BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Richard Norton Smith, why did you call the book you wrote on George Washington "Patriarch?"
RICHARD NORTON SMITH, AUTHOR, "PATRIARCH": It's the last 10 years of his life, a period that really hasn't been covered in much detail before. It's a chance to really humanize Washington, at the same time depicting him as a political leader. It's hard to believe there is not a comprehensive one-volume account of Washington's presidency. But beyond that, everyone wants to know what George Washington was like, and it seemed to me it's this period of his life when he's most human because he is most vulnerable. You know, he's an old man. His hearing is not very good, his memory is failing him. He was terribly sensitive about press criticism, of which there was an enormous amount during his presidency. He had a volcanic temper. His presidential secretary said that no sound on earth could compare with that of George Washington swearing a blue streak. He was convinced that the day he accepted the presidency would mean the decline of his reputation, which was very important to him, and that he would risk even the adulation that, I think, took the place of more conventional love in his life.
And yet, despite all that, at a time in life when most men would be happy with retirement, to sit on their laurels, Washington was willing to risk everything in what I think is a time of his greatest sacrifice and greatest service to the country. So, it's that last period of his life that, I think, in some ways made the biggest imprint on America, even today.
LAMB: What was your major source?
SMITH: There are so many. There is a wonderful 37-volume edition of Washington's writings that came out actually in the 1930s and '40s. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, in conjunction with UVA, is working on what will be a more than a 100-volume edition which will include all of the correspondence to Washington as well as from Washington.
There is a wonderful fairly recently published six-volume edition of his diaries. I did some research in original materials in Philadelphia and Mount Vernon. I found a wonderful story. I don't know about other biographers, but with me, you get to a point where you've saturated yourself in, hopefully, primary source materials, in letters and diaries and contemporary accounts, and then, all of a sudden, you come to one story that jumps off the page and seemingly defines your character, who may have been very elusive until then. And for me it was a story I found at Mount Vernon in a letter written by Washington's adopted granddaughter Nellie Custis, who recalled late in her own life how, during his presidency, at the end of a long day, Washington used to leave his office and walk into a room where children were playing. He was very fond of children. He was very sensitive about the fact that he did not have children of his own, and this apparently relaxed him.
And the moment that the kids realized they were in the presence of the man called "Great Washington," they froze – even children. He had that impact on people, and eventually, very put out, he would turn around and walk out of the room. What that said to me was, instead of looking at Washington as we always do as a very remote figure, we should try and go back 200 years and ask how did he become such a remote figure that children would freeze when he walked into the room. I theorize, partly, it was his own doing. He was a great actor. He understood that politics was theater and he understood his symbolic significance to the republic, the only thing that held it together in many ways. But part of it was also imposed upon him by his countrymen who needed a symbol, a unifying symbol, and so they made him a demigod in his lifetime. They put him on a pedestal, and he paid a terrible price for his celebrity. As a young man, he's a classic self-made American. He wanted to be rich, he wanted to be famous, he wanted social standing. He got all those things and more, and it didn't make him very happy and that's very American, too.
But I think this whole notion of the price he paid for his celebrity and for his fame humanizes Washington much more than all the talk about false teeth and Madeira and expense accounts and Sally Fairfax.
LAMB: If he were sitting right here what would he look like today?
SMITH: He was an extraordinarily charismatic figure. He was, first of all, a giant of a man.
LAMB: How tall?
SMITH: He was 6 feet 3 inches tall, which was about a half foot taller than his contemporaries. Contrary to popular imagery, he never wore a wig. He had reddish hair. I might point out, parenthetically, so did Jefferson and Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, which means that Americans owe their liberties today to redheads, make of that what you will.
LAMB: For those of you who have a black and white television set, your hair is red.
SMITH: Such as it is, it's red. He was a very imposing figure. Weighed about 200 pounds, over a rather bony, muscular frame which had been hardened by a lifetime outdoors and with considerable physical adversity. He had not what you would call a classically handsome face. It was somewhat ruined by a very blunt Roman nose and enormous eye sockets. Gilbert Stuart said they were the largest he ever saw. LaFayette said Washington had the largest joints he ever saw. The thing that wasn't imposing about Washington was his chest. Curiously enough, his adopted grandson recalls seeing his grandfather one day in the library at Mount Vernon with his shirt off, and he had a hollow chest; he had had a tubercular condition as a young man. But, in addition to the physical attributes that he had, he had this extraordinary natural dignity and with it a real sense of the theatrical. He knew how to use the theater of politics in ways that I think surprise Americans today. There is a wonderful, wonderful scene at the Battlefield of Yorktown: the moment when everyone would be expected to crow in victory,when the Americans had, in effect, stumbled onto victory and defeated the British, and, needless to say, the Continentals were in a mood to rub it in; and Washington prohibited his men from cheering. As he put it -- a wonderful line -- he says, "Posterity will huzzah for us." He was not only playing to the immediate crowd, he was playing to posterity.
LAMB: How old was he when he died and in what year did he die?
SMITH: He died two weeks before the end of the 18th century. He had made an informal promise to live to 1800; he didn't make it. He died on December 14, 1799. He was 67, and he staged his death like he staged everything else in life. He died over a period of about 24 hours of what was, in effect, a lethally sore throat. He in effect strangled to death. He woke up in the middle of the night, and Martha could see he was terribly ill, unable to speak, barely able to breathe. He would not let her summon a servant or a doctor for fear that she might catch cold. During the remainder of the day and into the long night, he had this audience -- the only way to put it -- assembled around him, of doctors and friends. He was awesomely organized to the end. Several hours before he died, he told his secretary to go to a certain cabinet, to a certain shelf, to take two wills, to bring them back, to destroy one. He asked if all of his correspondence was in order. Just before he died, he gave instructions to the secretary. He apparently was afraid of being buried alive, which is a very human thing, so he gave instructions that his body was not to be interred in less than three days.
