tv Conversation With Historian Joseph Ellis CSPAN April 11, 2017 1:16am-2:18am EDT
opposite of the modern use of the term. don't expect the middle east to work as a democracy. it's not going to happen. he says that talking about latin america, it will not work, because they are all catholics down there. and so that we can see in that dialogue a lot of the issues that continue to affect us in a language that is going to challenge our categories, and challenge the way that we think about them in a fashion that is truly healthy. i probably had some truly eloquent conclusion, and it is all written out, but as the psychiatrist that i am told say "our time is up", thank you very much. [ applause ]
thank you. okay. it took a village. dr. watson has published more than 40 books, and scholarly articles and encyclopedias and rfrngs reverence essays. he has co-convened national conferences on the modern presidency, and moderated political debate and delivered more than 1,000 keynote addresses. he has founded three non-profit think tanks, dedicated to civil education political reform. he is a frequent media commentator on cnn, and fox's special report with brit hume, msnbc, usa today, the "new york times," and the bbc. dr. watson has lectured at the four arts numerous time, and he will do so again in the future.
we again welcome him as he works his formidable magic with our historians. there you go. okay. >> everybody hear me all right? most importantly, i have a signed copy. well, thank you again, molly, dr. brennamen and the entire team at the society and congratulations on yet another important and successful and exciting program. i'd also like to thank c-span as mentioned earlier for covering the program, and jay gaines and the others who underwrote the program. the opportunity to sit and talk history, if anybody knows me, i never miss the opportunity, and nothing better than a nice history talk. but to sit and talk history with one of my heroes and arguably
one of the pre-eminent historians of our time or any time, a man that has been called the -- capital "t" -- the historian of founders is gordon wood who is the dean of historians will be here for a week. >> i paid him $100 to say that. >> i would like to thank joe ellis for coming, and thank him for the remarks. [ applause ] we have about an hour, and we may go over [ laughter ] we will try to keep it tight to the hour. and i thought that we would cover a few topic, and one being professor el ellis' books, and the writing process, and i want him to take us behind the scenes in his research and the writing process. and get back to the founders and talk about the eternal and important legacy contributions up to today and the meaning today and the relevance today, and we want to touch on a few historical topics that he alluded to in the the remarks and get back to that and i would like to open up with knowing joe
ellis the person. on that note, can you tell us what sparked your interest in history, and at what age did you realize that this was your calling? >> well, i don't have a canned answer to that, and usually, i have heard the questions and so i'm scripted to do this and -- i went to college at the college of william and mary. before that i went to a school in d.c. which was a jesuit school called gonzaga and so i was classically trained in terms of the latin and greek and stuff, and so i didn't really take much of the way of american history, but when i had philosophy at william & mary, and then afterwards and people would come up to me in my junior year and say, what are you going to do? you know, a horrible question.
>> yes, we all get it. >> and you had to have an answer so i said that i would go to law school, and i hadn't thought about it, but i knew that everybody would accept that answer. so then my senior year, i realized, i didn't have the money to go to law school, and i was on my own, and wilm ya and mary was cheap and i was working as a lifeguard in d.c. overseeing the pools for the kafitz corporation. and i could not afford law school, so i thought, well, i can get into the graduate school, and i did want to go into the philosophy, because they were heading off in the direction of symbiotics, and so i was more interested in ideas. people at william&mary said you could do history. so i applied and i got into yale, which nobody understood how i ever got in.
>> did you ever ask them how you got in? >> well, i didn't know who to ask. i think that i wrote an essay that somebody thought was good, but the people at yale at the same time as me were much better read than i was. and at the end of the year i sort of thought, i'm not cut out to do this. and there's a, i could feel that i was supposed to write a certain way, and i didn't want to do that. and so i sort of started saying, i'm not coming back. what was i going to do? i was going to run swimming pools, okay? and the guy named steven woodward, a prominent historian at yale, called me into his office and made me promise that i would come back, and i said to him, mr. woodward, i don't really think i'm as good as alls these other people. and he said, joe, you're right.
