Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton
George Washington’s False Teeth:  An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century
ISBN: 0393057607
George Washington’s False Teeth
—from the publisher's website

An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century

A master historian's excavations into the past unearth a world that is unexpected and compelling.

The most famous character in eighteenth-century Paris, apart from the public hangman, was "Le Grand Thomas," a tooth puller who operated on the Pont-Neuf. A gigantic man seated high above the surrounding supplicants, he commanded instructions to his assistants and the "toothaches seemed to expire at his feet."

George Washington was not so lucky. He was inaugurated as president in 1789 with one tooth in his mouth, a lower left bicuspid. The Father of His Country had sets of false teeth that were made of everything but wood, from elephant ivory and walrus tusk to the teeth of a fellow human.

With characteristic learning and bracing insight, Robert Darnton shows us that the Enlightenment had false teeth too—that it was not the Father of Our Modern World, responsible for all its advances and transgressions. In restoring the Enlightenment to human scale, Darnton locates its real significance as a movement, a cause, a campaign to change minds and reform institutions. So too with the French Revolution, another icon of the eighteenth century: Darnton explores its origins in the gossip, songs, and broadsides that formed the political nervous system of Paris in the Old Regime.

Figures that we think we know—Voltaire, Franklin, Jefferson, Rousseau, Condorcet—emerge here afresh, their vitality (if not their teeth) intact. Was the leader of the Girondists, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a dedicated revolutionary or a police spy? Darnton shows the past to be an unruly place, sometimes confounding to the present, always unexpected, compelling, and rewarding.

George Washington’s False Teeth
Program Air Date: August 31, 2003

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.
LAMB: Why?
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 immediate background.

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 radically different.

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 years?
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 high school.
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.
LAMB: Where?
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 documents.
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 for you?
DARNTON: You know, I`m not sure, exactly. I have -- I haven`t counted.
LAMB: Twenty?
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.
LAMB: Thousands?
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 country.
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 daughter?
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 think?
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 these archives?
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 with you?
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 that matter.
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 the archives.
LAMB: But I want to quote back to you what you wrote. You said this book is written for the general, educated reader? (CROSSTALK)
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 have written?
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 address.
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 German.
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 monetary system?

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 gatherings.

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 toward things.

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 of letters.
LAMB: A 1994 lecture in Tokyo. That`s your chapter four, the pursuit of happiness.
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 Jefferson`s phrase?
DARNTON: That`s right. In other words...
LAMB: So he didn`t invent the phrase, the idea of the pursuit of happiness?
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 team.
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 values.
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 newspapers.

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 Brits.
LAMB: We only have a couple of minutes. I want to get all eight chapters in. The seventh is the pursuit of profit.
LAMB: Rousseauism...
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 atrocity.
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 much.
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.