tv Joseph Ellis The Cause CSPAN November 9, 2021 1:22pm-1:54pm EST
book tv.org and follow along on c-span now, our new. >> stay up-to-date with live video coverage of the days events from lifestream to the towers to the senate floor and key congressional hearings. even our live interactive morning program washington journal where your voices every day . c-span now has you covered. download the app for free today . >> i'm david rubenstein and i have the honor of interviewing joseph ellis about his latest book because, american revolution and its discontent 1773 to 1783. welcome to our show joseph ellis. >> pleasure being with you david.
>> thank you. for those who don't know joseph ellis he is one of the countries league's leading scholars of the revolutionary war era and he is the person who's written 13 books on the subject . he's a graduate of a college of william and mary. he's the leader of the pulitzer prize and the national book award. his latest book is an explanation of why we went to war with the british and why the british ultimately ended the war unsuccessfully from their point of view. we to say i've read all of joseph ellis's book and i enjoyed this one the most and found i learned more from this book and any of the other books so thank you for writing this book . >> i'm glad to hear that. it's perhaps the most myopic person in terms of understanding how it will be received but i'm happy with it and i hope other people will agree with you. if you like the book founding brothers which is about the
1790s, i think you'll like thisone which is about the 1770s . and i didn't know what i was doing 48 or 35 years ago when i started writing about the 18th century. it turns out i was trying to write a history of the american founding and iturned out that i was doing it backwards . this book should come first chronologically but i don't think i could have written it 25 years ago. i've learned something since then god. so like a new child you hope is going to do well and that you send it out intothe world . >> what attracted you as a young man to devote your career to the american revolutionary war period ? >> i didn't even major in history in college.
i did end up going to graduate school because i couldn't afford to go to law school and i got a scholarship. nobody ever said how i got into yale and then in yale i came under the influence of a historian named edwin morgan and he was really america's, he sent me on my course. another of my mentors there a guy called see beth woodward i worked along with him and i asked him if i could write my dissertation on thomas said you're d he not old enough to write a biography. you have to have lived life before so i did try to do that for 25 years. that's where i caught it. i guess coming out of williamsburg i must have had some kind of influence there i'm stuck with the late 18th century. because i've written biographies of three presidents, washington adams and jefferson, i sometimes
get identified as a presidential historian. i don't think of myself as a presidential historian. i'm a historian of the founding and i have written about the 31st presidents but at any rate, and morgan let me right the way i wanted to and i think teaching a liberal arts college allowed me to work on my own in a way that aimed at a general audience rather than just to the other group of professional historians. >> let's go through some of the key points in your book and i'll remind everybody i'm asking questions for another 20 minutes or so and then there will be about 10 minutes or so where you can have your questions submitted so submit them in the chat room i will subsequently. what do you mean by the cause .
why did you call your book because, where did that phrase come from? >> obvious good question. in the early stages of the war for american independence , nobody called the american revolution. the britishcalled the american rebellion . the colonists starting in 1770 four 95 talking about the common cause which at the time meant the colonies response to the british occupation of massachusetts and especially boston and the rallying of the rest of the colonies to support them in response to what was called the coercive acts and common cause then was reduced for the cause and it became a convenient label, a convenient canopy in which people and colonies and individuals with different political agendas come
together. they might agree on what they were for they knew what they were against. they were against this policy and great britain's attempt as they put it to enslave them and so the colony becomes a cover alternative stays in place till the end of the war andit's a convenient way for people to believe that they all agree . >> the conventional view i always learned in school was the british wanted to pay for the wine to pay for the effects of soldiers in the french and indian wars so they impose a lot of taxes and the taxes were not popular but your point of view is that it wasn't the revenue so much that the british wanted.they wanted to make it clear they were in control of the colonies, is that right? >> that's right. that's starting in the wake of the end of the treaty of paris in 1763.
