George Washington's Late Fines: An Interview with Tom FlemingHistorians/History
Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians and a historian of the American Revolution. This interview was conducted via telephone.
Could you tell a little about your beginning as an historian?
I published my first book in 1960, about the battle of Bunker Hill, and have been writing ever since. Now We Are Enemies was one of the first nonfiction narratives on the American Revolution that won widespread circulation. It was a main selection of the Literary Guild and was condensed in Reader’s Digest. That added up to an estimated 40 million readers.
At that point in my life I was really trying to be a novelist. I became interested in the story of Bunker Hill and found out that no one had written a book about it in almost one hundred years. The book’s success led to an ongoing interest in the American Revolution.
I grew up in an Irish-American community. The problem with that world was it didn't have a lot of contact with the 'American' world, I really didn't know what it meant to be American. That's part of the reason why I think I hurled myself into the book about Bunker Hill. I was so enthusiastic about what I was discovering about the other half of my hyphenated identity.
You've done quite a bit of research on George Washington. What interested you about him?
When you study the Revolution, George Washington becomes a central figure. As one historian said, he was the indispensable man. He was a really fascinating character in so many ways. He had this public personality of a reserved, severe, and impressive leader. He felt that it was very important to win respect for himself as a general, and later as president. He saw that respect as part of respecting the United States of America, for whom he was speaking.
Behind that public personality was a very interesting man—a husband who had a deep affection for his wife and a very strong devotion to his friends and family. Above all, he really threw himself into the two subjects that interested him most—military affairs and politics. The latter subject is what has interested me most in the past ten to fifteen years—George Washington the politician.
Politics fascinated Washington until the day he died. When he retired from the presidency in 1797, Washington subscribed to ten different newspapers. Granted, they were published weekly, and he wasn't being inundated with New York Times-size papers, but the fact that he was subscribing to ten papers—all of which had political points of view—shows how intently he was following the politics of his country.
What types of books did Washington keep at Mount Vernon during his presidency?
He had over one thousand books in his library at Mount Vernon. They divide into certain categories. One is military affairs. He was interested in expert opinions on how to lead armies, how cavalry units fight—all sorts of details about military life. He was always looking for the latest books. He read books about the war that began between the British and the revolutionary French in 1793, when he was president.
Another category of books was politics. I think people will be surprised to learn that his library was full of books by British writers. Very often they were lawyers, politicians, and aristocrats writing about the current political situation. At the time, the Atlantic Ocean was a great highway, across which huge amounts of information flowed. Washington also had books about French politics including book by King Louis XVI.
Another group of books had to do with scientific farming. Washington took the idea of running Mount Vernon very seriously. When he married Martha in 1759, she was one of the richest women in America. She owned about 10,000 acres of prime Virginia farmland and Washington had to take charge of the whole enterprise. He always was looking for the latest books on farming, things like how to keep your soil fertile, how to raise specific crops. He was a rather humble man when it came to getting information—the opposite of a 'know-it-all.' He was always looking for expert opinions that would increase his knowledge.
Do historians know of any books that were of particular importance to him?
I don't know of any books he kept on his person, or took back and forth between Mount Vernon and New York or Philadelphia while he was president. We don't have any records of that sort. One of the books he might well have kept with him was The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. This was a hugely controversial book that Paine wrote in the 1790s. It was discussed by everybody. Among other things it was considered anti-religious. He would probably have wanted to have a book like that to refer to if he met someone who wanted to discuss it. Washington could read a few pages to refresh his mind on the subject so he could talk about it.
Another topic that I think was very important to him was America’s relationship with the Indians. There is a book that was in his library, Treatise on Indians by Anthony Benezet. He was very concerned about how America could work with the Indians, and still not encroach on their lands. He hoped to sign treaties with them so we could continue to move westward and enlarge the nation.
What kind of influence do you think some of these books might have had on Washington?
I think that Washington became very aware of the importance of commerce between nations. He differed with Thomas Jefferson, who had the idea that America was destined to be an agricultural nation. Everyone would be a farmer. Jefferson saw them as the original noblemen. Washington thought that the importance of trade between nations and between the states was crucial to the development of America. He had a book on this that caught my eye, Essay on the Importance of Free Trade by Peletineh. It sounds a lot like a book that would be read today. Free trade is still a big subject among economists.
How do you think the role of written word has changed over time in politics?
Newspapers and magazines became more democratized as reading became more widespread. The use of the written word was taken over by professional writers, and Washington was very aware of that. I think that he, personally, was a little uneasy about this development—which often meant letting another man express his opinions. Washington was a surprisingly good writer, given that he had practically no education growing up. That is why he never thought of writing a long book or essay without the help of someone else. He would bring in someone like Alexander Hamilton and discuss his ideas, then Hamilton would do a draft. That's how he did his farewell address; it was a collaboration with Hamilton, but the ideas came from Washington.
Do you think that some of the reading Washington did is timeless?
It's hard to point out a single book that would be powerful enough to survive into our own time. I think that it's better to say that the subjects that Washington was interested in are subjects that still absorb us today. I think that what he has to say about these subjects is still very pertinent to our nation in 2010. Watching Washington operate as a politician is something that goes beyond the words he used. His timing was always extremely good. He waited for the right moment to respond to someone.
When he became president, he also developed an ability for tolerating people who disagreed with him. When he decided we would be neutral instead of siding with France during their war with Britain, his popularity took a steep drop. A lot of people attacked him as a hypocrite. Jefferson wrote a friend that Washington “was a Samson in the field, but he allowed himself to be shorn by the harlot England." When that letter was published, Washington never spoke to Jefferson again.
Could you tell a little about the overdue library book of Washington's?
Washington took two books out of the New York Society Library, which was the first semi-public library in New York. The library is still flourishing today, and their original charging ledger is going to be published later in the fall on the Internet. It's a fascinating compendium of what many of the founding fathers were reading at this time. The winner in terms of sheer number of books taken out was John Jay. He was a walking encyclopedia. He took out dozens of books on a wide variety of topics.
The book that Washington took out is called The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel. This book was important during that time and widely read. It was one of the early attempts to create international law, and Washington thought that he should know something about this as president. He also took out a second book, about debates in Parliament.
When the New York Society Library got out the old charging ledger, they realized that Washington never returned either one of the books. The next thing you know, the New York Daily News published an article on it. Then I wrote an article on it in the newsletter of the American Revolution Roundtable of New York. We took it easy on George, but it was amusing that this man who is sometimes considered perfect simply forgot to return the books.
The story has a happy ending. When the people at Mount Vernon heard about it, President James Rees and Chief Librarian Joan Stahl proceeded to track down the Vattel book and they bought a copy for $1,200. They returned the book, and Charles Berry, the chairman of the Society Library, announced that the two centuries of overdue fines would be cancelled. It was very charming.
What about the construction of a library at Mount Vernon? Could you tell a little about that?
At the end of the ceremony for returning the book, James Rees announced that they are going to build a George Washington historical library at Mount Vernon. It will be the only library in the world devoted completely to information about him. They're looking forward to seeing this finished in two or three years. I thought that was a wonderful way to end the story of the missing book.
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