BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Darnton, whose idea was it to call this book
"George Washington`s False Teeth"?
ROBERT DARNTON, AUTHOR, "GEORGE WASHINGTON`S FALSE TEETH": I have to
admit, it was my idea. Where I plucked that idea from, I can`t exactly
say, but I`ve always been fascinated with Washington and his teeth. A lot
of other people have, it turns out, and I`ve even had discussions about it
with my dentist.
DARNTON: Well, I asked him, you know, can you give me the straight
dope about Washington and his teeth. Surely this must come up in dental
schools. And he said, he had a pained expression on his face. He said,
every year it`s a standard number, we talk about Washington and his teeth,
and everyone thinks he had wooden teeth. He never had wooden teeth. He
had teeth made out of practically everything, but, you know, it`s like
doctor humor, dentists tell jokes about George and his teeth and I could
tell you the standard joke, if you like but...
LAMB: Why not?
DARNTON: OK. Dental student A says to dental student B, why does
George look so pained on the dollar bill? Dental student B says it`s
because of his wooden false teeth. And dental student A says, no, it`s
because he didn`t make it to the $20 bill. And around they go.
So it`s a kind of clich . It`s a standard picture of our greatest
founding father, but I tried to use it in a different way to get at
something that I think is missing in the understanding of the 18th century.
Among other things, pain. I mean, the pain -- the physical pain that
people were in two centuries ago. It`s something that disappears from
history. You know, pain doesn`t get recorded normally, but in my view, the
human condition was a very painful one. People didn`t have enough to eat.
They had very bad medical attention. Life was pretty miserable, and I
think we have forgotten that when we try to tell ourselves about how bad
things are today. So, I`m not trying to make us feel better, by I am
trying to recover what I think is a serious missing element in our
understanding of the past.
LAMB: Why do we need to know this?
DARNTON: Well, why do we need to know anything about history? I
mean, it`s a cosmic question. And my general answer is not to draw morals
from the past, but to understand the human condition.
Now, that sounds grand, but what I mean by that is I think, especially
in this country, we have a shallow understanding of the human condition.
We see in two dimensions rather than three. And the third dimension, or if
you like, the fourth, is historical. It`s a time dimension.
So, I think if we can understand how the human condition was
fundamentally different 200, 300, 400 years ago, it can give us perspective
on the situation we`re in today. And that`s for ordinary people, not just
famous people like George, but ordinary people. I mean, everyone had the
toothache in the 18th century. And I have read literally thousands and
thousands of unpublished letters from that period, and the toothache comes
back all the time.
So I think you should try to imagine humanity grinding its teeth in a
constant struggle against pain, and not just think about the Declaration of
Independence and the other glorious monuments from that time.
LAMB: How much of your life have you lived in the 18th century?
DARNTON: Well, I suppose my family would say most of it. I mean, I
have been studying it since I arrived in Oxford as a graduate student in
1960. I have been allowed out of the 18th century on good behavior from
time to time. So I occasionally wander into the 20th and 21st century, but
it`s something that grows on you. It`s so endlessly interesting and
strange, that once you begin wandering around in it and begin to pick up
its lingo and get a feel for it, it`s just endlessly interesting. So I
guess I would have to say that intellectually, I have spent most of my life
in the 18th century.
LAMB: At one point in one of these articles in there, you slip in the
fact that you are an atheist. Why did you tell your audience that?
DARNTON: Well, I don`t believe in general in talking about myself in
my books. And I do think this is the first book I have ever used the first
person singular. My readers don`t want to know about me. They want to
know about the subject. But I felt in this case it was relevant, because I
was trying in the last chapter of the book to come to terms with how
historians themselves tend to distort things, and how, of course, we see
everything from the lens of our own eyes. We are inevitably solipsistic in
our approach, and this had to do with the Enlightenment, with the
secularization of the world.
And then with a very strange moment that occurred when I first began
wandering into manuscript sources in Orleans, France, in which I arrived at
the municipal library. I was the first foreigner I think ever to show up
in the municipal library of Orleans. And the man who greeted me, I tell
the story I think briefly in this chapter, his name happened to be Maire
(ph), Monsieur Maire (ph). And then my French was very feeble and I
thought this is the mayor of the city of Orleans, greeting a humble
graduate student. And he then actually took me on a tour of the city, so I
thought this was amazing, a real red carpet treatment. Only in France
could they care so much about culture as to do this. It turned out that
his name just happened to be Maire (ph), he was sort of assistant director
of the library, not someone important.
But he stopped me in the middle of the tour and he said to me,
"Monsieur, vous-etes Protestant?" "Are you a Protestant?" And at that
point, I didn`t quite know what to say, and I didn`t feel up to the
theology, you know, if that`s -- I was going to be challenged about
Jansenism or something like that. So to simplify things, I said "oui,
Monsieur." And then he said, "we are many."
It turned out he was a Protestant. He said in that cellar, that`s
where the Huguenots had secret services. And since I was a Protestant, I
could be trusted. And he gave -- he literally gave me the key to the
library. So I was able to work on weekends, after dinner and so on.
And it made me realize that France is a complicated country, that to
be a Protestant is something peculiar in the eyes of most French people,
but really everyone is peculiar, and in order to recount the anecdote I had
to confess to my reader that I, well, sort of was raised as a Protestant
but I am indeed an atheist.
LAMB: Has that affected -- I mean, how many atheists do you run into
in this country, that will admit that they`re atheists?