He looked at the secretary very sharply and said, "Do you understand?" and the secretary said he did. Washington said, "All is well." He took his own pulse and he died. In control to the end.
LAMB: Where was he born?
SMITH: He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. People tend to think of Washington as a natural-born aristocrat, and that's not true. He was the oldest son of a second marriage. We don't know much about his father. It's interesting, there are 19,000 of Washington's letters that survived, and his father's name is mentioned in only two of them. He died when George was 11. His mother is a classic example of how historical reputations rise and fall.
You know, when Parson Weems was grinding out his sugary anecdotes about the father of his country, he tended to portray Mary Ball Washington as a rather saintly figure. In our own century she has been characterized as a shrew, as a selfish, self-centered woman whom George couldn't wait to get away from. I think the truth is somewhere in between. He owed much more to his mother than he would probably admit. A friend writing late in life said anyone who was ever around the mother would understand where Washington's air of command came from.
LAMB: How much schooling did he have?
SMITH: Formally, very little. That's one of the things he was most sensitive about. He had a few months tutoring in geography and arithmetic, deportment. But, more important, a young patron of his, LordFairfax, said that at the age of 16 George Washington was a young man who would go to school all his life. And he did. Another one of those wonderfully American qualities about Washington is that he never stopped learning. He never stopped growing. He traveled more extensively than any American of his age. He met an incredibly wide assortment of people seems to have learned something from almost every experience. He had a great curiosity which never dimmed however old he grew, and yet he was terribly sensitive about his lack of formal education. He refused to write his war memoir. He said that he didn't want posterity to impute vanity to him, but, in fact, he probably was a little bit sensitive about they would have read.
LAMB: How many different offices did he hold in his life?
SMITH: It's interesting for those who think of Washington as a non-politician. He first ran for office in his 20s. He ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses,was defeated in large part because he refused to follow the custom of the day and provide unlimited liquid refreshment to the electorate. He always, by the way, learned from defeat -- a mark of a good politician, a mark of a good general. The next time he ran for the Burgesses, he didn't repeat that mistake; alcohol flowed liberally. He spent, I think, 16 years in the House of Burgesses.
More important, he spent eight years as commanding general in the Revolution, and he was, in effect, a political general. It was wonderful training for the presidency because as bad as the British were in his front, Congress in his rear was almost as much of an enemy. He had to deal with Congress on a day-to-day basis, and I think he perfected his political skills in the process. He also learned that it was not, in the end, a military war; it was a political war. It was a test of endurance, and became, in effect, almost guerrilla warfare. He didn't have the military resources to defeat the British head on. Never did. People are surprised: Washington only fought nine major battles during the Revolution, and he came to play the fox more often than the lion and all the while convincing himself that he was no politician. I mean, a part of his political genius was this ability to persuade everyone, beginning with himself, that he was no politician.
LAMB: If he were here today, what party would he belong to?
SMITH: He believed in a very strong central government, and we tend to think of that as being a Democratic position, a liberal position, if you will. I believe that a very strong presidency, particularly in the foreign policy. On the other hand, in his social values he was somewhat aristocratic. He did not harbor the modern reformers notion of human perfectibility.
I think one of the real keys to understanding Washington as a man and as a politician is to understand his grasp of human psychology. He was a very, very fine amateur psychologist. He had seen the darker side of humanity, first on the Virginia frontier, when he was having to deal with skulking militia and thieving speculators in Virginia, and then, of course, in the Revolution. So, he once said about democracy, "The problem with democratical states," as he put it, "is that they must feel before they can see. That is what makes their governments slow in operation, but the people, at last, will be right." So he had, I think, a very healthy, very moderate view of what government could achieve and of the arduous nature of achieving it.
LAMB: Who were his closest friends?
SMITH: He didn't have a lot of intimates. He had Dr. Craig -- James Craig, who was a neighbor of Mount Vernon, actually from Alexandria.
LAMB: By the way, if he again were to leave this studio in those days, how far away would Mount Vernon be from these studios?
SMITH: What is it? About 16 miles south of Washington.
LAMB: How long would it have taken him then to get there?
SMITH: That's a good question. It would have taken him several hours. Oh, no, actually he could have ridden probably on horse in an hour. Jefferson said he was the finest horsemen of his age, and Jefferson was a very discerning critic of those things. Washington, by the way, in his retirement, traveled very extensively between Mount Vernon and the District, what became known as Washington, D.C. It's interesting, early in its history a South Carolina congressman wanted to name it "Washingtonapolis." That didn't happen.
LAMB: You write about New York, Philadelphia, Mount Vernon and his relationship with getting this town created. How many years did he spend in New York?
SMITH: The government was in New York actually only about a year and a half. The government was so different 200 years ago. George Washington, while he was president in New York and later in Philadelphia, employed more people at Mount Vernon than he did in the entire executive branch of government. The first federal budget, the year of 1789, was about $2 million, of which Washington spent $10,000 in refurbishing a house on Broadway. That's where he put his staff. The president's staff in 1789 consisted of five men who were crowded into two bedrooms on the third floor of a house at 39 Broadway. One of them was an aspiring poet, not a very good one, named David Humphries, and his colleagues complained that Humphries kept them up past midnight reciting his bad verses.