tit gets a third of the economy in this huge area including canada they decided they got to actually govern it and because up until now the phrase used was did not then i neglect. now that they reached this level of power they got to act like one. itgot to as you say impose taxes . why i think it wasn't a money issue but a power issue is that the actual cost of enforcing the legislation putting troops there, having people collecting revenue was greater than the revenue raised by the other taxes. so britain had about 140,000 in debt and they were hoping to reduce it but they were mostly hoping to assume control over the colonies. and the colonies received
that control as they put it which sounds a bit paranoid but as they thought as an attempt or a plot to enslave them. there was some truth to that. namely not that the british attempt intended to enslave but once you surrender control to parliament you couldn't be sure how far they would go . and each move the british make in 1770 seems to confirm the diagnosis that there is a plot to enslave them. and so by the time you get to 197576 , the americans believed that britain which is about to send 32,006 to invade, great britain is trying to enslave them. and in fact what the british ministry would say is we want to make it into colonists. second-classbritish citizens
to be sure but not slaves . nevertheless, that misunderstanding persists and the british decision to militarize this conflict in 1774, 75 must stand as the greatest blunder in the history of british statehood . i think american readers might be able to understand a british thinking and british dilemma perhaps for the first time. a newly arrived world power brimming over with confidence , certain of its invincibility both economically and militarily steps into a quagmire of unnecessary and unwinnable war. that sounds pretty familiar to me . so the colonies from your point of view is they didn't want to be independent up until the moment of the declaration of independence. what they really wanted was
to have their relationship with the british government and basically each colony would have its own relationship . they were dying to have a united states of america, is that right ? >> your right and the reason i'm saying it's such a blunder is once the war starts going badly for the british by 77, 78 the british say okay,we'll give you everything you wanted . will let you run your own legislatures do that and have a continental congress. if they had said that in 1775 we would never have had a revolution but by then it's too late. too many people have died, too many towns have been destroyed, too many women have been raped and it's they've missed the opportunity. >> you point out in your book that today americans rapidly think about that the american colonies were so valuable economically but in those days it was not the american dollars but the bolivian, at least where the money was for the colonists. is that a fair understanding
and the british were more worried about the money to be made from their caribbean colleagues and the money to be made fromamerican colleagues, is that a fair description ? >> that's true, especially jamaica. jamaica is more profitable than all the colonies together and when the french come into the warin 78 , 1778 , the british devote the bulk of their military resources to protecting their holding in the caribbean and because that's what they'remost afraid to lose . so again it's but another contemporary term, you ever hear of the domino effect. they're afraid if they let the americans go in canada will go. then the caribbean will go. and so their fixation on suppressing the american rebellion is based on the belief that t if they let that
happen their entire empire might very wellcollapse . >> in your book you point out that the colonial leaders are sending entreaties to king george all the time thinking he's surely the nice person. if only he knew where the problem was he would handle this problem appropriately but he turns out i think you point out he was worse than the parliament in terms of from a colony point of view. >> it is. there's a consensus that parliament is a tyrannical body attempting to impose its will on them and they begin to develop the argument that george iii doesn't know what color is doing. john dickinson one of the early revolutionaries and pamphleteers develops this argument. only george iii know whatwas going on. all . and over time, they come to the realization that banking on george iii is a hopeless
cause because nobody is more committed to imposing hethis imperial power on the colonies than george iii. and when the war is over and they're looking for statehood the first thing you do when you lose the war is look for scapegoats they should have fastened on george iii but they didn't. they fastened on the generals , not so much on wallace and on george jermaine, the equipment secretary of defense . because if you fasten on george iii your fastening on the whole empire and at any rate, before he begins to lose his, he doesn't lose his mind, he has an illness before he becomes mentally depraved, george iii exercises the greatest imperial power of any british king since the glorious revolution. these the real scapegoat.
>> was george washington a military genius to win the war with so few troops? sometimes his troops weren't even close barely and had very few armaments orhiwas he lucky that the british bumbled their effort to win? what was it, he was a genius for the british bubble or was he both ? >> washington himself would say he was probably lucky. he said the war was like a standing there. like a god providence he called it on his side. the way i put it is that as the general, washington was not thateffective. he lost more battles than the one . if you think about it most of the great generals hein world history starting with hannibal through napoleon and rommel and robert e lee and of losing. washington wasn't a great general but he ended up a and
it's some point he understood a basic strategic reality. that became all-consuming and crucial that he didn't have to win the war . the british had to win the war. so it's a lot easier not to lose. as long as he kept the continental army in tact , and as long as the colony stayed united behind him. the british cause was fullest. and he was right about that. but there is a kind of resilience to them and to the ordinary troops in the continental army who are my real heroes in this book, the ordinary troops ofthe continental army about 10 to y15 percent by the way were average americans . they'rethe ones who deserve the real credit . it's a 7 and a half year long marathon and it's all war that's more barbaric than we imagined.