they actually know more than you from reading, but you can learn that. you know something is that they don't know and they can never learn. i spent the last 40 years trying to figure out what that was. [ laughter ] i was leaning forward, waiting for that moment of truth. >> i don't know. >> i'm hanging off the edge of the cliff here. i think it has to do something with write being. if y >> if you weren't a writer and a historian, what could you see yourself being? >> i'd be a lawyer, but not a corporate lawyer. i'd be a, like, but, you know, i can't, i wouldn't be happy, i mean, i have lawyers making a lot of money write me and say i want to do what you're doing. >> right. >> and i say "give up." >> right. >> because it's not going to
work for you. i'm really, in other words, hike most of the things in life, most of the big decisions that i've made in my life to include what i want to be when i grow up and who i want to marry and those kind of things, you make those decisions before you have enough information to really know whether they are good ideas. >> whether it's the right decision or not. >> isn't that right? i mean, that, and so sometimes they work out. like, in this case, it worked out. >> right. >> i'm really happy. and like, when i get up in the morning, i go down to my study, and i drink my coffee, and i try to skrcribble away, and i writen long hand. i'm not technologically committed to anything, other than a roller ball black ink pen. >> okay. >> and for me, that's, to say it's always fun isn't true, but it's fulfilling for me in a way
that's really wonderful. >> sure. >> and teaching for me, i retired formally from teaching, i taught at williams last year. but most of the time at mt. holyoke. that writing is a solitary activity. it's lonely. teaching is a social activity. i like the combination of those two things. >> mm-hm. right. >> and i missed teaching. i don't miss grading papers. i don't miss, you know, writing, and one of the things that's happening out there in the world of undergraduates, and if you don't know this, you need to know this. in the last couple years, students would give me their papers, and i would make all kinds of comments on the margins and at the end. labor-intensive process, you know what i'm talking about. >> it is, it is, it is.
>> but that's really important, a central part of education, you're playing with their minds, the syntax of their sentences, you're talking about the way they think, and i spent a lot of time doing that. and they come up after class, and they say i can't read cursive. >> yeah. >> cursive and roman numerals. i mean, it's like, so you can't do that, because it's interlinear on paper. and that's, i'm, i'm anak ronnistic. >> a few years ago at our university, we had smart boards installed in all the rooms. you've seen them on cnn when you can open up the electoral college map or whatever, so i'm trying to think, how could i use a smart board to teach about gettysburg. so i thought i would show students original letters and take them back to these primary sources. so i pulled up, i don't remember if it was a washington or a
franklin or lincoln, and the letter was written in cursive. and i asked the first student if she would trade, and sread it, she couldn't. and i moved on to the next student, and none of them could. i had an outline for the historical periods, and i had it in roman numerals and one of the students said dr. watson, why do you have a v in your syllabus, and it dawned on me they didn't know that either. i want to get back on the writing, your approach to it in just a moment. but if i may, all of us have a favorite historical place or site that we like to go to. and i know during your research, you'd devote a lot of time to poring through all these letters. do you have a favorite historic site, a place you go to to try to get into the brain of john adams?
>> there weren't sites -- >> a house, a battle sneeld. >> not a place on the internet. i'm not plugged in in that regard. i doesn't han't have research assistants. i do everything myself. >> which is rare today. >> which is not, i mean, it's rare for people who are -- >> for people of your caliber. >> who are trying to conduct research. but it's because i, in doing research, in reading, i've discovered things that i would not be able to tell a research assistant to look for. >> right, right. >> so, like general howell, in the battle of germantown returned washington's dog, who he found on the battle field and had it personally returned. now that's not going to change the direction of the american revolution, but i would have never found that.
and, but the, i think it's letters. i mean, it's a real interesting fact that what's going to happen with the history of the 21st century, major political figures. >> because no one writes anymore. >> there are no letters. and how much of the -- and in some ways, we have too much information, because e-mails proliferate in ways that are infinite. but reading letters, the adams, the adams' family correspondence is to me one of the most, richest, perhaps the richest source. also the, what i said at the end of my talk, the adams/jefferson correspondence, it's just, and you assign that to students. i assign the whole things to students. they almost always begin with the assumption that they're going to like jefferson. >> he's going to be the big --
>> he's going to write much more elegantly, and then they realize they don't like him as much as they like adams and that jefferson has a style that floats. his style is like his mind. it's rap sodic. it's romantic. it floats above the details of ordinary life, and it's attractive in that regard. it's beguiling, but i had this one student who said this is jefferson. this is adams. >> right. right. >> and it's pugilistic. it's aggressive. and watching that is, i mean, for me, that's a source. that's a place. i mean, i love to go back to mt. vernon. i love to go back to monticello. those are the two most places that i go back to. mt. peelier's being recreated in a big way, madison's home. and i respect the work that they
do. the adams, i like the adams' homestead in quincy. >> quincy. >> which is run by the national park service, okay? it's a real thing, and it's a real home. the other places have become museums in some sense. people actually lived, you know, for the next three, four generations in the adams home. and i like that. i like that thing, that kind of -- but if there's anything creative that i do, it happens when i'm reading a letter and i see things in it that make me think about an issue in a way that i before had not been able to think about. >> i think's fantastic that you do your own research. and i would agree that the story about the dog at german town in october of '77. a research assistant would have said, i'm not going to pass this along to professor watson or professor ellis.