The U.S. Army was 600 men strong, mostly on paper. Jefferson, as the first secretary of state, went to the State Department and found a toy bureaucracy: five clerks spending $8,000 a year to run the nation's foreign affairs. Washington, on occasion, would be driven in a coach. By the way, a sense of the caste system of those days -- when he went on private business, he would be driven by two horses; when he went to federal hall for business of state, four or even six milk-white horses would draw his carriage through the unpaved streets of New York and sometimes slowed by herds of pigs that were out routing for garbage.
LAMB: When did they move to Philadelphia?
SMITH: They moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 1790, and Washington, for one, complained about the extortionate cost of living in Philadelphia. James Monroe was one of the congressmen who complained about a housing shortage and the prevalence of gambling in Philadelphia. He said it was not uncommon for people to lose up to $400 at a session.
LAMB: What was James Monroe like?
SMITH: Monroe and Washington were not close. Monroe had been an extraordinarily young, in his early 20s, hero at the Battle of Princeton, and he was later elected to the Senate from Virginia. He was a political opponent of Washington's. He was a follower of Jefferson's. A great friend of the French Revolution even when it veered off into excess, and, curiously enough, Washington was willing to send Monroe to Paris on a diplomatic mission which did not turn out very well at all. In fact, Monroe came back. He was recalled and wrote a 507-page book attacking Washington.
LAMB: Did George Washington every go overseas?
SMITH: Never. No, never did. Interestingly enough, as a young man he wanted to join King George II's navy, and there was talk about sending him to England to be schooled. It was his mother, his much maligned mother, who put her foot down on both suggestions.
LAMB: How did he get elected in the first place?
SMITH: Well, he was the inevitable choice. You have to remember, the United States was not a nation in 1789. It was an idea. The Constitution was a piece of paper, not particularly popular. I think if a popular referendum had been held, it would not have been approved.
LAMB: They ratified in what year?
SMITH: It was ratified in 1788 -- over 1788, 1789, quite narrowly in a number of states. Probably the deciding factor behind its ratification was the assumption, never made explicit, that George Washington would agree, in fact, to be the first president of the United States. So, Washington went into office . . .
LAMB: But who is assuming that?
SMITH: Everyone. I mean, the political culture of the day.
LAMB: For what reason?
SMITH: Because Washington was the one thing that bound the country together. I mean, this was not a European nation. This was not a nation. This was an extraordinary diverse society. We tend to think diversity is something we invented in the 1990s. Not so. Two hundred years ago, we were an amazingly polyglot culture. We were three separate nations. We were the eastern states, as New England was called; we were the middle states, which were the great bread basket of the country, and we were the South, which was really a society apart.
LAMB: But why did everybody assume that he would be the obvious choice?
SMITH: Because he had won the Revolution and because, as a result, he had become more than a man, more than a leader. He had become the symbol of nationhood, the symbol of unity. He was, in effect, the glue that held the country together. He was the one thing everyone could agree on.
LAMB: Who pushed him the most? Who were the people right around him who he confided in and he needed and helped him write speeches?
SMITH: He wasn't a great communicator by any means. He didn't like speech-making. One of his earliest and most successful speechwriters was James Madison. When they went to New York together in 1789, there was no political division at that point. Eventually, Madison would fall out with Washington, although Washington asked Madison's help in drafting his farewell address.
LAMB: Madison, by the way, was how tall?
SMITH: Madison was 5 feet 4 inches. He was known as "little Jimmy", the little withered apple John, by his opponents. One of the qualifications that Washington insisted upon in hiring a staff -- in fact, one of the chief qualifications -- was excellent handwriting. He was very vain about his own penmanship, and if you stop and think, 200 years ago there were no Xerox machines, there were no typewriters. Every presidential document had to be copied by hand, so it's not such a far-fetched requirement.
LAMB: Have you actually seen some of the 19,000 letters he wrote?
LAMB: What do they look like?
SMITH: Extraordinarily stately, as he had this elegant, precise, careful hand.
LAMB: Can you read it?
SMITH: Oh, yes. Absolutely, no problem at all.
LAMB: Where are they?
SMITH: They're scattered. The bulk of Washington's papers are in the Library of Congress. There are smaller collections in other institutions around the country, some at Mount Vernon, some in Philadelphia and in other museums.
LAMB: Before we go any farther, we better catch up on you. Where do you live?
SMITH: I live in West Branch, Iowa. The real America. Population 1,907.
LAMB: Where is West Branch?
SMITH: West Branch is about 10 miles from Iowa City. I went there because of my other job. I'm director at the Herbert Hoover presidential library there.
LAMB: Why is it there?
SMITH: It's there because Mr. Hoover was born there, because late in life he decided he would, in this if in nothing else, follow Franklin Roosevelt's example and have a presidential library. It's interesting, the original building was about 6,000 square feet. Harry Truman was there on dedication day, they were very good friends. Truman walked around and he said, "God, this building would fit in the basement of my library."
LAMB: How big is it now?
SMITH: It's now about 42,000 square feet. We just went through an expansion and opened a new museum last summer.
LAMB: How long have you been there?
SMITH: I've been there five and a half years.
LAMB: Where were you before that?
SMITH: I was in Washington for about nine years, writing speeches for a number of folks and writing books on the side.
LAMB: Who did you write speeches for?
SMITH: Came here in '79 to work for Bob Dole and stayed with Senator Dole really through the '80s. I also wrote for Mrs. Dole. I worked for Pete Wilson on the Hill for a while.
LAMB: The governor of California who was a senator.
SMITH: That's right. It's curious; since going out to West Branch, I've been writing for other people. I've done some writing for former President Reagan and for Vice President and Mrs. Quayle.
