HomeAbout Think TankAbout Ben WattenbergPrevious ShowsWhere to WatchSpecials


Watch Videos and Listen to Podcasts at ThinkTankTV.com

  « Back to George Washington: Is He Still the Indispensable Man? main page
TranscriptsGuestsRelated ProgramsFeedback

Transcript for:

George Washington: Is He Still the Indispensable Man?

At Pfizer weíre spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

BEN WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg with my American flag tie, at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia, the home of George Washington. It was from here in 1775 that Washington left to assume command of the colonial armies in the Revolutionary War.

Today we look beyond the mythology of the father of our country and to the extraordinary man who was the first president of the United States.

Joining us are: Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress emeritus and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Americans; Stanley Elkins, professor of history at Smith College and author of The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788 to 1800; Edwin Yoder, professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University, syndicated columnist and author of The Unmaking of a Whig; and James Rees, the resident director of Mount Vernon.

The topic before this house: George Washington -- is he still the indispensable man? This week on Think Tank.

(opening animation)

BEN WATTENBERG: George Washington was born in 1732 at Popeís Creek Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and moved to Mount Vernon with his family when he was 3. He later fought in the French and Indian War as an officer in the Virginia militia. In 1759, he married the wealthy widow Martha Custis and returned to Mount Vernon. Here he became a very successful farmer and land speculator. On the eve of the American Revolution in 1775, the Continental Congress named him commander-in-chief of the colonial army. Washingtonís ragtag troops fought the British for eight years. The Revolutionary War ended when Washington defeated the British at Yorktown in 1783. He then resigned as commander-in-chief and retired to Mount Vernon.

Four years later, he was back in public life. In 1787, Washington served as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In 1789, he was elected by a unanimous vote of the electoral college as the first president of the United States, and served two terms. As president, Washington arbitrated between the competing visions of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

The two Cabinet members fought over issues such as Americaís neutrality, the power and scope of the federal government, and the banking system of the new country. Although pressed to serve a third term, Washington declined and once again returned here to Mount Vernon, where he died right upstairs in 1799.
Was George Washington the indispensable man? Would there have been a United States of America without George Washington? Ed Yoder.

EDWIN YODER: Well, there already was, if youíre talking about Washington as the first president. But itís clear if you read into the Constitutional Convention that the office of the presidency was in some ways designed with Washington in mind. Of course, he had presided at the Constitutional Convention.
Itís difficult -- you know, these historical might-have-beens are interesting, but not very fruitful. There certainly would have been a United States of America. It probably would have been rather different without this commanding figure in the executive office.

BEN WATTENBERG: Daniel Boorstin.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, you remarked that itís in this room that Washington got the word that he had been elected president.

BEN WATTENBERG: By fax, right? (Laughter.)

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, you may recall that his response was reputed to be, íThis was the moment I dreaded.í And that was a clue to the spirit that made him great and was a symptom of his character. He never sought power and he willingly relinquished it.
An interesting symptom of that also is that he did not want the second term as president, but when he was finally elected, his inaugural address consisted of four short sentences, which perhaps is a lesson to some presidents, but it also suggests...

BEN WATTENBERG: Letís see, like who?

DANIEL BOORSTIN: ... he was not eager for the job.

BEN WATTENBERG: Stanley Elkins, was Washington the indispensable man without whom -

STANLEY ELKINS: I find it hard to imagine the United States going through, say, the 1790s without George Washington as president. The problems of establishing a new nation were extraordinarily complicated, and Washington was just unique in his background, in his experience and in his enormous prestige. And he made the transition from a collection of states into a single nation much easier, I would argue, than it would have been with any other individual in - I wonít say the White House; it wasnít the White House then -- but as president.

BEN WATTENBERG: Right, no, I understand. Jim Rees, was Washington the indispensable man?

JIM REES: We most certainly think he was. I think for sure he was the glue that held it all together. I think a good example you mentioned was that near the end of his first term, he was very frustrated that Jeffersonís people and Hamiltonís people were fighting like cats and dogs. And even in the 18th century, the media was very unkind to George Washington in many cases, and he was fed up with that. He let it be known that he thought he would not run for even a second term. And at that point, both Jefferson and Hamilton rushed to the scene and said, Youíve got to run, youíre the only one that can keep this thing together.

BEN WATTENBERG: We have seen examples of that in modern times, where shrewd politicians do exactly that. I guess General Eisenhower did it. You can make the case perhaps that General Powell is doing it right now, saying, Oh, let this cup pass from my lips. Is it possible that this was -- that he was super smart, super shrewd?