DARNTON: Well, you know, I never ask people, are you an atheist or
not. I felt the need to come clean at that point. I mean, otherwise I
wouldn`t have mentioned it. I think this is probably the most religious
country in the west. Certainly much more religious than France and England
and Germany, where I spent a lot of my time. But outright -- I think of
atheism as a belief, not as a final word about anything. It`s your take on
life. And so I think militant atheism of the kind that one encounters in
the 18th century, that`s where it really surfaces and becomes a force is to
me repugnant, because it`s so intolerant of other people`s belief.
So I could take the easy line out and say, well, I`m a kind of
agnostic, and you know, there`s a little bit of truth in every religion,
but the fact is that some of this hard-line Enlightenment thought has got
to me, and I think it`s more accurate to confess that I`m actually an out
and out atheist.
LAMB: What was the Enlightenment?
DARNTON: Well, there is a big debate about it, and the way you
phrased the question is exactly the way the question was phrased by
Emmanuel Kant, (SPEAKING GERMAN). So you can imagine people have been
debating it for a long while. It`s something that I was trained to study
as a graduate student and have been banging my head against ever since.
And I decided in this book, I would come clean also on that score and
say what I thought the Enlightenment is. So, my answer is my own take on
it. I think the Enlightenment was a campaign to change minds and reform
institutions, that it was a movement. It was something that mobilized a
new power in Europe, namely the intellectual, then known as the
philosophes. And it`s something that had -- took place at a particular
time and at a particular place. So it`s not just a vague climate of
opinion. It`s not the same thing as intellectual history in general. It`s
something specific. And it can be mapped.
So, like most movements, it has origins, which go way back to
antiquity, and in particular to the great philosophical systems of the 17th
century, but I think it`s a big mistake to confuse them with the
Enlightenment itself. So, I see out of all of these intellectual origins a
particular cluster of people gathering in Paris after the great crisis of
the last years of the reign of Louis XIV, which were horrific years.
LAMB: What years?
DARNTON: Well, he dies in 1715, but it`s the war of the -- there are
a series of wars. The last one is the war of the Spanish succession. But
from the 1690s to 1715, France goes through a terrible crisis, not just of
war, but something that only since 1950 have we began to appreciate,
demographic crisis. The demographers have transformed our understanding of
social history. And the years between 1693 and `95 were the blackest years
since the Black Death first hit in 1348.
So, entire villages were wiped out. Many places. People died of
starvation. Corpses were found with grass in their mouths. I mean, this
shook French society to its core. Versailles is very far removed from the
peasantry, but finally, this was getting through to people in Versailles.
And you got actual courtiers, who were of an intellectual bent, beginning
to protest against this and to write pamphlets and treatises criticizing
this super absolute monarchy of Louis XIV. That, I think, provided the
The king dies in 1715. A regent takes over. He`s famous as a rake,
the Duke d`Orleans. He liked to talk about his rouet (ph), that is men
worthy of being broken on the wheel, they were so immoral, but there`s a
new tone to society, not just of libertinism but of pleasure-seeking, and a
kind of adventuresome spirit in taking intellectual risks.
So, that`s the world of the young Voltaire. Voltaire is amazing in
his youth. You know, he was born in 1694. He participates in the world of
the regency as a kind of child prodigy. And he could just improvise
couplets to anything. He could speak in verse the way I`m speaking in
prose now. And he was very funny and very wicked. So he was a hit in the
salon of the regency, and he managed to strike a chord by making a hit with
a new kind of elite, an elite that was now experimenting with heresy, with
unorthodox ideas, challenging authority, and in particular was dubious
about the authority of the church, not much more so than the monarch.
So, this media grew up and out of it and out of it and the life of the
young Voltaire emerged something quite different, and that is what I would
call a campaign, a real crusade to change things, but it took a while
before that happened. So you should, I think, imagine a background of
libertinism, it`s very sophisticated, it`s very elite. It`s not a swelling
up from the ground. There`s nothing democratic about it. And a lot of it
takes the forms of salon games, bon mots, you know, people having fun, and
as I say, pursuing pleasure.
But then crunches come. One crunch is in 1721, there`s a terrific
financial crash. Voltaire gets beaten up and thrown in the Bastille. He
goes off to England and begins thinking as he gets slightly more mature now
about the world he has left behind and the world he discovers in England,
where anyone can, practically, except Catholics, practice any religion.
And where there`s a lot more prosperity in the role of the state, and it`s
Out of this comes his first important book, not play, but ordinary
non-fiction book, "The Lettres Philosophiques." It was published in 1734,
and that`s the bomb that sets off the Enlightenment. Montesquieu`s "The
Persian Letters" appeared in 1721, so that`s another important date. And I
tend to see the Enlightenment according to the dates of publication of
books, because the Enlightenment as a campaign is an attempt to use the
printed word to mobilize public opinion. What is public opinion? At first
-- I mean -- that`s a very complicated question, but at first they were
thinking of a very elite public. They want to conquer the -- the
conquering heights of power, the supreme heights of power, the Great Salon
in Paris, the Academy Francaise, the Academy de Sciences. They are working
with a very limited elite, and they hope that by doing this, they can open
other corridors of power.
LAMB: Did anybody in Europe live in a democracy in those years?
DARNTON: No. There were so-called republics. For example, there was
a Republic of Geneva and of Genoa. But what does it mean to be called a
republic? The word was used very loosely. I mean, if by democracy you
mean a system in which every citizen participates in power, no, it simply
did not exist.