LAMB: Where does the Hoover Library get its money?
SMITH: We're part of the National Archives. The Archives runs the presidential library system, and that's the source of funding, but, I must also say, particularly in recent years as more and more of these libraries are built and the federal pie gets sliced thinner, we're more and more dependent on private funding, which is, frankly, the way it should be.
LAMB: How many visitors do have there a year?
SMITH: We have about 100,000. We've doubled attendance in the last few years.
LAMB: Herbert Hoover was president when? You wrote a book on him, too.
SMITH: Yes, I did. He was an unhappy president from 1929 to 1933, and the amazing thing about Hoover -- I mean, there are many amazing things -- but he is one of those very rare figures, perhaps unique in the history of the American presidency, of whom it can genuinely be said that his presidency is almost a footnote to the rest of his career. He spent 50 years of his life feeding people, and he wound up, it is estimated, feeding a billion people in 57 countries. Yet, paradoxically, he is much more popular, much more warmly remembered in Belgium or France or Russia or other foreign nations where he fed people than he is in our country where, of course, he is indelibly associated with the Great Depression.
LAMB: Where were you born?
SMITH: I was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, about 50 miles from Boston.
SMITH: I went to Harvard. I graduated in '75 with a government degree, which, with all due respect to the government department, was more or less worthless.
LAMB: What did you do then?
SMITH: I kicked around for a couple of years as a freelance writer. Actually, I was an intern at the White House the summer of 1975.
LAMB: During what administration?
SMITH: It was during the Ford administration, and I'm ashamed to say I wrote a piece about the experience for the Washington Post, which later terminated the program. It was intended to be a humorous piece, but it was interpreted as something of an expos.
LAMB: About what it was like to be inside the White House?
SMITH: And to be an intern. I mean, here we were, all of these kids who were there because we knew people who knew people. There wasn't a whole lot of substance to it, and it was a somewhat comical situation.
LAMB: There's a rumor -- somebody here told me that they thought you had visited every grave of every former president.
SMITH: Yes, I'm one of those rare Americans who can say that. It was a hobby as a child, a rather unusual hobby admittedly and sometimes an embarrassing hobby. I contracted heat stroke one day while visiting James K. Polk on the grounds of the Tennessee state capitol in the middle of August. I would not advise viewers to do this. I almost got arrested one night about 7 o'clock at night trying to find Grover Cleveland in a cemetery in Princeton, N.J.
LAMB: Which one was the hardest to find?
SMITH: Appropriately, I guess, William Henry Harrison, who was president for only a month. But, you know, it helps to die in office. Presidents who die in office are instantly enshrined and school children send in their pennies and they build these enormous monuments which don't always stand the test of time.
LAMB: Where is he, by the way?
SMITH: He's in North Bend, Ohio, at the foot of a 100-foot shaft. Warren G. Harding, generally regarded as one of our least successful presidents, has one of the most impressive of monuments, but, then, he died in office.
LAMB: Who of the others do you remember the most, the graves?
SMITH: Curiously, Mr. Hoover's is very memorable for a very different reason. He was a Quaker, and he frowned upon any kind of personal ostentation and yet he had a sense of drama. So before he died, he decided he would be buried in West Branch about a quarter of a mile away from his birthplace. Now his birthplace is a little tiny white frame house 14 feet by 20 feet, about the size of the average American living room today, and he's buried on a little hillside within sight of that house. He decreed that nothing could be built or planted that would interfere with the view, because he wanted future generations of Americans to stand there and see the little tiny house and make the obvious connection that in America it didn't matter what the condition of your birth, anything was possible.
LAMB: Where is George Washington buried?
SMITH: George Washington is buried at Mount Vernon. He was buried, originally, in a brick vault near the house and then 32 years later was moved to a larger vault down near the river. In between, there was a plan adopted by Congress to have him buried under the Rotunda of the Capitol. It was a secret plan. Mrs. Washington gave her assent on condition that she could be buried along with the general. But that never happened. But if you go to the Capitol today, you will see the room where Washington was to have been buried, and that's where they store the catafalque, which is used in national mourning.
LAMB: How many of the presidents are buried in Arlington National Cemetery?
SMITH: Two. Everyone knows about JFK. Less well known is William Howard Taft.
LAMB: Can any president be buried there?
SMITH: Yes. Any commander-in-chief.
LAMB: Any president cremated?
SMITH: No, except by the press.
LAMB: Any president live or buried overseas?
SMITH: No. John Quincy Adams spent a great deal of time overseas. In fact, he married the only foreign-born first lady, Louisa Adams, who was a somewhat sad soul, who came to the White House very unhappy and became a confirmed chocaholic. She use to eat chocolate all day long and grow silkworms.
LAMB: This cover, this portrait, done by whom?
SMITH: By Gilbert Stuart. It's the old war horse, and it's, in some ways, a regrettable image of Washington. The explanation behind that is that Gilbert Stuart and Washington didn't particularly hit it off, and Stuart's revenge was to create a mouth where none existed by stuffing cotton into Washington's mouth in place of his dentures. The image that has come down to us is of an old, rather querulous-looking, not terribly vigorous and somewhat forbidding figure.
LAMB: Who was Gilbert Stuart?
SMITH: Gilbert Stuart was a genius who was particularly skilled at painting flesh. He was a court painter of sorts. He was also, however, an alcoholic who was terribly in debt when he hooked up with Washington, and he cooked up the scheme of paying off his debts by running off countless copies of his portrait of Washington.
LAMB: Where is the most prominent portrait?
