what I think is one of the greatest crisis in American history but I think the revolution is a greater crisis than the Civil War.
I think what Washington did that we need to recover by the time you get to Lincoln there is a thing called the American nation and the question is whether or not it's going to remain a single nation or be split between north and south right when Washington is coming to power as general and then as president the term United States is a plural noun. They don't say the United States is they said the United States are. And he create and embodies the union of the nation. And he's the singular symbol of that at a time when you've got to remember people like Jefferson and Madison believe that we come together as 13 different states to defeat the British Empire but after the war we should go back to being independent states. Jefferson didn't think he was an American he thought he was a Virginian. And what Washington does that that so difficult for us to recover. Is create the expectation that the revolution is not just about independence but it's also about nationhood. And that's that's And you know he has the advantage of being present at the creation of being there at the start. And I think in the end although Lincoln tends to quote Jefferson more than Washington in the end Lincoln sees himself as the successor of Washington who's going to insist on the survival of the Union. Does that help. Yes it does. Thank you very much.
Thanks for the CO. How much was Washington involved in politics after his concluding his his presidency.
Want to be but he got involved in a mess and it was his fault. Partially it's one of the weaker moments in Washington's career. It's a complicated story and I won't bore you with all the details but there is a thing going on called the quasi war with France where an undeclared war with France.
And there's some fear exaggerated fear that the French are going to invade the United States. Now Adams says that the chance of seeing a French army in America is as great as seeing a snowball in the streets of Philadelphia in the middle of July. But under the fear of this Alexander Hamilton pushes forward this plan to for the creation of what they call the provisional army and they call on Washington to come out of retirement to be the sort of titular head of it.
It's really a plan by Hamilton to take over the army because watch he knows that Washington is really not going to come into the field. The Washington supports it. He also supports the Alien and Sedition Acts which are you know a bad moment in American history because he you know he really does feel that that political parties especially what's then called the Republican Party is.
Undermining some so the union of the United States and he never really has to go into the field but he's party to what is a kind of Hamiltonian kids conspiracy and Hamilton plans on taking this 15000 man army marching in through Virginia putting down the Jeffersonian from going all the way to Mexico and saying himself up as an emperor. It's a bizarre scheme it's somewhat like the scheme of our own birth later nothing ever comes of it and watching to eventually backs away from it but he's drawn in.
See he's the first X president and in the past you know monarchs weren't hanged.
You're a monarch until you die and nobody you know at that stage of the game it wasn't quite clear what an ex president was supposed to do. And that I think is one of the big mistakes in his life to allow himself to be drawn into the scheme.
We have about 15 minutes left we have some other callers and which is can of course continue to talk with them and with our guest Joseph Ellis. His new book is his excellence the George Washington is published by Knopf He's well-known as an historian of revolutionary America. Questions welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. The next caller is Crete and that's line number one.
And I would have thought that the title American things would have fitted Washington as well. Jefferson the whiskey rebels. That was a pocket issue that really to Washington became more than just a pocket issue became a cause celeb in a sense I think you know we did it as far as a response to that situation. He's often criticized for not freeing the slaves until he died. Jefferson is criticized in a sense by the fact that he was going behind Washington's back especially in the late 70s 90s and that's right. More specifically than perhaps the public would know. And finally the father of the country could not be a father in self although some would blame Arthur there's a new view that Washington did have children with the Sally Hemings touch to it.
That last thing is almost certainly untrue. There's a little bit of it in the recent book by Henry Wian checked but even wind checked having studied it. Backs away from that. I think that you're right. I think Washington was almost certainly sterile. He married Martha when she was 29 she had four children two of whom survived and then after they married. She never had any more on the Jefferson stuff. You've raised a whole bunch of different things and I'll just try to comment a few of my mates.