LAMB: How many people were there in France, in Britain in those
DARNTON: Well, France, there`s a big debate now among demographers as
to the size of the population, but I think most people would agree that by
1789, the population was 26 million, maybe 27 million, possibly a little
more than that. England is about a quarter of a population of France. And
the disparity between the two countries is enormous. The French think of
England as Perfidious Albion and all that, but still England is not a
superpower at all, not really a worthy rival. How is it that the English
keep winning these wars in the middle of the 18th century? That`s also a
big issue for the understanding of the way people begin thinking about
things in France.
LAMB: Where did most of the people live in Europe, then?
DARNTON: Well, I mean, it varies from country to country. The
population was densest in the Netherlands, what we call today the
Netherlands, that is the northern part of the Austrian Netherlands. What
we today call Belgium was a little -- was also quite dense. London,
actually, was the biggest city in Europe in the 18th century. It reached
the population of a million, whereas Paris was only about 600,000 in 1789.
It was actually a smaller city, even though I think we tend to think -- we
tend to think of Paris as the capital of Europe in the 18th century, as
well as the 19th century. But the vast population lived scattered in
different kinds of farming communities.
LAMB: Now, you started your French, your understanding of French, the
language itself what time in your life?
DARNTON: Well, I had French in junior high school, middle school as
you call it now. I had a wonderful teacher of French, who was tough.
Really, he was the first person not to give out automatic A`s in my junior
LAMB: Where was it?
DARNTON: In Westport, Connecticut, where we were raised mostly. And
then I had good French teachers throughout secondary school, arrived in
college, where unfortunately, I didn`t take French at all. I majored in
American history and literature.
DARNTON: At Harvard. And then I went on to Oxford, and I mean, I --
I didn`t know exactly -- I knew I was going to be a newspaper reporter. I
mean, that`s what I was predestined to be in life. So I had a scholarship.
And I just enjoyed studying. And I thought, well, I ought to study this --
I ought to study the second world war, but to understand it, better go back
to the first world war. To understand that, well, 1848, but 1848 clearly
comes from the French revolution, which comes from the Enlightenment and
that whole intellectual world. And there were some wonderful tutors in
Oxford who specialized in this. So I found myself doing a kind of souped-
up M.A. degree first in this subject, 18th century Europe.
LAMB: How long did the Enlightenment then last?
DARNTON: Well, it`s difficult to assign ends, final points to
movements, just as it is to identify their beginnings. You know, some
people would say the Enlightenment is still going on, or we haven`t began
to realize the principles annunciated in the Declaration of Independence,
but I think that`s an exaggeration. The Enlightenment principles stand
there, it seems to me, as a kind of frame of reference, and a means of
orientation in the modern world. When things go wrong, including, for
example, the impeachments of the president, people go back to the
Enlightenment. They read the correspondence of Jefferson and Madison, and
the -- not to mention the Constitution itself and the surrounding body of
LAMB: Is that considered to be a part of the Enlightenment?
DARNTON: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Then the Enlightenment wasn`t just French?
DARNTON: Absolutely not. Excuse me. I should have made that
clearer. I see when I describe it as a movement, with a body of
intellectuals committed to spreading light, I didn`t -- and the movement
that began in Paris. I didn`t mean to imply at all that it wasn`t
international. I see it taking all over Europe and then the Americas.
So, the turning point is roughly around 1750 in France, and meanwhile,
extraordinary things are going on in Edinboro (ph), in Naples. I mean,
Naples is a great intellectual center in the early 18th century. Quite a
lot in Berlin after Frederick II becomes king of Prussia, and so on and so
forth. So there are other important points, but by 1750, especially with
the publication of "The Encyclopedie," of Diderot and d`Alambert, everyone
is looking to Paris as the great center from which this intellectual energy
is spreading. And the Americans are as well. So, that -- by then you get
the beginning of this very interesting dialogue or counter-currents between
France and America, and Scotland and America, and even England and America.
LAMB: How much do we today owe to this period?
DARNTON: Well, we really, it seems to me, American political culture
comes out of the Enlightenment. I know that there are other schools of
interpretation and I wouldn`t mean to deprecate the influence of religion
in American history. You know, the religious currents were extremely
powerful, more in some places than in others. Probably more in New England
than in the South. So people like James Mason and Thomas Jefferson and
James Madison had, I think, a less dogmatic -- well, certainly a less
puritanical view of the world than did their counterparts in, say,
Massachusetts. And there`s the great awakening, of course, this religious
revival with very powerful intellectuals, also fueling it, that is -- that
is another aspect of the birth of America. So, I`m not saying, you know,
it`s simply read the Declaration of Independence and all is clear.
But still, the founding fathers, I think, were men who were steeped in
Enlightenment thought, who had often -- the Scottish Enlightenment rather
than the French one, but of course we send Jefferson, we send Franklin to
France. There are great figures in Paris. The French influence is really
there. And if you look at Jefferson`s library, or read his correspondence
with Madison, I mean, they take the French thinkers very seriously. And
the French thinkers take them seriously. So, there`s a kind of mutuality
in it, that I think is -- well is -- it`s still ought to exist. And our
current misunderstandings with France, as you can imagine, are quite
interesting from that point of view.
LAMB: This book, "George Washington`s False Teeth," is what number
DARNTON: You know, I`m not sure, exactly. I have -- I haven`t
DARNTON: Something like that, yes.