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, I think the word ísmartí is not quite the word. But when -- you know, he was extolled for his character. Daniel Webster and William E. Gladstone praised him as being a man whose character would be a monument to America, even if the United States had never accomplished anything else.
But itís significant that he lived in a time of people of ideas --Franklin and Hamilton and Jefferson, men of brilliant ideas. But he-- Washington was not a man of ideas. And it suggests the importance of character, a word that we donít hear too much of nowadays except in the heat of presidential polemics.

BEN WATTENBERG: And often in a negative -

DANIEL BOORSTIN: And usually negative.

BEN WATTENBERG: Right, right.

DANIEL. BOORSTIN: But I think that itís suggestive that a man who was not a man of ideas nor an intellectual could have had the power in a time like that.

BEN WATTENBERG: Dan Boorstin, in a lecture on Washingtonís birthday at the embassy in London, you quoted John Adams as saying that Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation is equally past dispute.í Now, thatís John Adams. Jim, you seem to think that both Dan Boorstin and John Adams were wrong.

JIM REES: I think he gets a bum rap. I donít think he was the most intellectual man in America by any means, and I think he had a lot of very intellectual people around him. But I think he was a very wise man. And he was also an amazing learner. George Washington, when he was young, thrust himself into anything he could, and he made a lot of mistakes, but he never made the same mistake twice. And I think by the time he was 30, he had learned more than most people would by the time they were 50.

BEN WATTENBERG: Stanley Elkins.

STANLEY ELKINS: I think John Adams would qualify as the most jealous man in the United States. (Laughter.) He could never comprehend why someone like Washington, who lacked his education, his erudition, received so much attention from the country. But in defense of Washington -- I donít know whether you can say this in defense of Washington -- he was clearly a very ambitious man. But to be the president of the United States was a kind of iffy vocation. It wasnít clear that this might not prove to possibly ruin a world-famous reputation that he had established in the course of the revolution.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: It was a task of mediation, wouldnít you say, Stanley?


DANIEL BOORSTIN: Rather than leadership. But he gave it a character. He shaped the office by imposing on it the responsibilities for mediation between the thinkers of the time.

BEN WATTENBERG: What I donít understand is, on the one hand, you are saying he was this man of great character and it was apparently his character that was the glue that held this together, and yet youíre saying at the same time he was being attacked and scandalized by the media. Now, do those things -- is that a connection or is that a -

EDWIN YODER: Well, the press at that time was a kept party press. It was a highly partisan press. It was very different. I mean, we have our...

BEN WATTENBERG: As opposed to now.

EDWIN YODER: ... share of defects today, but that was a frankly partisan press, and it was hired by the Jeffersonians on the one hand and the Hamiltonians on the other to abuse one another and to abuse one anotherís policies. Now, the thing that also comes to mind -- I donít really agree with John Adamsí judgment, but who am I to question John Adamsí judgment, but it seems to me very patronizing to speak of Washington as if he was some sort of uncouth and unlettered person. He was not. But you know, often intellect and judgment are inversely related in politics. We know of instances in which that has been true.
Washington made judgments. He made the judgment for neutrality, for example, when the Napoleonic wars began, and that was a vital decision which neither Jefferson nor Hamilton nor perhaps -- well, Adams later made a similar judgment. But that was a very important step in the development of the young country at the time.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: But to estimate his role, his objective both for himself and for the nation was independence. And you may recall he said that he hoped that -- his aspiration for the country was to make it a respectable nation. And he was a self-made man, really. He had made his reputation on the frontier, and part of that self-making was, of course, marrying a rich widow.

BEN WATTENBERG: He touched all the bases.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Thatís correct. But I think then the idea of independence, which -- and it is interesting also that he was able to establish that in his farewell address. His farewell address was something that was crafted not by him, really, but by others. It did contain, I think, Washingtonís mediating ideas, and independence was the dominant idea, which was the purpose, of course, of the revolution.

BEN WATTENBERG: Independence from England -- thatís what weíre talking about.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Independence from all European powers.

EDWIN YODER: People forget, Ben, that at this time, the infant U.S., these 13 original states were surrounded by hostile and alien powers: the British in Canada, the French in the Mississippi valley, the Spanish in Florida and south of the border running down towards Mexico, so -- and, of course, in the American Southwest.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: So independence was not a utopian idea.

EDWIN YODER: And Washington had the vision and character to keep this struggling young nation out of this vortex of European rivalries and ambitions.

