The evening wraps up with Ron Chernow answering questions from the audience. A summary of that engaging dialogue:
Q. How did Washington feel about Adams?
Chernow said there’s no doubt Adams was excluded from Washington’s closest circle while serving as his Vice President.
Chernow: “Generally, Washington had close relationships with the younger generation of founders (e.g. Hamilton) and the older (e.g. Franklin) but tended to be more competitive with his peers in age (e.g. Jefferson and Adams).”
Q. Difference of Washington’s time with politics of today?
For all the verve with which the Founders knocked each other, politics back then was still regarded as an honorable calling. Not so much today, Chernow said.
In 1790s, American had 3 million people, but produced Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and so on.
Nation is much larger today, but with the constant denigration of government, the brilliant people do not go into government, Chernow says.
Question about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign finance:
Summary of Chernow’s answer: Hard to see where Founders would agree that a corporation is the same as a person. But more to the point, money simply did not play the role in elections then that it does now.
Q. Would Hamilton be a Republican or Democrat today?
“Let me frame it differently: The major conflicts in the 1790s were about state vs. federal power; Hamilton believed in federal and executive power; Jefferson in state and legislative. Hamilton believed in broad interpretation of Constitution; Jefferson in strict construction.
It’s a mistake in any facile way to match up those two parties then with our two parties.”
Q. Why is Robert Morris so ignored, while Hamilton, who was his protege, gets all the credit?
“Ah, Philadelphia question. Partly, I suspect, because Robert Morris’ story ends badly; he ends up bankrupt, in debtor’s prison.
“Hamilton’s role was as government servant; though, of course, Morris largely financed the Revolution, he operated in the private sector, so he is perceived as more of a businessman.”
Q. How much debate on slavery in Constitutional Convention?
Summary of Chernow’s response: We’re always taught that the big split in the ConCon was big states vs. small states.
“Madison, who should know, said that’s wrong. The main split was north/south, over slavery. Slavery is our original sin; the slave trade is built into the Constitution.”
Q. What can we learn about leadership from Washington?
“He wanted the country not just to be strong; he wanted it to be honorable and just. That’s his touchstone. He doesn’t always know what to do on issues, but he knew what his core values were. Over and over that led him to the right decision.”
“You know, some people seem to think the Founders bequeathed to us answers to all questions. They did not. They bequeathed us a set of questions, which they debated passionately and which we continue to debate today.”
Q. What is your writing process?
“Well, thank God for the computer. Can’t imagine writing these long books without it.
“Usually get going on writing around 10, and knock off around 4.
Hemingway always said, “Stop writing while you’re going great guns.” There’s some truth to that.”
Next topic of biography?
Ulysses S. Grant.
Makes some sense as progression. Towering general of Revolution to towering general of Civil War. Both two-term presidents, though with very different results.
Update 9:04 p.m.
The young Washington is “crass and dogged; you may not find him particularly appealing.” His early beefs with Britain are mostly personal and economic, commissions denied, low prices paid for his tobacco.
But few American figures grew as much during their lifetimes, Chernow said. Lincoln is the only comparison.
(Sorry for the slow updates; computer network problems.)
Chernow talks about what an imperious, difficult figure Washington’s mother was: “Perhaps the first great general he got to know.”
Washington himself was a “middling general” who lost more battles than he won.
But he was an extraordinary leader with “focus and discipline and drive that enabled him to meet the great challenge of his life.”
And he was an exquisitely talented politician. He was elected president twice, unanimously, “without a single focus group or poll.”
He earned power by never seeming to grasp for it, Chernow notes.
Washington established many of the traditions of the presidency: public inauguration, inaugural address, hand on Bible for oath of office, Cabinet.
And his first Cabinet, Chernow said, was “the best, pound for pound, we ever have.”
Chernow notes that the Founders were well-steeped in name-calling and partisan venom, citing choice examples from Hamilton, Adams and Franklin.
Only Washington rose above all that.
Chernow talks about GW’s marriage to Martha Washington, which was not passionate but companionable and productive. Martha hated being first lady, compared it to a prison.
That they never had children actually was reassuring to many who feared an American monarchy; since Washington had no heir, it was thought he had no reason to set up an hereditary monarchy.
Chernow says he gives Washington’s slaves a “central place in his saga,” saying that they were the key to his wealth and status. He said Washington’s freeing of his slaves in his will was the “single most visionary act of his life.”
Update 8:35 p.m.
Chernow says there are about 700 books on Washington.
“So it takes a certain chutzpah to write No. 701.”
In writing the book, he said, he was able to put to rest four myths about the Father of His Country:
The cherry tree. Never happened. Invention of early biographer Parson Weems. Wooden teeth. Ridiculous idea. Wood wood never work for dentures. But he did have terrible teeth, and dentures which he had a hard time keeping in his mouth, which accounts for the many portraits of pursed look later in life, and the shortness of his speeches. The wig. No, he actually made his hair do that. His height. He told his tailor repeatedly that he was 6 foot tall, not 6 foot 3. One does not lie about one’s height to one’s tailor, Chernow says.
Update 8:18 p.m.
Ron Chernow reports on his early years living in Philadelphia, doing freelance pieces for the Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine. Also notes why he’s wearing one sneaker: not a fashion statement; the residue of ankle surgery.
Update 8:14 p.m.
Tracey Matisak reports that it took Ron Chernow six years to finish writing Washington: A Life. She also reports that this prize-winning biographer never took a history course while a student at Yale University.
Update 8:05 p.m.
It’s probably not the first time it’s happened in her long career, but host Tracey Matisak just had her last name butchered by the fellow introducing her. Tracey will be the moderator for the whole series, which includes talks by former Washington superintendent Michelle Rhee, Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, Joe Wilson, and former general Stanley McChrystal, and Tom Brokaw. Now she’s introducing speaker Ron Chernow.
Update 8 p.m. The sellout crowd is slowly filtering into Verizon Hall, settling into seats, waiting for Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Washington: A Life, to speak and answer questions from WHYY’s Tracey Matisak.
I’ll be live-blogging the event tonight, giving you a sense of the discussion so you can take part in a follow-up dialogue on NewsWorks over the next few days.
Newsworks Tonight Host Dave Heller spoke with Chernow about his latest book, Washington: A Life. Chernow also talked about the evolution of his career, and his views on history education in schools today. That interview aired on Monday evening’s program, but you can listen to it by clicking on the audio player above.
The Philadelphia Speakers Series, sponsored in part by WHYY, is a series of seven different lectures at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts from September through April. Future speakers include Michelle Rhee, Valerie Plame Wilson and Amb. Joe Wilson, Michael Pollan, Azar Nafisi, Stanley McChrystal and Tom Brokaw.