LAMB: And you have been based where most of your professional life?
DARNTON: Well, I have spent my entire career at Princeton University.
LAMB: Doing what?
DARNTON: Teaching European history, and then some specialized
courses, for example, in history and anthropology as something that
interests me a lot. There`s a new field that`s developed called the
history of the book. And I`ve taught courses in that. And then, you know,
general survey courses. So, there`s quite a wide variety of teaching we do
in Princeton. I mean, Princeton is a teaching university. I think it`s a
great research university. But the teaching comes first. We care a lot
about the students, undergraduates especially, but graduate students as
well. They`re not second-class citizens. So, I have had a happy, I think,
now 35 years teaching all sorts of things at Princeton.
LAMB: When were the president of the American Historical Association?
DARNTON: That was in 1999.
LAMB: And what is it?
DARNTON: Well, the American Historical Association is quite an
interesting organization, located not far from your studio, actually. It
represents the history profession in this country. And I don`t think it
has the equivalent in other countries. Its membership varies. It`s not as
if everyone who has a Ph.D. in history joins. But a lot of people who
don`t have Ph.D. do join.
It`s an attempt to first of all defend interests of people doing
history. And that`s -- it`s not lobbying in some crude sense of the word,
but suppose copyright laws are changed. Suppose there is not adequate
access to government documents. Suppose the government fails to keep its
archives in order. Since 1970, most of the information communicated by the
State Department has been communicated electronically. And I think that a
great deal of that is simply lost, because we haven`t done an adequate job
of archiving. Well, the American Historical Association looks after things
like that in the interest of history and of the general public, but it also
publishes the main scholarly journal, it has newsletters...
LAMB: How big is it in membership?
DARNTON: You know, I forget the exact number now.
DARNTON: Oh, many thousands, yes. I should have the exact number in
mind, but since I ceased being president, I have lost track of the day-to-
day membership. I mean, it`s a huge organization that also deals with job
hunting. I mean, we have -- it`s a center through which most jobs are
actually dispensed. So, we try to protect young people who are on their
way to make careers. And it`s not easy these days. So, what can we do to
ease them into a profession where it`s terribly difficult to get jobs and
where the pay is bad and conditions are often very bad as well.
LAMB: I asked you today when I first met you if you were John
Darnton`s brother. I don`t know your brother. It turns out that you are
his brother, but the reason I bring it up, he is a "New York Times"
reporter. You started at "The New York Times," for how many years?
DARNTON: Well, I could say three months, which would be the short
answer to what you said. That is I joined the staff permanently as a
reporter in the city room and I lasted all of three months, and then left
in order to go to a post-doctoral position at Harvard, but actually, I felt
as though I had worked on and off at "The Times" all my life.
I had summer jobs there. When I was at Oxford, I was a foreign
correspondent -- temporary foreign correspondent during vacations. And I
even published my first article -- had my first byline in "The New York
Times" at age 4. Not that I could write at age 4, but a friend of my
father`s took me around Washington and recorded my sort of baby talk, and
it apparently was cute, and became an article in "The Times."
So, I always thought I would be a reporter for "The Times." And my brother
joined "The Times" after I left and has had a wonderful career. I`m
devoted to him. I think he`s one of the really great reporters in this
LAMB: How long has he been there?
DARNTON: Oh, he must have been there -- the exact number of years, I
don`t know, but he joined "The Times" about 1967, `66.
LAMB: You also told me that your daughter, Kate, who is an editor at
"Public Affairs" has been in this business now for a couple of years.
LAMB: The reason I mention all this is it started in Westport,
Connecticut, from what kind of a family?
DARNTON: Well, from a journalistic family. My father was a reporter
for "The New York Times," and he was killed in the war. My mother then
took over and joined "The Times."
LAMB: What was her name?
DARNTON: Eleanor Darnton. She became women`s editor for "The Times,"
and then left and created a news service for women, actually, which went
bust. And so we all more or less went under financially. But everyone in
the family has worked for "The Times," all four of us. There`s just my
brother, myself, my mother and my father.
LAMB: The reason we`re mentioning this, what is the start? I mean,
you could go across this country and find people that have idea what "The
New York Times" is, they don`t read books and all that, but something
happened in your family, that here you are, you passed it on to your own
LAMB: I mean, what is -- as I`ve read this, I`m not a French speaker,
but as I read it, that was my first battle, was understanding, because you
use a lot of French here. Where does this interest come from, do you
DARNTON: I think the interest in books and journalism and the way
information penetrates into society is for me central. A lot of this book
is actually about the flow of information in 18th century Europe,
especially France. How did people -- what was news? In an era when there
really weren`t newspapers. And in this book, maybe less than in some other
books, but -- you could see it around the corners, I deal with the police,
and in my -- actually in my own career, if you can call it that, as a
journalist, began in police headquarters. In the old days, you always
began in police headquarters. So I worked with "The Newark Star-Ledger"
and spent a lot of time just learning to chase police cars and get facts
down accurately. I actually respect police reporters a lot.
And then found myself in the police archives of the 18th century, doing
something that in a sense was parallel to what I had done as a reporter
first in "The Newark Star-Ledger," and then when I joined "The Times"
regularly, I mainly was in police headquarters in Manhattan, but also in
the West Side Shack, as it was called, and Queens, Brooklyn, doing armed
robberies and murders and that sort of a thing.