SMITH: What's called the Lansdowne portrait, which is used here on the cover, is in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
LAMB: How many of these separate portraits did he actually do? Do you know?
SMITH: He did several, but Mrs. Washington never got her copy.
LAMB: On the back you have endorsements by Richard Nixon, Hugh Sidey of Time magazine and Elizabeth Dole. Whose idea was that and how come those three?
SMITH: It's very flattering to have any one of those, let alone all three. I guess it's the publisher's idea. They send the book to a number of individuals, some of whom they solicited from me, and this one is very flattering to have people of that caliber think enough of the book to say what they said.
LAMB: Inside this book you go, as you said, during those 10 years, and you go into some detail about some of the personalities. But one of the things that keeps coming through is -- and tell me why -- that George Washington loved England and hated France.
SMITH: Oh, no, I don't think that's fair. I don't think that's fair. That's what Thomas Jefferson would have said.
LAMB: I wanted to connect those two, and how did those two men get along?
SMITH: One of the real tragedies of Washington's life was his falling out with Jefferson. If it's any consolation, it was a falling out over principle and not personalities. I think Jefferson looked upon Washington as almost a surrogate father in some ways. Hamilton had something of the same relationship with Washington. You might even see their feud as sort of a sibling rivalry.
LAMB: What was the difference in their age?
SMITH: Jefferson was born in 1743. He was only 11 years younger than Washington. His contemporaries suggest, even at a fairly early age, he had a paternal quality about him. Jefferson was a very principled admirer of the French Revolution overseas, and he was, of course, a strong believer in the agrarian democracy, the ideal of states' rights here at home. Washington, he thought, sided with Hamilton on the opposite side of both; that is, he was much too friendly to a strong central government, to a national bank, to a national debt as a kind of national cement bonding the regions together, and overseas he thought he was too friendly to England.
From Jefferson's standpoint, his service in the cabinet was one long period of disillusionment. I think that's unfair on Jefferson's part. I think, quite frankly, Jefferson could be very duplicitous in his personal relations with Washington. For example, at one point -- it's hard to believe today -- Jefferson used State Department funds to hire Philip Freneau, fiercely partisan editor, to print a newspaper which vilified the very administration of which Jefferson was a part. On another occasion, Jefferson drafted an impeachment resolution against Hamilton, which he then submitted to one of his henchmen in the House of Representatives who introduced it in the last days of the session.
LAMB: Hamilton's job was . . .
SMITH: Hamilton was secretary of the treasury, and by then Hamilton and Jefferson were bitter foes, the thought being there wasn't time in the session for Hamilton possibly to reply to the charges contained in the bill. Hamilton, being Hamilton, managed in a superhuman effort to bury his accusers in a mass of financial detail, and nothing came of it. But, you know, people who think of Washington as sort of a pawn in the hands of Hamilton, or Jefferson for that matter, overlook, it seems to me, his real accomplishment. I think he was secure enough in himself to permit these two characters to have their street brawl. Remember, his whole presidency is almost an exercise in buying time. He thought that if the United States could be preserved long enough, if he could delay factionalism and party warfare, if he could keep us out of war with England or France, then this nation might, in fact, evolve a sense of nationhood. In order to do that, he had to keep both Hamilton and Jefferson within his official family as long as possible. His achievement was to do just that. Jefferson tried to quit several times before he actually left the cabinet. Hamilton also made sounds about quitting. Both of them did leave in the second term, but by that time the institutions of government had begun to take root.
LAMB: Why didn't George Washington run for a third term?
SMITH: He didn't want to run for a second term, and, in fact, before he was inaugurated for the first term, he had made sounds about leaving half way through the first term once things were settled. It's interesting to speculate what the American presidency might, in fact, have become had Washington, with his towering prestige, established a precedent of quitting. It might have become an almost parliamentary kind of government.
LAMB: What other kinds of things did he do as president that would have made the whole thing different today if he hadn't done them?
SMITH: Well, for instance, the Constitution says nothing about the cabinet, and Washington appears to have wanted to treat the Senate as a kind of privy council, much as colonial governors had executive councils to advise them. He also took the Constitution very literally. He was the most strict of constructionists, so he actually showed up in the Senate one day in August 1789 seeking the advice and consent of the Senate to a treaty with Georgia Indians, and a member of that body stood up and said, "This is too important to decide on the spot. Let's refer it to committee." Washington lost his legendary temper and said, "This defeats the whole purpose of my coming here." Gradually he regained his composure but eventually stalked out and was reputed to have said, "I'll be damned if I ever go back there again."
He never did in that capacity, and I think in that one incident can be traced the origins of the Senate as we know it today and the cabinet, which became, in effect, Washington's privy council. That's one example, but almost every day he was establishing a precedent. Getting back to this whole notion of Washington the actor, I think he understood instinctively that the primary purpose, the chief function, of a president in a republican form of government was to be that of chief persuader. He didn't have town meetings, but he did travel very extensively. A presidential visit 200 years ago was almost as carefully choreographed as it is today. He would ride 40 or 50 miles in a coach, and then when he came to the outskirts of a community, he would get out of the coach and climb on an enormous white charger called Prescot, and ride into town, a very majestic sight while the crowds cheered. He didn't like impromptu speech-making, so even the blandest welcoming remarks had to be vetted, in effect, by his traveling staff. But it was a very careful road show that Washington took. At one point, he traveled through the South for three months.
LAMB: Did he ever live in Washington during his presidency?
SMITH: No, never did, but he played a great role. He selected the site for all the principal public buildings. He agreed to downsize the White House, which originally was supposed to be much larger than it is today, on the grounds of economy. He was constantly fighting back influences, economic and other, in Philadelphia, who were trying to scuttle the deal whereby the government would move to Washington in 1800.