If you look at what Jefferson does in the 1790s with regard to Washington it it's really duplicitous. He spreads rumors while the secretary of state and later on when he's vice president with Adams but mostly as secretary of state. But Washington is senile or becoming senile. But the real power behind that office is Hamilton. He does this because and it's not true. He does this because Washington is unassailable. They want to attack the Federalist Party do Madison and Jefferson but they not they attack Washington in and he's like the third rail you touch that you die.
And so their argument is it's really Hamilton running the show. And again that's not true but allows them to proceed with their own opposition politics. There's there is lore oral history at Mount Vernon amongst the white members of the Washington family not the black. That Mark says the toughest day in her life other than the one that when Washington died was the day when Jefferson came for a visit. He came down after being elected president only a few miles from Washington to Mount Vernon to pay his respects. And she says according to this war Washington had told her never to allow that man on the premises again. So the relationship between Washington Jefferson which at one point was quite quite wonderful really degenerate at the end.
Could we talk or I would have invited you to talk just a bit more about slavery just because it seems that whenever we talk about these men it's a key sort of point and the people continually ask is how is it that these men having fought the revolution and having said everything they said about. Liberty could could own slaves. What did what did Washington think about slavery.
He changes his mind. He is there's an evolution in Washington. He begins as a Virginia planner pretty typical talking about his slaves and the same way they talk about livestock. He's morally numb on the issue.
During the war he's exposed to the opinions that he hadn't seen before in Virginia especially from some people want to staff like Hamilton and Lafayette and Henry Laurens all of whom say to him that the values which the revolution is about are incompatible with slavery. And and he comes to understand that and even endorses a plan that doesn't work to free the slaves in South Carolina if they will sign up.
With the Continental Army for the duration after the war he writes several letters private letters in which he says that he realizes that slavery needs to end. One of the reasons he thinks that is not moral but economic. He has experience firsthand at Mount Vernon the fact that slavery is unprofitable. He thinks Virginia should go from tobacco to wheat and grains and instead of being the northern outpost of the South should be the southern outpost of the North more like Pennsylvania.
And that slavery is simply not a profitable labor source. He also distrusts a purely moral arguments about slavery. Several different Quakers see him in his retirement and in his presidency and say they need to step forward and take a leadership issue here.
He says to them where were you when I needed you during the war. You were all pacifists. But listen to you then we'd all still be subjects of the British Empire. I think the way to sum it up is if you want to compare Washington to our modern twenty and twenty and twenty first century racial and multicultural values you're going to be disappointed. On the other hand if you want to compare him to his peers he looks very good indeed he's the only prominent member member of the Virginia dynasty to free his slaves in his will and he knows he needs to make a statement there and he does it in part because he knows if he does that this will be a stain on his reputation and watch he at least demonstrates a commitment to the principle of emancipation. He actually also sets up an endowment to cover the expenses in the education of the freed slaves for the next 25 years. And there's a law in Virginia saying that freed slaves have to leave the state after a year but nobody's going to enforce that law against Washington slaves and so that most of them stay around Mt. Vernon.
Let's get back to callers here and I think our next person up in line would be a caller in Urbana. Why number two. Hello.
Yeah I know that. We all know that there was a long history of breaking treaties with the Indians and I was wondering did that start in Washington time and if and if so was he complicit in and for what would have that attitude toward treaties and preen law and also an important question he.
I think one of the more original or fleece precious things in this book I've written is to make the case that Washington devoted more time and energy to the issue of Native Americans than he did to any other domestic issue in his first and second term. Washington thought of Indians as equals and said on several occasions that he was in their position to be doing exactly what they were doing attempting to defend their own homeland. He thought that what eventually came to be namely the movement of all the Indians in the removal under Jackson is was was a tragedy that should never happen.
And what he wanted to do is establish federal jurisdiction over Indian reservations or enclaves the treaties were treaties with foreign powers. These were separate nations and they should have federal jurisdiction behind them. But he couldn't enforce it because the states refused to allow that to happen especially Georgia and South Carolina.