LAMB: But where did you go for the 18th century police files?
DARNTON: There is something called La Prefecture de la Police, so
that`s a section where there are some archives. But the great archives are
those in the Bastille. So the Bastille, as you know, was stormed on July
14, 1789. It was then dismantled, stone by stone, in the succeeding
months. In the exuberation of the storming of the Bastille, a lot of its
papers were thrown around and disappeared, but basically, most of them
remained. And they are now in one wonderful library in Paris, where I
spent many, many months, called La Bibliotheque de l`Arsenal.
And there, you can look up people and read in effect their dossier
from the police reports, or you can take a slice of time and read all of
the dossiers from that year or five years or whatever it might be, and you
begin to make the acquaintance of all kinds of people who are interested in
information, and in the spread of information, because the police in the
18th century in Paris were extremely astute and they had specialists in
literature, believe it or not, that when -- the one I know best is a man
called inspector Joseph Demerie (ph). And Demerie (ph), turned out, kept a
file on every writer he could find in Paris at the height of the
Enlightenment. He had more than 500 writers in his files, including the
most famous writers, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and then
writers that no one has ever heard of.
LAMB: Why was he doing this?
DARNTON: A good question. He doesn`t say. I mean, I found his files
and I`m going to publish them all, because it`s like a who`s who of French
literature around 1750. But the file is there and there`s a title page
that just says, "Historique des auteurs," you know, stories about authors.
LAMB: By the way, define dossier. What is that in your...
DARNTON: A file.
LAMB: A file?
LAMB: Were these thick files or just one page?
DARNTON: Well, I`m glad you asked, because a lot of historical
research, people don`t understand the physicality of it, what`s involved.
So if you like, I could try to describe that a little bit, because I think
it matters, and it might help people understand somewhat about how history
is concocted. The reason I say that is people think history is -- we have
got it under control. You know, it`s between the covers of books, it`s
there, and that`s what happened.
But if you have actually done it at the level of archival research, I
think you begin to realize that it`s cobbled together from very messy
sources, and so much of it involves seeing patterns. The pattern seeing
involves, well, a lot of projection on the part of the historian. So, here
you are in the archives.
LAMB: Let me just step back for just a second. You spent how long in
DARNTON: Well, I have been in many different archives.
LAMB: But the ones we are talking about, were they in Paris?
LAMB: The main one with...
DARNTON: With …..
LAMB: With the 500 files?
LAMB: If you didn`t speak French?
DARNTON: Forget it.
LAMB: Couldn`t go in, couldn`t get access?
DARNTON: No. I mean, language is a tool for historians.
LAMB: So you couldn`t afford to have an interpreter sitting there
DARNTON: No, no, no, no, no.
LAMB: So that`s the first thing. You had to...
DARNTON: You have to really know the language and you have to know
the 18th century version of French. Now, it so happens that 18th century
French is very pure, and in a way easier than modern French, but many of my
graduate students, I give them photocopies of the documents from these
boxes which I`ll describe, if you like, and they have trouble reading them,
which always mystifies me, but I have read so many that to me it`s easier
to read 18th century French than modern French, or a modern English, for
LAMB: Well, what would a day have been like for you in the -- looking
at these files?
DARNTON: OK. Well...
LAMB: Where -- physically, where are they in Paris?
DARNTON: Well, let`s say -- the most common collection, the greatest
collection is in the National Archives. And so, I get in the subway and I
get out and I walk through this beautiful courtyard into an 18th century
palace. I show my card. I sit down, I fill out a bulletin. Things have
changed a little since I spent most of my time there, but you fill out a
form. You put it in a box. One of the employees goes and fetches a box.
The box arrives on your desk, and it`s usually about that big, so high. A
fair amount of dust on it, but not too dusty, and it always has a little
ribbon on the side, and there`s this moment when you untie the ribbon and
you think, now I`m going to find out what`s in this box.
You fold the top off, and that`s where the dossiers come. They are --
they are bits of paper, thick paper, including documents. So you might
have 20 to 50 documents inside one folder of paper. And there could be,
say, five folders. You don`t know what`s in them, but you have a hunch,
because you have looked in the catalogue that they might be, let us say,
the correspondence of the intendent from somewhere in the South Marseilles,
with the minister of the king`s household at a time when there`s some foul
play in the king`s household that might concern someone from Marseilles.
So you have an intuition, but you don`t know.
LAMB: Can you tell whether anybody has been in there, besides you?
DARNTON: Sometimes you can. Sometimes people leave -- they forget
and they leave little chunks of index cards or whatever.
LAMB: What I`m getting at is is there a time when you have got this
and it`s the first time anybody has ever...
DARNTON: Oh, yeah, normally that`s the case.
LAMB: In 250 years?
DARNTON: Yes. And it`s a thrilling sensation. I mean, I cannot
describe to you how interesting it is. Because you don`t know what`s in
those letters. You have a hunch about following one line of investigation,
but then you come across something that you hadn`t thought of at all, and
that is maybe more important, and you begin following that. So, I keep
running across these endlessly interesting people. And that`s partly what
this book is about, some of the curious, quirky people or even famous
people who have quirks that we didn`t know about, in the archives. I mean,
I could go on and on, but some historians say that I have too much of a
tendency to tell anecdotes and to talk about interesting people. I think
that`s part of the fun of history. And so, I don`t hold back too much.
LAMB: How long of a day would you have?