they were dog lovers. imagine two leaders in a battle, after exchanging a dog that was running along lost on the battlefield. >> if you wanted to probe that you could go like this, howell didn't believe in this war. howell didn't want to be fighting washington. howell had hoped that they would be able to defeat the army of the continental army of long island and that was it. and he really, really didn't want to be there. and he had a relationship with washington in which he saw him as an honorable co-equal. an honor exists in a way that we have a difficult time understanding now. i mean, think about this. why is it in a revolutionary war battlefield, when the two sides approach each other they don't lie down. i mean, why would you tannstand
there while somebody is about to shoot you, right? because that's dishonorable. and like generals in battles in the revolutionary war, even though they're being annihilated will not retreat. >> right. >> why? retreat is dishonorable. stupido. just get behind a rock, you know? but it's, it, so that one little incident can be a device that gets you into a whole mentality and one of the things i wanted to say that i, because i was going on too long in the talk. we're talking about a world, late 18th century, that is pre-democratic. but gordon comes, you tell him i said it's pre-democratic, and he's going to go nuts, okay? >> they get along but they have their disagreements. >> it's pre-darwin. it's pre-freud.
it's pre-picasso. it's pre-kaines. it's pre-internet. it's even pre-donald trump. so it's a really different world back then. >> right. >> now, does that mean it's lost forever? i wouldn't go there. if it was lost forever, what in heaven's name are we bothering ourselves to go back there. there are things to learn from that world. but, in the same way that let's say you're an anthropologist, and you go to samoa, you shouldn't expect the samoaen parents to raise their children like dr. spock. and you get into fights about this. there was a young woman at williams last year. we were talking about slavery and the constitution and the
constitutional convention. and she said, look, they made the wrong choice. they made the morally reprehensible choice. and that's the end of the story. we can't talk about it anymore. i said what do you mean we can't talk about it anymore? this is this trigger thing, you know? you've got to recognize that this is a different world and come to terms with that world and understand in fact if they had actually tried to insert an article ending slavery or saying that slavery should be on the road to extinction, the constitution would have never passed. >> right. >> so what happens then? >> right. >> so you get your way, you know, what happens then? the south ends up being separate. they probably make an alliance with england because of the cotton trade. slavery probably lasts longer, though it's hard to know. you can't go back and play the tape. but i feel strongly that you
can't impose a politically correct identity politics agenda on -- >> a 2017 perspective on something. >> right. >> and there were founders who were opposed to slavery, but it was politically not going to happen. you mentioned john adams is one of these founders that is hard to like according to historians and probably not that popular, yet you've been enamored with him. >> i don't like him. i love him. >> okay. so in terms of that, adams getting right to the point, is part of the reason why you like adams is because, i've always seen him a lot like truman and grant. i can read truman. i can raead grant, and they wer blunt, they got right to the point, whereas i'm still having trouble figuring out jefferson and washington. is that part of the charm of adams, his bluntness and directness? is that why you like him
>> it's partially true. compared to truman and grant, adams is a genius. and he's also funny as hell. he has a real sense of humor about himself. >> grant didn't. >> grant didn't have that, neither did truman. >> truman, yeah. >> he understands himself psychologically. much more than any modern politician i've ever seen. he understands what love means. he understands what a realistic, and he's a contrarian. yes, he is. >> who thinks that the fact that he lost the election of 1800 to jefferson is the single-most important contribution he ever made to american history, because he was right to keep us out of a war with france. and i lohe lost the election bee
of it. >> for that reason. >> and his definition of leadership is a definition that's unenforceable in our modern, political culture. >> rather doing what's right and lose, suffer the consequences. >> the people, republic, what's the people? the people is, you know, this swoonish thing that changes its mind and can be unpredictable. the public is the long-term interest of the people. >> right. >> which, at any given time, most of the people don't understand. your job as a leader is to understand that. in terms of washington, passed the jay treaty. very unpopular. the right thing to do. lines us up with britain for a century. avoid war with france, would have been devastating to the american economy, et cetera. those are acts of leadership by