MR. WATTENBERG: Dan, you brought up Washingtonís record as a --what, a colonel, on the frontier as a very young man, his military record. Jim had suggested before that Washington was a man who never made the same mistake twice. Yet as I understand his military record, I mean I donít know if he made the same mistake twice, but he kept making mistake after mistake. It is a, as I gather, a fairly - by any normal criteria, a fairly undistinguished military record, that he does a lot of foolish things. And then even in the Revolutionary War, the tally that I got is he -- I mean, if he were a baseball pitcher, heíd have a record of 3 and 9. I mean, he lost 9 out of the12 major battles or something.

STANLEY ELKINS: But he kept his army in the fields.

EDWIN YODER: Lee understood during the American Civil War that in the face of a preponderant military power, the key to survival, as Stanley Elkins says, is to keep an army, an intact army in the field. And Washington understood the essentially defensive nature of the strategy that he had to pursue.

BEN WATTENBERG: That the key to survival is survival.

EDWIN YODER: The key to survival was survival until the French and their intervention were able to bring enough supplementary force to-

BEN WATTENBERG: Survival for independence, that was the goal he never varied from. That was the constant that -

JIM REES: His presence was remarkable, too. Just by his physical stature and by his confidence, he sent a signal to his men and really to all of America that we could win this war when many people said we couldnít.

BEN WATTENBERG: Tell me about his physical stature.

JIM REES: He was almost 6 foot 3. He helped design his own uniform so heíd look just as dashing as the opposition, and his riding into a camp of ragtag Americans let them know that things might look bad, but hey, weíre going to prevail.

BEN WATTENBERG: He did this consciously? I mean, he understood what -

JIM REES: Oh, no question. No question. I think he was a very, very astute politician, and I think that the best politician never lets you know what a good politician he is. And I think he ranks up there with the best politicians.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: His ideals were military commanders, too. You may remember that when he sent to London to get some appropriate busts to put in this house here in Mount Vernon, he asked for busts of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great and Frederick II and Charles XII of Sweden, and so on. They didnít have these busts, and they offered to send him the busts of poets and philosophers. And he said no, thatís not what he wanted.

JIM REES: Thatís right.

BEN WATTENBERG: He didnít want those pantywaists!

EDWIN YODER: He certainly said one of the most -- to me, one of the most charming things ever said about battle and being under fire. I believe he said during one of these frontier engagements, íThe bullets were whistling all about us, and believe me, there was something charming in the sound.í

JIM REES: And King George replied that, íIf that young man thinks that bullets sound charming, he hasnít heard enough bullets yet.í

BEN WATTENBERG: As I understand it now, the scholarly community and perhaps I think even some public opinion surveys indicate that from that period, Americans are now much more intrigued by Jefferson than by Washington.

EDWIN YODER: Well, there has been a lot more publicity of Jefferson.

BEN WATTENBERG: Theyíre very different sorts of people, though.

EDWIN YODER: Oh, I think they are very different, but I think their roles in a certain sense were not interchangeable. I think we needed both of them. Jefferson was an intellectual, he was a philosopher, he was a very learned man. He was learned in ancient and modern languages, and he was a very, very scholarly man. That was not Washingtonís role. And I think it can be argued that Washington, for example, was a far more successful president than Jefferson was, but they had very different roles. And Jefferson, in some ways, is a more colorful figure.

BEN WATTENBERG: You were saying before the program that attendance here at Mount Vernon has been going downhill. Is that related to this idea that people donít really identify with Washington anymore?

JIM REES: I think thereís no question about it. Monticelloís attendance has been going up while ours has been going down.

BEN WATTENBERG: Jeffersonís home.

JIM REES: Jeffersonís home. And I do think that, to me, Jefferson seems more exciting in 20th century terms. I think when people talk about Jefferson, they often go immediately to architecture. When they go to Monticello, they talk about his wonderful inventions. And I would never argue that he was a great intellect, but in terms of what he did for our nation, I think it pales next to the things that George Washington did over a period of 30 or 40 years. We are very jealous -- if these comments havenít shown that --weíre very jealous of how much attention Thomas Jefferson gets. I think the only saving grace is that a lot of it ...

BEN WATTENBERG: 'We' meaning here at Mount Vernon?

JIM REES: Meaning Mount Vernon, meaning Mount Vernon. The only saving grace is that a lot of it is not exactly positive. We donít have stories about Sally Hemings and slavery.

BEN WATTENBERG: But he was a slaveholder, right?

JIM REES: Washington was, yes.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: I think thereís a larger explanation perhaps, and that is the obsession with the present, with present times, with the glut of information that dominates our life, which of course is illustrated by television and by the multiplication of newspapers and news magazines and all that. So that itís a time not of history, but of social studies. And social studies really are a way of describing-- making an excuse for not studying history, not studying geography and chronology. If we donít chronology, if we donít know when we are and where we are, we canít know where weíre going.