DARNTON: Well, it depends on the archives, but usually they open at
9:00, they close at 5:00 or 6:00, and then, well, what could you do but
have a nice meal in Paris or -- I have worked a lot outside of Paris as
well. And that`s part of the pleasure, because you`re soaking up the
culture and the feel of life in this country as well as doing hard work in
LAMB: But I want to quote back to you what you wrote. You said this
book is written for the general, educated reader?
LAMB: How much education do you have to have? In other words, here,
I said -- I don`t speak French and I found myself running into French all
the time in here. How much education do you need to understood what you
DARNTON: I would think that anyone who has a high school degree
should be able to read this book and enjoy it. I mean, it was written with
that in mind. Certainly, anyone who has been to college, even if you
didn`t know a word of French, should be able to follow my argument, and if
my reader can`t do that, it`s my fault. I mean, I respect readers. But I
think that there`s a problem among professional historians in that they
write for one another. They`re trying to score points in a particular
academic world, and I feel that we lose touch with the general reader.
So, and yet I want to say something new, I want to get across new research
and a new understanding of things. So I`m not just vulgarizing, as the
French say, but trying to communicate research in a way that would satisfy
academics, while at the same time explaining something fundamental about
the 18th century to normal people.
LAMB: You have eight chapters, and each chapter is from a different
time, an article or whatever. I want to go through them just very quickly,
because we don`t have a lot of time, and have you tell us where you did it,
the work, and a brief outline of what each chapter is. The news in Paris
and early information society.
DARNTON: That is an attempt to explore the circuits of communication
that actually existed in mid-18th century France, and also to indicate what
the news itself was. So how did people know what was going on around them?
I emphasize oral communication, which is something that has almost always
eluded historical research, but I argue that gossip and songs in particular
were crucial and in effect played the role of newspapers.
LAMB: That`s a long, that`s your longest chapter, 50 pages, but where
did you do this? Where was your original presentation?
DARNTON: That actually is something that I was fascinated with for at
least 30 years. And so, I found that in order to bring all the pieces
together, I drew on some research that I had done long ago, but a lot of it
came out of these very dossiers that I have described in the Bibliotheque
de l`Arsenal, that is the place where the papers of the Bastille are.
There, for example, I ran across, I couldn`t believe it, a series of
police reports of what people were saying in cafes. They went around, they
had some say 3,000 police spies who took down what people were saying. And
the reports are written in the form of dialogues. So, it`s as if you can
walk through Paris and listen in to the current gossip about things in the
1720s, in this case. Now, I mean, I`m not naive, I realize that a lot of
the police spies are doctoring their reports, et cetera. You have to read
them carefully. But they are astonishing documents. There`s nothing like
it that I know of.
So, I spent a lot of time. I ran across these by accident in the
library, and then I made a node to myself, go back, study this, and that`s
what I did for that particular chapter.
LAMB: But you say, originally given as an annual presidential
DARNTON: That was part of my presidential address to the American
Historical Association. So that was an important occasion and I tried to
bring together material from different sources.
LAMB: Third chapter. The unity of Europe, culture and politeness.
Where did you give this, originally?
DARNTON: Well, that actually was -- I was asked to write that by a
German news magazine there, Spiegel.
LAMB: Did you have to write it in German?
DARNTON: No, I wrote it in English and they translated it into
LAMB: I get a sense you speak German.
DARNTON: Yes, sure. I don`t write it very well. German, academic
German is hard-going for me. But I spent a lot of time in Germany, and so
they knew me in this German magazine. And this was when the euro was being
introduced, and they wanted -- they asked me, can you give us a historical
account of what Europe was? What is European unity if it`s not just a
So, I wrote it for that, but it fit in, I thought, into the general
argument I`m trying to develop through the book.
LAMB: You say Europe is a state of mind. You told the Europeans it
was a state of mind?
LAMB: Is America a state of mind?
DARNTON: Well, I mean, what isn`t a state of mind? It`s not as if we
have direct access to some reality that`s outside of our minds. It`s
there, of course. But it`s always, it seems to me, interpreted by us as we
attempt to make sense of things. So, you can -- it`s not a silly question.
You know, what is Europe as something that has been construed by Europeans
over the course of time.
LAMB: What`s cosmopolitanism?
DARNTON: Well, cosmopolitan -- you know, I used the word
cosmopolitanism the first time I ever was in Eastern Europe. And it was
in, actually, in East Germany, in Halla (ph), East Germany. I was the
first Enlightenment specialist allowed to talk to one of their communist
And so, I made a few remarks. And afterward, someone said to me, you used
the word "cosmopolitan," as if I had done something terrible. It turned
out to be a cosmopolitan in the eyes of the Communist Party in Germany was
very wicked, because it would be a kind of bourgeois, non-national attitude
A cosmopolitan in the 18th century is someone who certainly does not take
the nation as the main unit with which he identifies himself or herself,
but someone who feels that he`s a citizen of the world. And there were
people who actually used that title. There`s a deputy to the French
revolution, who said he`s a representative of humanity and a citizen of the
world. Someone who can identify with people outside of his own nation or
village, and has a sense of participation in -- in this case the republic
LAMB: A 1994 lecture in Tokyo. That`s your chapter four, the pursuit
LAMB: Voltaire and Jefferson. One of the things that caught my eye in
that chapter was the reference to Jefferson possibly being a socialist,
because he was interested in replacing property with happiness.