if we had photographs of this war as we did of the civil war we think of it differently. we have artists like laura instead of the ones like trumbull, we think of it differently but more americans died in the american revolution per capita than any war in american history save the civil war and if you get to the countryside is really barbaric . >> the final battle of the war or really the most important battle in the end is the battle of yorktown where george washington in effect gets cornwallis to surrender but the french were indispensable. why were the french so interested in helping the namericans, do they hate the british more than they liked us ? >> mostly the latter. it was payback time the french fought for having lost the french and indianwar . and the americans opposing the british were opposing france's legal enemy.
and it turns out by the way the french spent so much money helping us that they begin to go bankrupt and for that reason they haveto call the states general and that's what starts the french revolution . but without the french, both in the war and especially the last battle of the war in your town. we couldn't have won the war. at that moment, i don't think we would have lost it . yorktown is mostly a french operation. french navy arrives at the right time. the french are masters of trench warfare. they're moving cannon up and there's only one american military activities during that battle that's an attack on one of the down and is led by the rhode island regiment which is aregiment of almost entirely african-american soldiers , 750 of them.
it becomes the leading combat unit in the continental army. mostly black and they take the rest of it is a french victory, french operation and when the american expeditionary force arrived in france in 1917 to help the french . one of the staff officers for general pershing said tell lafayette we have arrived. and it's our turn to pay you back. >> the battle of yorktown occurs in 1781 . cornwallis is too embarrassed to kind of show his face but at the time of the surrender he doesn't do that but the british surrender. why did it take two years to negotiate the treaty of paris . >> it takes two or threemore years and there arescrimmages
that keep going on . people are continuing to die . they have killed one of the major figures in american government later on and he's one of the people who also is at war foremancipation of blacks . but the americans have to decide whether to sign a separate treaty with great britain because the french are being dragged down by their obligations to spain etc. because it's dragged out. the continental army have been just north of west point in uber. and it's as i think you know from the book, that the new word what did they call it? it's almost an insurrection by the army asking washington to lead them because they haven't been paid for over a year. they're starting. and they think when the war ends they're going to lose any leverage to get there
pensions and they're probably right about that. so they threatened to exercise the to andwashington appears before then and gives one of the more important speeches in his life . effectively saying that we cannot deviate from the values weare fighting for. i will not lead you in this and i tell you you must not do this . .they follow it at that moment. but it's one of the first washington, who later told george washington refuses to become a dictator. george iii says if he does that he would be the greatest man in the world. and at that moment he was you think about it, that's not what caesar did . that's not what cromwell did. that's not what napoleonwill do . dictators tend to believe they are the revolution and d
have a difficult time separating themselves from it . >> we have questions from those arguing. let me begin with some of them. from anna what set you on the path to becoming a historian. what sparked your interest in history? >> i think reading biography. i came to history through biography. and i love biography because there was always a center of this topic and i sort of thought look, we all come into this world the same way and we all leave the same way. what can we learn about people who were here before us. some of them 1000 years sbefore us and so that's perhaps an adolescent way to come to history but as i said, i didn't major in history . i majored in philosophy and i decided to go forward in history for many reasons because as i said i couldn't pay for law school but also because even through history
you could raise the intellectual questions that i bought philosophy usually address . i thought that i was an intellectual historian whatever that meant. and so it's a strange path but it worked out for me. >> what role did free african-americans play in the american revolution? free african-americans? >> free african-americans. the freest especially in new england which there were the greatest number of free african-americans served in both the new england militia and the continental army. >> roughly the number of blacks who escaped to the
british army served in the british army and the british army they were not allowed to serve for combat units. in the american army they were. and the service of african-american continental army was the last time you had a genuinely integrated american military force until the korean war. so i feature billy lee in the book. billy is george washington's manservant and his with him the whole war. and washington freezing in his will. and on the other side was a man named harry washington who escapes from mount vernon serves with the british. and ends up being evacuated out of new york at the end of the war going to nova scotia and then eventually an interesting pattern but one black man serves the cause with the omcommander-in-chief. the other goes and pursues his own freedom but the british and eventually
achieved it though what he gets he helps lead a movement , a resistance to britishrule claiming ironically there being taxed without their consent . but it's two different black men using different courses for the same reason. >> suppose we had lost the bwar, the americans have lost the war how would history be different because when we peventually become free or do you think it's too hard to predict ? >> it depends how we lost it. if we lost in a real military way and we could have lost it at the battle of long island. then they would have taken on the american elitists including washington. and carried him over to england. given him a show trial.
