GW: Now we tend to blur them all—Jefferson, Adams, Washington—but his contemporaries had no doubt that he was the senior person. And he was destined to be the most famous man among them.
Music up and under – Texas Shorty’s “The Plainsman”
JR: Can we think of somebody else who walked away from power the way he did?
GW: There’s nobody except ____________. You have to go back to ancient Roman myth to find this character who laid down his arms and went back to his plow. That’s why they called him the modern _______________. That retirement from the military as Commander-in-Chief to his farm in Mt. Vernon electrified the world. People could not believe that. After all, every previous, in modern history, and even ancient history, Caeser, every military Commander who was successful expected political rewards commensurate with his military achievements. Washington does not. I mean, Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlboro, they all expected military awards, got them. Here’s Washington saying no. George III was supposed to have said when he learned this, that he [Washington] went back to Mt. Vernon. He said if he does, he’ will be the greatest man in the world. And he was. Napoleon knew about this and realized that he could never do that. I mean obviously as a successful military commander, he waned political rewards in spades, shall we say.
JR: What’s the title of your latest book?
GW: Empire of Liberty, part of the Oxford History of the United States. My book refers to the early Republic, 1799-1815.
JR: What do we learn by focusing on that piece of our history?
GW: Well that piece happens to be, I think, the most important part in our history because it created the institutions by which we still govern ourselves; it created the ideals, the aspirations, if you will, the notion of equalit; the notion of liberty…These all get expressed and the democratization of our society in the north at least, occurs in this period.
JR: You’ve devoted your life to the early history of our Republic. What has that study given you?
GW: Well, that’s a hard question to answer. I have a great appreciation for this historical process and what history teaches. These people live with illusions. They thought slavery, for example, would die, naturally. They had lots of illusions. They thought parties would disappear; there wouldn’t be anymore parties. They were trying to transcend parties. They thought, Jefferson, as late as 1821, thought there was a young man not now alive who would won’t die a Unitarian. What could he be thinking with all these Baptists and Methodists everywhere. And I think History is a kind of record of exploded illusions. We have illusions, too, only we just don’t know what they are a nd therefore I think we need to approach our lives, our present, with humility. That it seems to me is the lesson I’ve learned from studying this founding.
Music up and fade to black – Texas Shorty’s “The Plainsman”
Excerpt of “The Plainsman” composed and performed by Texas Shorty, 2011 NEA Heritage Fellow from his album The Best of Texas Shorty.