DARNTON: Yes. Well, I`m not arguing that he was possibly a
socialist, but that if you look at the concept of happiness, the pursuit of
happiness as opposed to simply the defense of property, that opens the way
towards social welfare legislation. And you can actually trace the concept
as it moves from John Locke, the rights of life, liberty and property, to,
well, James Mason, who talked also about the pursuit of happiness, the
American Declaration of Independence, and then the French declaration, not
of 1789 but of 1793, where they talk about the general happiness of mankind
as the goal of society. And they begin fixing the price of bread,
intervening with the economy, trying to develop a program for the poor.
The beginnings of welfare legislation.
LAMB: You scored one for George Mason in your piece, because why?
DARNTON: Well, I think that George Mason was a very intelligent
person, who was central in the independence movement in Virginia even
before the colonies got together on July 4. And he had a wonderful
library. He read his way through the natural law philosophers, especially
the Scots, but the French as well, and in his draft for the Virginia
declaration, he develops in a way that is, I think, less rhetorically
powerful but philosophically deeper than Jefferson`s, this concept of the
pursuit of happiness.
LAMB: Did you say a lot of the state constitutions had the pursuit of
happiness in it? I can`t remember. I thought you might have...
DARNTON: I don`t think I did. I don`t know the answer to that
question, but they have -- I think several of them do.
LAMB: You said, maybe it`s something else, you said that the state
constitutions, however, do, two-thirds of them have adopted some variant of
DARNTON: That`s right. In other words...
LAMB: So he didn`t invent the phrase, the idea of the pursuit of
DARNTON: No. And he says in a letter, I think to Madison, this is
the common sense that I`m delivering. He`s representing -- the American
mind is another phrase he uses. In other words, he treats himself as the
interpreter of a kind of consensus on the part of his fellow citizens.
LAMB: Who were you talking to in Tokyo in 1994 that wanted to hear
about the pursuit of happiness?
DARNTON: Well, I was invited to talk about happiness by the Institute
for Advanced Study that had just been created in Tokyo. And they decided
they would have one person from the West talking about Western attitudes
and one from the East, on the subject of happiness. It was their choice.
But of course it resonated with me, because I have always been fascinated
by this change of phrasing from Locke`s property to the pursuit of
happiness. And a lot of American intellectual historians have discussed
this. I mean, Howard Mumford Jones and many others. It`s not an original
finding on my part as all. But it`s a very interesting notion, because it
opens up into modern American culture and all kinds of attitudes that I
think people feel. A lot of people think they have a right to happiness.
LAMB: So, when you spoke in Tokyo, did you speak in English and did
they listen through an interpreter?
DARNTON: Yes, they did. It was simultaneous interpretation. But it
was one of the least successful lectures that I think I have ever given,
because it was a big occasion, a formal thing, all kinds of people sitting
up very correctly, you know, and ...
LAMB: All Japanese?
DARNTON: All Japanese. And I thought, you know, I tried to lighten
things up with a few jokes. So, I told a joke. Everybody was like stone.
I thought, I`m in trouble. And then I told another joke. Same reaction,
then. Afterwards, I said to my handler, more or less, I`m sorry that this
all went flat and especially the jokes, maybe it`s -- of course, people
didn`t get it. And he said, well, I`ll tell you the translation. The
translation of your joke was, the American professor is now telling a joke.
So, of course, you know, they -- they didn`t get it. It`s another
instance of the cultural misapprehensions, that`s something I`m addressing
in this book, the way countries misunderstand each other and construe one
another, especially France and America.
LAMB: By the way, after World War II and we helped write their
constitution, did we throw any words like happiness into their preamble?
DARNTON: I don`t know. I don`t know.
LAMB: Chapter five. This was Harper`s 1985. The great divide,
Rousseau on the route to Vincennes (ph).
LAMB: I assume you don`t pronounce it Vincennes (ph) in French.
DARNTON: Sounds great to me. It`s Vincennes (ph).
LAMB: Why did you think -- why did Harper`s think an audience wanted
to hear about the great divide, Rousseau on the route to Vincennes (ph)?
And where is Vincennes (ph)?
DARNTON: Well, Vincennes (ph) is now actually part of Paris, and it
has a famous medieval dungeon, where Diderot, who for many people is the
most sympathetic philosopher of the 18th century, was imprisoned. Rousseau
was walking to pay him a visit. And neither of them were famous at this
stage. They are still kind of young men on the make, very poor, down and
out in Paris. Diderot had published some libertine tracts,
philosophically, and also a very naughty book, quasi-pornographic. And so
he was thrown in prison, and Rousseau went to visit him.
Now, on the way occurred this famous ,event in which Rousseau
collapsed, woke up, finding himself drenched in his own tears, and all
became clear. So it`s one of the great epiphanies, like St. Paul`s
epiphany, in all of history. And it changed Rousseau`s whole take on the
culture of his time. And I think it`s a turning point, a breaking point in
the French Enlightenment.
Now, why did Harper`s ask me to write about that? Well, they didn`t,
exactly. They decided they would have a special issue about -- actually
about gossip, and somehow I was able to misconstrue my assignment and to
talk about Rousseau and anthropology, because I argue it may seem -- I hope
it seems clear, but I`m arguing that what he really saw when he had this
revelation was the power of culture to hold together a social and political
system. So, it`s a set of values. It`s an orientation in the world that
really is at work in the French absolutist monarchy.