washington and adams as president that would be unthinkable in a contemporary context, because everybody would be poll driven and they would say you can't possibly do that. and so it's a form of leadership, you know, it's like when mark twain went to the holy land. he said christ's been here once, will never come again. [ laughter ] like you're not going to see -- these people aren't coming back. but just to know that that form of leadership actually existed. people did that. okay? that's, that's really wonderful. >> onmentionand you mentioned t adams/jefferson letters which we agree are one of the most important sources to understanding the founding period and anybody who writes on this topic needs to go back through them. there's a great story of adams and jefferson having that fallout over the 1800 election, coming back late in life, dying
on the same day. >> dying on the same day, if you made that up, nobody would accept it. a hollywood agent wouldn't put that in. a novel would say you can't do that. >> 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration of independence, they both passed on july 4, 1826. adams' last words, jefferson still lives, and jefferson had died earlier the same day. >> remarkable. almost to the hour. >> again, you can't make this stuff up. >> is there something about the adams/jefferson letters that you particularly like or you find relevant or important for your work on the founding? >> yeah. i sort of alluded to it in my remarks. they are a summing up of the evolutionary generation. the generation's passing. it's 1812, 1826. they're getting to be old guys. and they're looking back together at what they've done
and the way it's, they've shaped the revolution and the way it has shaped them. and as adams said, and i mentioned, you and i ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other. and they were bitter enemies throughout the 1790s, and jefferson was a duplicitous son of a gun. he hired several scandalmongers. he's eventually the guy who blows the whistle on the sally hemmings thing with jefferson, but it's watching two of the preeminent founders think about what's happened and what it means. and that the fact is that they don't agree. two men have lived the same experience, and they don't agree about what it means. and it's, it's the begin, it is the, what i would call the american dialog that i, i find really compelling. >> mm-hm. >> the, and the, it reenforces
my notion that history is an argument. and it's an argument -- >> you can see it. >> you can see the american argument being formulated with them. so that, to me, is why that the correspondence is -- >> what i like about it is you have these two elder states men, late in life, reminiscing. these two old bulls reminiscing about their heyday and taking different perspectives, but jefferson to me has always been remarkably enigmatic, and he plants evidence and tries to be above the fray, but he's duplicitous in the fray. but in these letters to me, everseve jefferson is more direct. >> you want to depict it. it's like jefferson's standing, he liked to stand with his arms folded to sort of protect himself from intruders, and adams pacing back and forth, and periodically grabbing him by the
lapel, like, god damn. both of them are performing. they don't know that we're going to be here in palm beach, but they know that these letters are going to be read for several hundred years. they're writing them to us as well as to each other. and this relates to a point that i was going to bring up in the talk. and that is they get into a discussion about whether there's a hereafter. and adams, not writing to jefferson, writes to somebody else after writing jefferson, jefferson and i have been talking about whether there's a hereafter. if it can ever be proven conclusively that there is no hereafter, my advice to every man, woman and child on the planet is to take opium. and so both of these guys are having doubts about whether traditional christian definitions of life after death
are -- >> right. >> credible. adams dies a unitarian. jefferson dies a deityist. in terms of his weekly practice. but for them, the only, absolutely certain form of immortality is secular immortality. it's us. it's us thinking about them later. later is now. and so that part of the reason they're on their best behavior >> yeah. >> is that they're, they're trying to win fame. and fame is everlasting. it's not just like fortune. it's like every lastin-- everla. we're going to build streets after them, lakes after them. and that's true, more for
jefferson of course. there needs to be a memorial to adams on the mall or maybe on the tidal basin over near the jefferson memorial and positioned in such a way that it casts shadows across the jefferson memorial. >> that they're both looking at one another, keeping an eye. >> yeah, that would be great. >> they're both coming to grips with their mortality, but they're shaping their legacy to the end. but there is that sense of profound respect and admiration among the two that they were able to repair this vitally important relationship. maybe the most enigmatic of all the founders, one that i still think is far more monument than man. more myth than flesh and blood is george washington. and your book did a, on washington, did a marvelous job of taking that veil off of him. because you talk a little bit about washington's letters and about washington almost crafting or creating this persona, almost acting the role.