LAMB: You said he spent a year and a half in New York City, then he moved to Philadelphia. How many years did he spend there?
SMITH: About six and a half.
LAMB: How long would it take him to get from either New York City or Philadelphia all the way to his Mount Vernon?
SMITH: It was about 10 to 12 days from New York to Mount Vernon.
LAMB: On horse or horse-drawn carriage?
SMITH: Yes, a combination.
LAMB: In those days was there a Secret Service?
SMITH: There was no Secret Service, and sometimes he got sick of the adulation. It was a bit of a bore, quite frankly, and so on occasion he would have his secretary, Tobias Weir, tell civic authorities that while the president does not wish to deny the people their chance to see him, he is anxious to get home, and could you please hold down the civic celebrations.
LAMB: How did he communicate with the public in those days?
SMITH: That's interesting. We tend to laugh today at the amount of time that was spent by the first Congress over seeming trifles like what would his title be and how accessible would he be, whether he would go to funerals and so forth, and many people criticized him for being inaccessible to the public. He had weekly levies, as they were known, very rigidly set pieces. He did not shake hands; he would bow. He used to wear cloth imported from Europe at $5 a yard, and he was trying constantly to strike a balance between republican simplicity and whatever prestige this new republic demanded. So, in that sense, there is nothing trifling at all about the debates that took place over how accessible was the president going to be. His famous farewell address was never delivered in person to Congress. He did go to Congress every year and deliver an annual address - - in effect, a State of the Union address. The farewell address was given to a friendly newspaperman in Philadelphia, and it appeared in September of 1796.
LAMB: Looking on the page here where you write up the farewell address – by the way, you said they used to do it in the House and they stopped.
SMITH: They used to do it in both Houses, and they no longer do it in the House. It stopped sometime in the '70s. My understanding is it's still read in the Senate, and it's a shame because Washington wrote the farewell address with posterity in mind. It was, in effect, his road map to genuine national independence, and it has often been misinterpreted.
First of all, Washington never used the famous phrase of "entangling alliances," which has been imputed to him. Jefferson said that in his inaugural address. Washington was not an isolationist in the modern sense of the term. Again, he was trying to buy time for this country by staying out of Europe's warfare. But I think the thing that has been the most misinterpreted is this notion that Washington naively believed that a democracy could get along without political parties. That's not true. He never doubted for a moment that parties would emerge or that they would not be terribly important to the democratic process. What he was warning us against, and I think the warning is more relevant than ever, was the dangers of excessive factionalism. I think if you look at American society today, there are some people who see a kind of pluralism run amuck, where everyone is seated around the table and they're all bargaining for their piece of the action. I think probably President Clinton would appreciate what's in Washington's farewell address.
LAMB: Who was his vice president?
SMITH: John Adams. It was not easy being George Washington's vice president. It's never been easy being vice president, particularly to be in the shadow of someone like Washington. Adams was a rather vain man, rather fussy, jealous, a little bit paranoid. He used to refer to Washington in moments of pique as "old muttonhead." Abigail Adams was even more resentful. Remarkable woman. She used to complain that there was a double standard. The press criticized the vice president for loyalist trappings, but, after all, it was the president who went to Federal Hall in a coach of state drawn by six white horses.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier almost like you're a little bit irritated by the constant reference to things like the wooden dentures and Sally Fairfax. Now we've got a county out here named Fairfax County, one of the richest in America. Where did that county get its name?
SMITH: Thomas Lord Fairfax, who owned much of northern Virginia 250 years ago. My problem with the false teeth and the Sally Fairfax is that people think they are going to humanize Washington by telling us about things that are essentially peripheral. Perhaps unintentionally they wind up trivializing him. George Washington is more than false teeth. The false teeth, they were not wood; they were state-of-the-art dentures. They were carved from hippopotamus tusk. You know how he lost his teeth? He cracked Brazil nuts. He lost his first tooth when he was 22, he told John Adams, and by the time he became president he had one tooth left. He had this state-of-the-art set of dentures made, and very thoughtfully, a hole was carved so it would fit over his one remaining tooth. The problem was they were terribly uncomfortable. They used to rub against the tooth. He was in agony throughout his presidency, for which he was dosed with laudanum.
LAMB: Which is?
SMITH: A derivium of opium. Interesting to speculate on the course of American history.
LAMB: Sally Fairfax, who was she?
SMITH: Sally Fairfax has been described as Washington's great love. That may or may not be true. We don't know. She was a young woman of dazzling virtuosity, who, I think, impressed a young man who was terribly self-conscious not only of his lack of formal education but his lack of polish. As a young man, Washington once sat down and copied out 110 rules of civility, the Emily Post of his day. He spent a lifetime, in effect, trying to escape his origins, and he comes to Sally Fairfax, who is related to Lord Fairfax . . .
LAMB: At what age?
SMITH: In his 20s. He's terribly ambitious and a little bit bumptious, and he sees Sally Fairfax. I think Sally Fairfax's role, more than anything else, is that of a social tutor. I mean, she was an embodiment of not only womanhood but of the kind of an aristocratical society that at that point Washington wanted very much to be a part of.
LAMB: You say, though, that she comes back in his life when she is a widow.
SMITH: There is a wonderful letter that Washington wrote to her very near the end of his life in which he laments the fact that the Revolution drove them apart. She and her husband left Virginia, went back to England. They never saw them again. As an old man he is looking back and rhapsodizing about what he said were some of the happiest days of his life. Historians have read into this something I think a little more than is there because attached to that letter was a letter by Martha. The two letters were sent together and it strains credibility . . .