LAMB: I have got to read this line to you. "It may seem strange that
we mix flag waving and football, or that President Reagan should have
synchronized his inauguration with the kickoff of the Super Bowl." What
are you getting at there? That`s the last paragraph on this...
DARNTON: I`m getting at something that I would call an American
political culture or even civil religion. It seems to me Americans are
extraordinarily patriotic, especially compared with Europeans, and it is
amazing that in many of our halftime shows you see the American flag being
paraded around. You see soldiers parading very seriously. We sing the
national anthem often.
I mean, all of this is expressing a kind of civism that we have in our
country, a faith in the country that is actually performed on a football
field, of all places. Well, I think most foreigners would find that
strange. In fact, I have been to football games with Frenchmen and they
can`t believe what they`re seeing.
LAMB: Is it different at the European football, soccer?
DARNTON: Yes. Absolutely.
LAMB: They do not have this nationalism?
DARNTON: There`s nothing like it. No. They have lots of violence
and riots and so on, but that`s the supporters of this team versus that
LAMB: Where did ours come from, then?
DARNTON: Well, I think it came from -- it welled up from a kind of,
for lack of a better word, civil religion. And that`s the key idea in
Rousseau`s "Social Contract." It`s the last chapter of the "Social
Contract." What he`s trying to argue -- you know, students read it all the
time, and they cannot make head nor tail of it. What is the general will,
how does society come into existence, and what are the rules of the game
that are elaborated through the "Social Contract." It`s all very abstruse.
But if they read the last chapter, he talks about festivals, gathering
the grapes together, dancing and so on. He mentions it in some of his
other works as well. And I say, look at the next football game. And then
I think we`re getting at something that matters to a republic, a democracy,
and that is the sense of participation and of sharing a common set of
LAMB: The chapter six is the craze for America. Conderse (ph), and
correct me if I`m mispronouncing this, and Brisot (ph)?
DARNTON: Yes. Well, that`s a chapter, is a question where did it
come from or what is it about? It`s a chapter about the French infatuation
with America in the 1780s, right on the eve of the French revolution. For
an American to just read the daily newspaper is an extraordinary
experience. I mean, France didn`t have a daily newspaper until 1777. And
I have read every issue of this daily newspaper until the French
revolution, when the press was really free and you get dozens of
And on almost -- in almost every issue you find an ad for a play about
Americans, a new print about George Washington, letters about Lafayette,
discussions of books about America. There`s ballet of the Quakers being
performed here. There is the American hero or the American heroine that
are competing plays. The French are just ga-ga about Americans in the
1780s. Hairstyles, you know, there`s a hairstyle called a la Philadelphie.
So it`s the Philadelphian hairstyle, and it`s about three feet, literally
three feet high, with a schooner, little boats, flotillas all arranged in
it. An American flag flying.
The French -- and of course, Franklin, everyone fell in love with
Franklin. I mean, he was a spectacular hit. So the French became obsessed
with this strange country that somehow was standing up to their enemy, the
LAMB: We only have a couple of minutes. I want to get all eight
chapters in. The seventh is the pursuit of profit.
LAMB: ... on the Bourse.
DARNTON: So the Bourse is the stock exchange in Paris. And there was
a tremendous war between bulls and bears on the stock exchange in the
1780s. Now, you might think this is just fiscal history, so what? In
fact, if you read the pamphlets and then follow the financial speculations,
which you can do in the archives, where I had the account books of one of
the leading bear speculator, a man called Etienne Claviere (ph), what you
find is they are trying to manipulate the stock market by writing pamphlets
that will expose watered stock, in other words inflated stock, and thereby
bring the price down when they`re gambling on futures.
Well, this just sounds maybe like fiscal history, but the ideology
expressed in these pamphlets is straight out of Rousseau. And so, that`s
part of the point I`m trying to make. Something like the Enlightenment,
Rousseauism, exists on the stock market, not just in abstract treatises.
LAMB: And finally, the skeletons in the closet, how historians play
God. You talked a little bit about this earlier. Again, you say in -- you
tell us that you`re an atheist. Have you ever talked to anybody else about
how that might have colored your view of history or the -- the opposite of
that, if you are a true believer in God, how that colors your view of
history when you write about it?
DARNTON: You know, I don`t think I ever discussed that with my own
teachers. I mean, I`m not a militant atheist, like my daughters, for
example, are good churchgoers, and I try to turn my tongue three times in a
mouth before some anti-clerical temptation arises around the dinner table.
So no, I have not discussed it that way. But I think if you read a lot of
French history, you see people being burned at the steak by the church.
And the Calas (ph) affair, which was the greatest affair in Voltaire`s
life, was an attempt to rescue the reputation and the family of a man who
had been unjustly condemned for trying to prevent his son from becoming a
Catholic, and was tortured to death. And it was just a terrible judicial
LAMB: Thirty seconds. I`d be interested, did you -- your attitudes
about God, did they come from all the reading and all the investigation?
DARNTON: No. Partly, but I -- I just never could get over the
problem of evil.
LAMB: Then how did your kids get into the believing side of it?
DARNTON: Because they are independent spirits who think for
themselves, and fortunately, don`t take any gaff from their father. So, I
respect their opinions. And they`re quite different from my own.
LAMB: We`re out of time. Our guest has been Robert Darnton. He`s a
professor, 25 years, at Princeton. This is the book, "George Washington`s
False Teeth: an Unconventional Guide to the 18th Century." Thank you very
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.