he's the least knowable in my opinion of all the founders. >> he's difficult. and i spent six years reading and writing about home. called his excellency. and to give you an idea of what i'm talking about. on the day he leaves the presidency on april 29, 1797, and he's recognizing that adams is his successor, you look into his diary, you wonder what he's going to say, like this is the end of his publica rea career. what is he thinking. and you get to the diary, april 29, 1797. a day like all other days, temperature 37 degrees fahrenheit. so most of the entries in his diary are about the weather. and with adams, it's about the weather inside his own soul,
okay, about the gusts that are surging through his soul, and he's talking about what he feels, and he's talking about how ambitious he is. and then he feels guilty about how ambitious he is. but i think that if you, that washington's, at some point in his life, during the war, washington comes to understand that he is a public figure and an actor. >> mm-hm. >> and from that point on, everything he does is orchestrated. >> yeah. >> and he knows he's not going to tell you stuff. and it's the reason why there's probably about 600 letters between martha and george. and one of the things he told her before he, you know, when he was writing his will, a year before he died, six months
before he died. i want you to destroy all our correspondence. and she did. >> she did. >> except there were three letters that survived by accident. and he didn't want us to know him. >> right. >> as he was. >> as he was. as he wanted to be. >> there's stuff, in order, if you have those letters you have a wholly different perspective on washington. we have 1200 or 1600 letters between abigail and john are telling you everything. but if you have a historian or biographer, you don't have what you need. and washington, i do think when washington is a young man, during his career as a soldier in the french and indian war and then as master of mt. vernon before the war, but especially in the early years, there's stuff there that allows you to see the ambition and the
emotional dimension of his personality. >> which was more complicated than we realize. >> which was very complicated. and massive ambition. gargantuan sense of what he wanted to achieve. but that he, he developed an interior muscularity to control that and to conceal it. >> right. >> and then there's this space around him nobody gets in, except martha and lafayette. that's it. maybe hamilton. >> hamilton. >> maybe hamilton too. and there are times when henry knox might get in there. but there's only a few people that would really, and that all the people, this is interesting. during the war, remember the war's seven and a half years long, okay? they're out there in the field for seven and a half years, and
he's got all these people that are aged to camp. there are about 11 or 12 of these people during the course of the war. and when they meet at night to talk about the war, the battle, the day's events, the understanding is it's all confidential. and he lets his hair down. >> to be a fly on the wall then. >> and they swear allegiance that they will never talk. >> right. >> and they never did. they never did. they would have all talked now. they would have all gone on oprah and made $1 million. and i can tell you what washington really said and all this stuff. but we know from what they said that he was behaving in ways that don't fit the iconic image of what he was. and but, so he is, his iconic
depiction is, the part he kind of willed that. >> he had a flair for the dramatic, too. >> what's name of the artist that painted the -- >> trumbull. >> gilbert stewart. gilbert stewart's painting of washington. it's not the one on the dollar bill. i was going to say, washington's in your wallet all the time. when he's painting him for the lansdowne painting. he describes his facial things, and he says he has the widest set of eyes i've ever seen, and his eyes, he is the wildest animal i have ever seen in the forest. >> right, right. yeah. >> he is primal. and what he paints is exactly the opposite. >> the opposite of it.
>> what he paints is exactly the controlled thing. it's not what he saw, but what he knew we needed to believe. okay? all those portraits are forgeries. all those portraits are misrepresentations of the real character of washington, because that's what he thinks we need to believe. and the artists know that's the way they're going to make money. >> i like the writings about him from some of the soldiers and those who knew him that describe the physical washington, his size, how imposing he was. and he could stay in the saddle longer than men half his age, and he just had a, i guess we would call at that charisma or presence but a power and a muscularity that when he walked in everybody knew who was in charge. >> he was a head taller than anybody else. >> are i talked i talked to one of the ladies of mt. vernon society. i say, when he's young, remember, all the portraits are of him as an old guy.
