tv Humanizing the Founding Fathers CSPAN February 20, 2017 10:32pm-11:41pm EST
respectful of each other and of themselves. and i think that's much of the lesson that we are trying to convey. >> we will conclude on that note, the senior curator at the museum, bill pretzer. thank you very much for being with us. >> thank you. >> thank you for opening the doors at the national museum of african american history and culture, part of the smithsonian. a reminder that all of our coverage is available on our website at c-span.org. thank you for joining us here on c-span3's american history tv. >> next on american history tv, pulitzer prize winning historian joseph ellis discusses the founding fathers and argues for humanizing them, saying they were flawed men who too often are placed on a pedestal, stripping us of our ability to relate to them and thus truly appreciate their achievement. following his talk, mr. ellis sits down for a conversation to discuss what inspired him to study the founders, and what he linebackers most about each individual character. this two hour event was part of a series on the founders hosted by the society of the four arts
in palm beach, florida. thank you, dr. brenneman. and good morning, everyone. i'm so excited you're here. and welcome to the first founders and us, the relevance of our origins. for those of you who don't know me, i am gay gaines, and i am an addict of founding american history. in november of 2015, i was having breakfast with joelle liss and speaker newt gingrich at mt. vernon, my very favorite place in america. we were lamenting the fact that most colleges and universities in the united states are no longer teaching founding american history. and in fact most high schools are no longer teaching our founding american history. in 1898, when seniors and
colleges and high schools were asked who is the greatest hero, they unanimously said george washington. in 1988, when they were asked the same question, the answer was michael jordan. we were discussing my dream of building a future for the past right here in palm beach, florida. what some might think an unlikely location. but i told them about this incredible organization, the society of the four arts. and its generous benefactors and members and both historians were enthusiastic. the goal was to attract renowned founding history experts here to palm beach to educate and re-educate adults and students and to reach a wider audience through television to stimulate discussion about our unique founding.
i presented the idea to the four arts leadership, the wonderful chairman patrick henry, president david brenneman, and education committee chair shelly guglein. their reaction was positive. we spoke to our marvelous can do marley sharland, and tireless senior associate of education, donna marie valley, and along with dependable administrative assistant stephanie grant they all supported the idea of taking on this big project. together, we hope to engage a wider audience in a national conversation about america's revolutionary generation. those political leaders present at the creation. the american founding is the big bang in american history, from which our core ideas, values and
political institutions radiate. no other country in the history of the world came into being as these united states of america. we assembled speeches of unquestioned distinction with a proven capacity to bring a high degree of intellectual sophistication and contagious enthusiasm to a large audience. today we begin the series with the man who encouraged me to go forward. dr. ellis graduated from william & mary with a ba and received his ma and doctorate from yale university. he has concentrated his long and distinguished teaching and voluminous writing career on the founding fathers. he told me, and i quote, writing is solitary and teaching is social. i love to do both. teaching forces you to talk
things out. writing allows you to digest the conversations and perhaps put them in a more concise form. his powerful book "american sphinx" about thomas jefferson won the coveted national book award for nonfiction in 1997. his fabulous book "founding brothers" won the pulitzer prize for history, also a coveted award in 2001. that christmas i received 13 copies for my family and friends because they all knew i would want to read it. my personal favorite of all time is the quartet, published in 2015. now, you all know the opening of lincoln's gettysburg address. four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation.
but hold on. joe ellis points out that statement isn't exactly accurate. with the articles of confederation in place, the founders had achieved independence from england, but we could well have become a new europe, with 13 independent countries. the quartet, washington, madison, hamilton, and jay, were responsible for making the transition happen, from a confederation of states to a new nation. ellis clearly and eloquently explains how the united states constitution and the bill of rights came to be, and america was born. quote, it could be considered the most consequential act of political leadership in american
history. ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm palm beach welcome to dr. joseph j. ellis. [ applause ] >> i'm not sure i'm going to be able to live up to that. no human being can and that's going to be one of my themes that the founders were all human and we finally have a moment in our own history we can understand them as creatures like us, imperfect human beings, impressive nevertheless for reasons i'll try to explain. i want to begin with a statement of sorts, with a story, and then a question for you. i can't see you very well, but i hope that i can ask you a question. here's the statement.