And the last thing he wrote as president was an open letter to the Cherokee Nation saying if you will abide by the terms of this treaty I the Great White Father tell you that you will be protected. It's the singular failure of his presidency and the one he most deeply regretted. There are certain letters from Washington to his Secretary of War Henry Knox that have been you know that's somewhat cultural anthropologists talking about the need to preserve the Indian mores.
He foresaw a time over a century who would keep these enclaves of tribal culture protected and then over a century they would eventually be assimilated into the American population. But of course it didn't work that way.
Southern LaSalle County is next.
Three fellow parents and a right to be innocent and then my crown me when I up our fingers effectiveness came into Florida. We cracked the girlfriend in a reference to my friend. We forget because Harrison's our tenement with retirement having our escrow. Running from it don't have that right I mean rights aren't property of 1944 and my dancers are missing a certain counties and he ran through frying fly over I think a spy Battery Park and a laughing and I think we start to speak to me I didn't write and my mother all mixes very good under platen and the only got down around Pittsburgh she Conner declare me and my dad correct today saying that I don't have anything to say it sounds like you've had some interesting experiences.
Oh go to pharmacy than line number four.
Hello Yes good morning and thank you to you nobody knowledge of Washington acquaintance with her association with Captain George Prince during the revolution. No OK maybe I should. Should. Well who is George Prince. Well he supposedly was a member of his staff are one of his advisors I've been told I do some research on him and I'm having difficulty finding information about him.
Well I didn't know that you I mean did the major members of his staff or Lauren's Lafayette and and Hamilton know that there's a big staff and one of the problems you have is when you're reading the correspondence of Washington during the war you're not sure whether he wrote it or somebody else wrote it. Most of the time somebody else wrote it.
He did have a loyal slave with him Billy. They call him. And who what. Throughout the war with him and and then there's a couple of pictures of him with a kind of a Sultan's hat on and in his will he freed Billy right away and for his service during the war. Again we'd love to nine every morning Billy Chrome does hair and that I don't know but this Prince fan the person you're talking about I don't know anything about. OK thank you very much I appreciate it.
All right. So we can do better than what we're coming down here the last couple minutes and I'm interested you talked earlier about the fact that.
At Mt. Vernon they're engaged in trying to use contemporary forensic science and so forth to develop some images and I think they're actually talking about three dimensional images of rushing to the scene that people could almost like walk up and see what it would be like to have met Washington particularly when he was a young man since mostly we have these images when I mean when he was older. Is that something do you think. How meaningful is that to be a you know to to be able to come up and look at a wax figure of the young George Washington.
Well you know there's it's calm excuse me it's controversy. Jim Reed the guy that had not been has come under some criticism for what the critics would call the Disney if the cation of Mount Vernon. I tend to disagree and I'm a historian and a scholar Ph.D. and all that stuff. But I really think that it to the extent that we want to involve the public in understanding of our history we've got to use the kind of technology that they're used to. And in the case of Washington recovering an image of him as a young man fundamentally transforms your sense of who he was. And gives you a very different notion of what American history was like back then. So I support Jim Rees's efforts there and I don't think that they're just playful. I think that their attempts to use modern technology to recover portions of the past which are otherwise lost.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- His Excellency George Washington
- Producing Organization
- WILL (Radio/television station : Urbana, Ill.)
- Contributing Organization
- WILL Illinois Public Media (Urbana, Illinois)
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- With Joseph J. Ellis (Pulitzer-prize winning biographer)
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- Biography; Government; History; How-to; History; Biography; United States History; u.s. presidents; George Washington
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Guest: Ellis, Joseph J.
Producer: Brighton, Jack
Producing Organization: WILL (Radio/television station : Urbana, Ill.)
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Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: focus041216b.mp3 (Illinois Public Media)
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: focus041216b.wav (Illinois Public Media)
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- Chicago: “Focus; His Excellency George Washington,” 2004-12-16, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 22, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-000000084f.
- MLA: “Focus; His Excellency George Washington.” 2004-12-16. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 22, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-000000084f>.
- APA: Focus; His Excellency George Washington. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-000000084f