what if the only thing, we only known of the portraits of when we're old? like when he's young, and mt. vernon commissioned a study of this, elaborate, to try to create an image of him, and throw poll gists, everything. i can make it easy for you. >> okay. >> young washington, think john wayne, 1939, stage coach. [ laughter ] >> that's not bad. >> that's what he is. that's what he looks like. and he is an ombre. you know? >> i'm going to borrow that, by the way. >> you can have it. >> in mt. vernon, everyone, there's recreations of him, life-size, based on the research. you can see him as a teenager, french and indian war, a surveyor, a size 13 shoe back then, a remarkably -- >> they measured him when he died for his coffin.
and's controversial about this. and people in mt. vernon can get into this. but they measured him and he was 6'3"1/4 and 202 pounds. they say he's 6'2" because some people said he was 6'2". the instructions he gave to his taylor over the years was i am six foot and proportionally made. he's not six foot, and he's not proportionally made. which is one reason why his clothes never fit him. turnout goes with the six feet. and i've argued about theiis. 6'2" is the middle position. and there are soldiers in the french and indian war who say he's 6'2". but they say they bent his toes when they measured him for the
coughen, coffin so that gave an inch or two. i go with the coffin, man. >> his physician, dr. craig and his revolutionary war bud eye had measured him once at 6'1", 6'3". there are accounts all over the place. people ask adams in his old age about what he looked like. remember, nobody sees these people. they're not on tv or anything. so like, adams is famous, can you describe you? he said i'm 5'6" or 5'7". i know not which, and 155 or 168 pounds, i know not which. they don't know specifically, what they, how big they, their height and weight in the same way that we cdo. >> it wasn't considered as precise. what i did say during one of my wrights is that he would have
been great in the nfl. big hands, big feet, big, strong man. would you say that john adams is your favorite of the founders? and if you could meet the founders, is there one of them that you think you would particularly like? and is there one that you think you would particularly not like? >> i like adams for the reasons i've specified, also, he'll tell the dirt, you know? he'll tell you the truth. and so, if you can say, get him to, but most of it he's already told in his letters. i would like franklin next. franklin probably would be the most capable of understanding our world. >> hmm. visionary. >> yeah, like, if you just take adams to a mall, ed ghe'd go nu like what is this? franklin would say, yeah, yeah, i can see how this would happen. the person that, i mean, they're
all interesting. i think the most boring would be madison. >> hmm, hmm. >> madison just doesn't tell you anything. >> right. >> what do you want to hear? i'll give it to you. >> the descriptions of him are also, the great little madison, and -- >> standing in the corner of the room. that's, it doesn't do justice to the power of his mind. >> brilliant man. >> the person i would have the toughest time with is jefferson. again, i spent seven, eight years working on him. and i won the national book award for this, you know, and i wasn't supposed to win. there was another person. >> great the book, "american sphinx." take that, ellen. it's not that i don't like him,
it's that i don't respect him. he's do you police tus. he's hypercritical. and his reputation depends on accepting the lir cal quality of his prose and -- well, franklin is the best writer, but he is right up there. all these people are world class letter writers, a lost art. for reasons that are there in american sphinx, jefferson is always going to disappoint his most ardent fans. and i'd hate to have to sit down and tell him that, you know?