and what their severed heads on spikes in westminster. if they lost the war towards the end and the american army disintegrated and yorktown didn't happen it would have been a more peaceful negotiation and we would have gone begun to see 50 years earlier the creation of something called the british commonwealth and we would have been the first followed by canada and australia and new zealand to remain in the empire. we economically connected to the empire but have our own social. >> can you tell us whatyou're working on now and what you're reading . >> when you finish a book and you're about half finished the publisher wants you to go all over the place and advertise it i'm working, i'm thinking about the next book. i mentioned this to you
earlier and i'll share it with the audience. asked the question why the founders ailed to end slavery. i do think they failed. i think that's a tragedy that could have happened differently. and while i do think they're among the greatest leaders in american history , in political terms and creative terms i think they failed in that issue. i want to know why. there are reasons that ithink we haven't thought about . what am i reading out? i'm reading a book about the red sox in the glory years of their last pennant race and i'm hoping it turns out to be a production of what they do this year. >> what would you say wasjohn adams most important contribution and why was he chosen to be the first vice president . >>. >> adams most important countries and was made in the
early 70s. >> is the force for recognizing that american independence is inevitable. america as heput it was looking for a messiah that would never come . later on he becomes vice president because he gets the second number of votes after washington in the election of 1789. he hates the vice presidency and says sit's the most ridiculous idea ever invented by the mind of man. but one of the things that some listeners might be surprised by, the first four presidents of the united states, washington adams, jefferson and madison did not regard the presidency as the capstone of their careers. they regarded it asan epilogue .
adams but his greatest contribution came in the run-up to the revolution. washington thought his contribution was made during the war. jefferson believed his greatest contribution was the declaration of independence . madison believed his greatest contribution was leading up to the constitutional convention. we overvalue the presidency and i would make the case that none of the early american presidents were would ever run for president in the kind of political conditions required now. they would regard that as a cross to the constitution. >> here's another question from neil. how aware was the average american about the war as it was being fought given that battles were dispersed in time and geography? b>> this gets to a brief thing, the local level what happens is committees of safety and inspection are created in 75 that make it impossible for someone living
anywhere in america no matter how far away from remaining neutral during the war. that probably would be the biggest group, 40 or 50 percent. they just love to get on with their ordinary lives but you're required to make a commitment and if you don't make the commitment to the cause that's where the cause is amazing again. your neighbors are going to showyou . you're going to eventually be banished, you're not going to nbe killed but forced to face the fact thatyou're going to be cast out of the congregation . and it's because of that the british could never win the war . because they can win every battle and as soon as they leave the other side takes over unless the loyalists are withthem they're going to be punished . so it's of the war at the ground level in the countryside that makes it impossible for the british to win the war and ordinary americans are forced to take a clear position in a way
many of them would prefer not to have done. >> we have 30 seconds left. what is the mainmessage of this book you would like somebody to take away in 30 seconds ? >> we're fortunate to have had a group of people leading this at the beginning regarding the public interest rather than the popular interest in charge so we are a republic, not ademocracy . and how much we know old ordinary soldiers and continental army and our mystic courts should go back to them. and capacity for irony and paradox. this is why the subtitle is and its discontents. when we end the war we are incapable of dealing with the native american issue effectively and with the slavery issue effectively because the government is a confederation of sovereign states. it is all pluribus, no unus
and that leads us to tragedy. >> we've been in conversation with joseph ellis and that colonial period of time about his new book the cause. thank you very much for this conversation. >> thank you david. >> are watching book tvs coverage of this year's national book festival that was joseph ellis talking about his newest book because of the american revolution and itsdiscontents and now from vermont , professor ellis windows live to take your calls on the american revolution. the founding fathers, numbers are up on the screen.202 is the area code, 728-8400 for those of you in the eastern time zone. 748201 if you live in the mountain and pacific time zones and there's a third line set aside for text messages if you want to send a text mes w