BEN WATTENBERG: Are young people today particularly not studying history?

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, some of them are reading the American history book that I wrote --(laughter) -- which Iím glad of.

BEN WATTENBERG: Whatís the title and the publisher? (Laughter.)

DANIEL BOORSTIN: But I think that, by and large, the decline of the study of geography and the decline of the study of history, and being replaced by current events, and I think thatís unfortunate. I think we need a concern with the longer view.

BEN WATTENBERG: Jim, you were saying that people donít even know the standard myths, the cherry tree and...

JIM REES: Itís shocking how little information is in history textbooks about George Washington. And what weíre noticing is that there are parents who are in their twenties who know so little about Washington that they cannot tell anything to their children who are in third grade or fourth grade or fifth grade. It used to be that any child who would come to Mount Vernon, I could at least mention the cherry tree fable to, and Iíd get some kind of reaction. Now many of them will look at me like, íWhat is this guy talking about?í They donít even know the myths anymore.

BEN WATTENBERG: Here we have unfolded this picture of this icon, really, this -- hereís the man who we all know as the man whoís on the $1 bill. If you had to pitch a movie about George Washington, say, to some producer -- we ought to do a picture about George Washington and hereís what...

EDWIN YODER: Good idea, by the way.

BEN WATTENBERG: Itís a good idea, by the way. But each of you, and youíve got to do it in two or three sentences, pitch me the movie.

EDWIN YODER: Well, I would focus on the young Washington as he was at the time when his brother, who was his great model, was still living -- Lawrence, who ultimately died of tuberculosis, I believe. And I would show the shaping of the character that weíre talking about. And that is the way I would attempt to humanize Washington. But I think we ought to start with the young Washington, his ambitions, the drawback of not having the advantages of formal education like his older brother, of not having made a brilliant marriage like his older brother, all these things, having to scramble in that essentially frontier setting to shape himself.

BEN WATTENBERG: Dan Boorstin, youíve done most everything else. You can now write a movie, but itís got to be a real quick one.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Thank you very much. I think there is some wisdom in the folk phrase, ífather of our country.í And I think that if we had to summarize the virtues and the role of Washington, itís the paternal role, the role of the person who does not champion any particular cause, but who brings together his children, who were the people who were framing the Constitution and who were fighting the Revolution. I think that concept remains vivid and real and justifiable, I still think.

BEN WATTENBERG: Stanley Elkins.

STANLEY ELKINS: Iím prepared to buy both those movie scripts.(Laughter.) I think the young Washington is almost crucial, if you can get a sense of identification from your audience. Heís an intensely ambitious young man and he works very hard, receives a lot of early attention, disappointments. Doesnít get his commission in the British army, which he really wanted. But then if you can make the transition to the commander of the continental forces and the gradual maturing of this individual, the extraordinary amount of experience that he has. And then you have to shift -- well, my third -- Washington as president.

BEN WATTENBERG: Okay, Jim Rees, Iím sure whatever movie you come up with is going to be set in Mount Vernon, but youíve got to give us a fast -

JIM REES: Well, no, I wouldnít set it here.

BEN WATTENBERG: You wouldnít set it here?

JIM REES: I think that the unbelievable success of the Civil War series would make me think that Washington and the Revolution - I think he was a very strong strategic general, and I think there was a lot of bold action on his part. And thatís exactly what Robert Redford and Oliver Stone have called us and told us theyíre going to do. If you can believe this, apparently Robert Redford is going to play George Washington in a new movie, supposedly out -

BEN WATTENBERG: Directed by Oliver Stone?

JIM REES: Well, thatís not a commitment yet. We wonít make any comment about it at this point, but -

BEN WATTENBERG: Hell for everybody -- right.

DANIEL BOORSTIN: Whoís going to be assassinated? (Laughter.)

BEN WATTENBERG: All right, listen.

STANLEY ELKINS: Whereís the conspiracy?

BEN WATTENBERG: Right, whereís the conspiracy? On that note, gentlemen, thank you, Edwin Yoder and Daniel Boorstin, Stanley Elkins and Jim Rees. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. For íThink Tank,í Iím Ben Wattenberg.


We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036. Or e-mail us at thinktank@pbs.org.

To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS on line at www.pbs.org, and please, let us know where you watch Think Tank.

At Pfizer weíre spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

This is PBS.

Back to top

Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

©Copyright Think Tank. All rights reserved.
BJW, Inc.  New River Media 

Web development by Bean Creative.