>> on that note, let's talk about your writing process, your writing style. would you take us through the tricks of the trade? you mentioned you spent six or seven years in washington with jefferson. how long does it typically take you to write and research, and how do you approach your actual writing? you said you're not a computer guy. you actually ball point pen. >> yeah, roller ball. >> okay. >> black ink. >> i need to try that. >> not a, you know -- what's the word? >> felt. >> felt. well, not the 18th century feather, you know, quill pen. there is a guy that created "60 minutes" named don hewitt. he's now dead. what hewitt said always struck me as absolutely right and
obvious. the issue is always, what is the story? it's not what is the argument? there has to be a story, and how do you tell it? and how do you tell it in a way that's true to the 18th century, true to the body of evidence you distilled and digested acceptable to an audience. who is your audience? i'm not only writing to a few specialists in the field, but i'm writing what specialists can look like and hopefully inform their writing as well. who are you writing to? the audience i'm writing to are the same people i've taught for 40 years. so it comes out of the teaching. who are they? they're very smart and they know
nothing. perfect. you have to get them to comprehend this particular world that you're recreating for them. my mind is sort of falling off into side shows here, and i don't want to do that. >> where do you get your ideas? do you sit and say there hasn't been enough on madison, or do you write about something that sparks you and say, "that's a book"? >> there's no single thing. it's improvisational. if you look at the body of work, of joe ellis, and i've never looked at that because i'll die as soon as i do that. things are out of order, in
other words, like i do the founding brothers before i do the evolutionary before american quartet. it's the way they came up in my mind and the way that they presented themselves to me in terms of sources. i am driven by primary rather than secondary sources. >> okay. >> instead of saying, what's the current scholarly agenda which is out there, that's what you're supposed to do. gordon is really good at that, okay? he really knows that. gordon knows most about the s d secondary literature than anybody. i know more about the primary literature than anybody. well, who can say. so it comes from that. i wrote a book called "founding brothers," one of the first
chapters of the book called "the duel." about five years later i get a letter from a guy in the columbia school of journalism. the guy says, we want you to come down and talk to our students. this is a class we're all taking, and we're reading "the duel" as a kind of model of how to tell a story. and i said, "really? what is it about it?" "at one point you begin and you go back and get background and you do that somehow bringing the read era loer along and then yo back again." really? i didn't know i did that. in other words, what i'm doing is not theoretical, that's the way it comes. so i said, i can't come down and talk to you about this at
columbia because i don't really know what you're talking about. but i do think having an eye for a good story and how to try to tell it in a way that provides interesting -- in the case of "the duel," it's almost an agatha christie mystery story, is part of the way to do it. and, like, i can't define what a good story is, but it's like pornography. you know it when you see it. >> jessie helmsley. know it when i see it. do you mind telling us what you're working on now? what's the next book? >> for about the last two years i'm working on a book called "then and now: a meditation on the relevance of numerical
founding." some of it will have to be redone, but what's risky about it, for that reason interesting, exciting, it's foreign policy, incoming equality, judicial philosophy, race and leadership. those are the chapters. and like each chapter has one founder. so foreign policy is washington, race is jefferson, incoming equality is adams. i know how to do the then -- >> just how to bring it up. >> but then i have to do the now. how can you write about the president historically? that's theoretically impossible to do, but i'm trying to do it. and i'm trying to say let's connect -- what i said to you in our remarks today, that none of the founders believed, except for jefferson, believed that the
values that the americans create in the american constitution and the american republic are transferrable to fundamentally different cultures. >> you had said in written, and we had talked about this another time, that the notion of american exceptionalism today, that a lot of people who write about it or talk about it evoke george washington. i agree with you that washington -- you've said and written that washington would not agree with the notion of american exceptionalism today. can you explain that? >> there is a letter washington writes in 1783. it's the last of the circular letters to the states. it's probably the most profound letter washington ever wrote, and he actually wrote it, okay? washington did not write the farewell address, hamilton wrote it. it was washington's ideas, but
nevertheless. he says we're coming into existence as a new nation, even though we're not a nation yet, and we have these enormous advantages. we have the oceans to protect us, we have this boundless continent -- of course, he's not talking about the fact there's all these native americans there. we begin with the biggest trust fund, he says, of any new nation. so we have all these advantages, okay? and that -- so it's our very uniqueness that means you shouldn't expect other countries to be able to duplicate this easily. and that's the exact opposite of the meaning that most people using the term "american exceptionalism," so washington's view, which is most clearly expressed by john quincy adams
in the next generation, adams is his son but is pursuing the foreign policy created by washington. he said, america goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. george canon, the great diplomat of the 20th century, used to love to cite that, especially in the wake of our tragic involvement in vietnam. washington believed in some version of the city on a hill. now, reagan believed in what he called the shining city on the hill, but he thought that meant we needed a big military. it doesn't. john winthrop is the real origin of the city on the hill, 1630, and it's actually the perfect city on the hill for winter because a medieval city of inequality. it's not what we want. but the idea is that america can influence the world not by invading with other armies but by perfecting the values and
institutions that we have here. it is an isolationist posture. washington -- you know, washington's farewell address is the isolationist message. >> warning us about entangling alliances. >> washington is feasible now. it's impossible for the superpower to retreat from their responsibilities of the world. but i do think some form of neoisolationism, meaning we're going to stay in nato, we're going to play a role in the world bank, we're going to have responsibilities to the world, but the highest form of influence we can have is not military, but the soft power and the strength of our own political institutions and our own economy. and that's what washington believed. >> of all your books, would you say one of them is your favorite? was one of them particularly easy to write, and was one of them particularly difficult to
write? >> it's like your children, you know? it's the last one. so my favorite is now my youngest child, which is "american quartet" which gail was so nice to cite. somebody in hollywood has just bought the film rights to "the american quartet," but it will never happen. that only happens like 1% of the time. we'll see. the book -- there's a book i wrote, i mentioned this in the green room to you, that i went back and i was reading over the summer what i'm working on in the current then and now project. a book i wrote called "american creation." i wrote that about 2004. i read it and thought, hey, this is really good. i forgot i said this. there's stuff in it i like. there's also a book i wrote early on called "passionate sage" about atoms.