LAMB: Sent together from where?
SMITH: From Mount Vernon. In other words, George and Martha would write on the same piece of paper. Literally, they would send the same document, and it's a little bit hard to believe that Martha would sign her name to that kind of love letter.
LAMB: You did say somewhere in this book that there was no evidence that they had a sexual relationship.
SMITH: There is no contemporary evidence. Who knows? You know, though, what's fascinating about the Sally Fairfax story is the length to which modern Americans will go to not only humanize Washington, but to try to make him one of us. The fact is, George Washington is not at home in the 1990s. What I've tried to do is to take the reader back to his own time, in his own terms, and to recreate, as much as possible, a sense of almost day-to-day life in the 1790s so you could understand Washington within his own context.
LAMB: You painted a picture of what his day was like.
SMITH: Yes, in Philadelphia. He typically once said, "It's wonderful how much we can do if we are always doing." He would characteristically rise with the sun, whether he was at Mount Vernon or in Philadelphia. He would spend a couple hours in his study working on correspondence. Then he would have breakfast, a very, very light breakfast -- in fact, curiously meager breakfast.
LAMB: You said something about biscuits doused in honey.
SMITH: That's right. He would have three biscuits smothered in honey and three cups of tea, which was a good deal less plentiful than the typical plantation breakfast, then or now. If he was in Philadelphia he would go into his office; he would look over his account books. He was a great businessman, manager. He was also rather tight. The old story about Washington throwing a dollar across the Potomac is easiest to disprove, because no man was less likely to throw a dollar away than George Washington.
He use to tell friends, "Many nickels make a muckle," and he adopted that same approach, whether his own business or the federal budget. He would spend the morning usually on official business and then in the afternoon would go out for exercise. He was what used to be called a man's man. At Mount Vernon, every day he would do a 20-mile circuit of his plantations. Those who go to Mount Vernon today may not quite grasp how enormous that estate was. In Washington's day, it covered 13 square miles. It was five separate farms with what was called a mansion house in the middle. It was, in itself, an enormous enterprise to manage. It was almost a small industrial village, and Washington was very much a hands-on manager.
LAMB: You use the term interest with a capital "I." What is that?
SMITH: Because he understood human nature, he once said during the Revolution, "Anyone who thinks you can win a war on patriotism will be sadly deceived in the end. Interest is what governs." The whole notion of what men want for themselves. The founders had a conundrum. They had to try and decide how to harmonize this society's competing interests, and Washington was uniquely situated to do that because he understood interest, because his own interest had led him to amass vast land holdings, not always through the nicest of methods. The great thing about Washington was, with his grasp of psychology, over time the selfish ambitions of his youth were transformed into selfless ambitions. There were interests greater than personal interest.
LAMB: Did he have any children?
SMITH: He had no children -- very sensitive about that fact. He adopted Martha's two grandchildren, one of whom was a constant trial. George Washington Parke Custis, known in the family as Tub, got kicked out of every school he went to. His poor grandfather wrote long letters of advice, telling him basically to work 24 hours a day. Tub was not up to that. He had a second career of sorts. After Washington's death he became known as the child of Mount Vernon and wrote something of a tell-all book late in life.
LAMB: How long did Martha Washington live?
SMITH: She lived about two and a half years after her husband died. In his will, he made provision to free all his slaves upon the death of Martha. There was an unfounded rumor at the time that she was poisoned.
LAMB: Were those slaves freed?
SMITH: They were indeed freed. One of the great chapters in Washington's life and illustrating this growth that I talk about is his whole attitude towards slavery. Because as a young man, he was born into a slave-holding family, he had very conventional attitudes about the subject. By the time the Revolution was being fought, he was changing his mind. He admitted free blacks to fight into the Revolutionary armies, and after the war he kept dropping hints to the Virginia Assembly in hopes that they would voluntarily emancipate slaves in Virginia.
LAMB: Why did these former presidents wait until they died to free their slaves?
SMITH: Politics. Stop and think. Washington was constricted, perhaps less than his successors. Shortly after the war, for instance, Lafayette suggested to him that they, in effect, found a colony for emancipated slaves. Washington wrote back that he thought it was a wonderful idea. Nothing ever came of it. Nothing ever came of it because the political climate of the day would not permit someone of Washington's stature to have taken so radical a step. It would have alienated the South. Washington, in effect, was forced to compromise his own moral values to keep the country together rather than do what, in his heart of hearts, he would have liked to have done.
LAMB: What party would he have belonged to back then? I think you say somewhere that you thought he would have been a Federalist, but what would that mean?
SMITH: A Federalist was a believer in a strong central government, strong central economic planning. He was a nationalist.
LAMB: Who were the other Federalists around him?
SMITH: Hamilton, John Jay, who became the first chief justice. By the way, President Clinton is having trouble finding an attorney general. George Washington, on one memorable occasion, had his nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court rejected by the Senate on grounds of insanity.
LAMB: John Rutledge. Was he really insane?
SMITH: No. His insanity was that he disagreed with the majority of the Senate.
LAMB: What about Thomas Jefferson?
SMITH: Jefferson was a Republican.
LAMB: What's that mean?
SMITH: The first Republican Party -- agrarian, state's rights, rural interests against commercial mercantile interests, strong friend of the French Revolution and a strong distrust of central government as imposing on individual liberties.
LAMB: When was the French Revolution?
SMITH: It went on and on. It began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, just a few months after Washington's first inauguration. By the second term it was the dominant single factor with which Washington had to deal.