it began a new interest in atoms. in fact, david mccullough called me up and said, joe, i started a book on adams and jefferson, and i discarded jefferson because i really don't like him. i said, you got it right, david. then he said, do i have your permission to write about adams? i said, david mccullough is asking me -- of course! and so he writes, then, this big biography and this wonderful documentary made for hbo. it's really well done. i'm in love with laura linney. i'm forever in love with laura linney. but i've looked back at "passionate sage" and i said, you did good. you did good there. it's my oldest son and you're doing good. my oldest son is working for the nature conservatory, i'm really proud of him in that one as
well. >> was it the most difficult and why? >> the one i'm writing now is the most difficult, connecting the present. i'm taking risks, and i know the risk, and i know i'm going to get criticism for it. but i got to do it. >> aside from your own books, do you have a favorite history book or a favorite historian? i'm going to let you off the hook. you don't have to say me. do you have a favorite historian or favorite history book? >> one of the best -- one of the books that influenced me to go on in history when i was an undergraduate is a book on the armada, a book called "the armada." it's about the battle. almost anything by richard ho
hoffstetter who has long since passed away, but "the american tradition" by hoffstetter influenced me a lot. he has a sense of tragedy that is really important. those are the ones that influenced me a lot, and one of the writers now who i really think is a beautiful stylist is stacy schiff. stacy schiff has done a recent book on t"the witchcraft" which got a horrible review in the "new york times." it was unfair, i thought. she wrote the biography of franklin. she won a book award. she just writes very -- i'm attracted to people who write. jill lapport, who is a writer, who does a lot of social history things and has said her calling as a historian is to give voice
to the voiceless. i want to give voice to the people who have voices already. but i admire her range. she writes for the new yorker and goes off on wonder woman and all kinds of directions, and i think she's a model for somebody reaching beyond the cloistered groves of acad erkacademia to ae a story. >> we're getting close to the end, so let me ask a question on the founders. having devoted a career to telling the story of the founding and being widely considered to be the historian of the founding, what would you say is the most common mistake or misinterpretation that people make or have about the founding period? what do they get wrong? >> they always assume they are more superhuman and canonized saints. no matter how much you talk about recovering them as human
beings, there is a patina of ico iconography. there is a new book called "arms and artists" that's real good about this. but the way in which we have learned to envision them, and then the marble statues, the monuments on the mall make it really difficult to understand the founders as imperfect or unimpressionable human beings in a way that people will not understand or agree with me. >> i don't want to offend anyone, so i'll phrase the last question this way. if our political leaders today were to come to you and say, would you give us some advice from the founders, what advice to our political leaders today need to know or learn about the founding generation?
>> well, the level of partisanship that's present in the congress and federal government now, the founders were almost as partisan. they were. okay? and so they don't have much advice to offer us on that score. >> but they found a way to get it done. >> they did. the thing that would most -- that most concerned the founders and that i think the -- we have created a plutocracy: money. i'm not talking about doing away with citizens united, although that would be nice, because that's not the source of the problem. it exacerbates the problem but it's not the source. but talk about draining the
swamp, as soon as they leave the swamp they go to k street and make more money. i can't wave a magic wand and reduce -- and significantly reduls r reduce or eliminate the way money affects the policy choices of the political leadership, but that's what "the founding" would find most surprising and that i would agree with them. >> we have coming up in a week gordon wood, former professor brown, eminent scholar and winner of newmumerous awards, t dean of war scholars in everyone's opinion coming up in a week. we have david mccullough coming up, so the series will continue. please