LAMB: You write that at some point in his last couple of years after he got out of the presidency they tried to bring him back in the military.
SMITH: The single most astonishing thing that I found, Washington forced the first civilian military confrontation in American history. It was not, in my opinion, his finest hour. War with France threatened. John Adams invited Washington to come out of retirement, mostly for symbolic value. John Adams was then president. He had succeeded Washington, and he had made the fatal mistake of retaining Washington's entire cabinet. Now, everyone has talked for 200 years about Hamilton's manipulation of those cabinet members. What almost no one has written about is that Washington was manipulating those cabinet members, constantly getting inside information about cabinet debates.
LAMB: But the second cabinet, not the Jefferson-Hamilton-Madison cabinet.
SMITH: That's right. They had all gone and, quite frankly, the giants were replaced by mediocrities. So Adams kept them all on in the name of stability.
LAMB: Can you remember some of the names?
SMITH: Timothy Pickering from Massachusetts, a real household name.
LAMB: War secretary?
SMITH: That was James McHenry. Pickering was secretary of state. These were second-rate figures, in any event.
LAMB: Who was John Adam's vice president?
SMITH: John Adam's vice president was Thomas Jefferson. In those days whoever won the most electoral votes was president, and whoever won the second largest number became vice president.
LAMB: How many times in your research did you go, "Wow! That's interesting!" Can you tell us some of those? You've already shared some of them with us.
SMITH: Repeatedly, because Washington the man is so much more complicated, nuanced, subtle, shrewd than the image we've been given. I think, on the personal level, the thing that surprised me over and over again was his loneliness. I think he is a very poignant figure, even more than, perhaps, the story of a typically aging man dealing with his own mortality. But in Washington's case it's the classic maxim, "Beware what you wish for lest you get it."
LAMB: Was he honest?
SMITH: He was profoundly honest, but he was also very capable of telling a lie, beginning with the whole notion that he was not a politician. He lived that lie and very successfully. There is a wonderful story when he was traveling through the South in 1791. He was a little bit sick of all the attention, and he was riding in a coach. These were unpaved roads, and he had to breathe the dust coming up from the road bed because he was surrounded by admirers -- troops that would come out from a community to greet him and so forth. So, one day he gave them the slip. He told them to meet him at the hotel at 8 o'clock in the morning, and at 5:30 he climbed into his coach and rode off. He was perfectly capable of that sort of thing.
LAMB: How many people were in the United States when he was president?
SMITH: Close to 4 million when the first census was taken.
LAMB: Do you have any idea what the percentage of voters was back in those days?
SMITH: Infinitesimal. In many states people didn't vote for president at all. It was a terribly different society -- much more aristocratical, caste conscious.
LAMB: What would he think today about sending troops to Bosnia or that Gulf War episode a couple years ago or the Panama thing?
SMITH: It's a fair question. It's awfully tough to answer because he believed very strongly in the notion of a great United States -- the United States as an example to the rest of the world, a moral example that here, unlike anywhere else, divine right did not hold sway. Here the people with all their imperfections were in control, and I suspect he would have been comfortable with the idea of exporting that to some degree. But he was not an interventionist, and he was so shrewd with his military background I can't conceive of him getting into Bosnia. You know, unlike Woodrow Wilson, George Washington actually did keep us out of war with England and France at considerable cost to his short-term popularity.
LAMB: Do you have another book planned?
SMITH: Yes. I'm working on a biography of Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune.
SMITH: It's not really been done. The Tribune has, for the first time, opened all his papers. He was an amazing figure in 20th century history, larger- than-life figure. Like William Randolph Hearst, he was probably one of the last of the great personal journalists. Amazing rivalry with Franklin Roosevelt all his life. They went to Groton, and during World War II, FDR tried to have him indicted for treason. It tells you a lot about American journalism, American politics, as well as the city of Chicago.
LAMB: When are you going to publish it?
LAMB: What was the reason that you went to the Hoover Library in the first place?
SMITH: I had done a book on Hoover at that point, and it just seemed like a dream job. If you have been a presidency freak like I have from a very young age, it's sort of the ultimate job offer.
LAMB: Your favorite president?
SMITH: George Washington.
LAMB: Where would you put Hoover in history?
SMITH: Hoover was a great man, one of the great Americans. He was not a great president. He could have been a great president in another time, but the very philosophy of self-help and grassroots generosity that had fed Europe shackled him by the time he became president. It was one thing to feed Europe; it was one thing to assist victims of the Mississippi flood when he was secretary of commerce relying upon the voluntary generosity of the American people. The Depression turned out to be much greater than any natural disaster.
LAMB: Who are your other favorites?
SMITH: I'm a great fan of Woodrow Wilson. Curiously enough, I'm a great fan of Calvin Coolidge. You have to love Abraham Lincoln, the greatest politician who ever sat in the White House. I'm a great admirer of Mr. Nixon. You know, I've a weakness for presidents.
LAMB: The worst presidents in history?
SMITH: Franklin Pierce. Most people think it's Grant or Harding because of the corruption. I think corruption is something that flourishes in the absence of presidential leadership. Franklin Pierce, perversely, deliberately, by bringing on the Kansas-Nebraska controversy, hastened the start of the Civil War.
LAMB: You've got 20 seconds to predict what kind of a president Bill Clinton will be based on history?
SMITH: Based on history, I don't know. That's tough. That's difficult to do. If he is half the president George Washington was, then we'll all be very happy.
LAMB: Richard Norton Smith is the gentleman who we've been talking with for the last hour. This is what his book looks like. It's called "Patriarch" and it's all about George Washington. Thank you for joining us.
SMITH: Thank you.
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