i think that we must begin with certain assumptions about american society and culture right now as we address the founders in this lecture series. namely that the american public is embarrassingly illiterate about our history, that the scholarly world has largely abdicated its responsibility to communicate beyond the cloistered groves of academe. that political correctness is currently operating at epidemic levels in our most distinguished colleges and universities, making serious engagement with controversial issues difficult if not impossible. and our political culture has become so polarized and partisan that communication across ideological lines is virtually nonexistent. well, the internet should have expanded communication in a way
that's wonderful, it has also created a series of bubbles that each of us occupy. and we only talk to our friends on facebook. and our own values, our own prejudices, which we all dearly regard as convictions, are reinforced and are seldom challenged. i think that the one thing we can certainly agree on, with regard to the most recent presidential election, that we live in a divided country. and that one of the functions of this lecture series and my remarks today is to try to create a safe space, back there in the past, in the late 18th century, where we can come together and talk about the controversial issues. if we discover that in that visit back to the past we only are learning things that confirm our own categories and convictions, then we're cherry picking the evidence.
neither liberals nor conservatives, republicans or democrats will be fully happy with the results of these deliberations. but in fact, the very categories we think in will be challenged because in the same way that the founders looked back to the greek and roman classics, to cicero, the founders are our classics, if you will. if you want to go to literary terms, are shakespeares. we need to go back to them to revisit the eternal issues and try to find ways to talk to each other that we right now cannot do. my story, it's designed to talk about the fuss about the founders. my remarks are under the title "what's the fuss about the founders?" i wrote a book about thomas jefferson and my publisher sent
me on a book tour, and at one place, at one moment, in the book tours are a blurry thing. it's like a political campaign. i was in richmond, virginia, and i gave a talk. and my treatment of jefferson was not totally complimentary. the people that burn incense to mr. jefferson in charlottesville were not completely happy with my thoughts. and i'm a virginian. i even went to the same college that jefferson went to. my hair, what's left of it, is the same color as jefferson's hair. but at the end of the talk, and the q & a, a woman got up, a woman of a certain age, well coifed and well attired and i'm not going to be able to replicate her accent perfectly, a richmond accent is more southern than certain parts of alabama.
mr. ellis, i have listened to your remarks on mr. jefferson and, mr. ellis, everything you said is wrong. and i know it's wrong because mr. jefferson appeared to me in my bedroom last night. and he told me you were going to say these bad things about him. and then her final line, this was a great line, it sort of knocked me for a loop, mr. ellis, you are a mere pigeon on the great statue of thomas jefferson. i said, i said, thank you very much. next question, please. i was flustered. i didn't know what to say.
but she came up to get her book signed. and she gave me had her card. had her name on it. it said "poet." and i said to her then, and i mustered this up, i said, madam, it is not really important whether you regard me as a pigeon. it is very important that you regard jefferson as something other than a statue. [ applause ] and my remarks today are to create real live human beings rather than statues. and in order to move in us in that particular direction, i want to ask you a question.
i can't see you clearly, but i am operating on the assumption that many of you out there are parents and grandparents. an oral response would be is that true? >> yes. >> me too. have you had this experience, when your children are very young, you can do no wrong. you are their gods. you are omniscient. and then they cross a line. whether that line is metabolic or psychiatric or purely chronological, i don't know. but when they cross that line, you can do no right. indeed, in purely freudian terms, they want to kill you.
part of an eddipal complex. that syndrome is the pattern describing most historiography, more scholarship and most interpretive work on the founders. it is this oscillation, this swoonish swing, between idolization and evisceration. iconic versus deadest whitest males in american history. it's a cartoon. it's really two sides of the same cartoon. and i think we're at a point in our history for several reasons that i'll specify when we can move past the cartoon.
now, there are reasons why all new nations seem to need heroic founders who are myth followingized and capitalized in the literature over the years. rome has romulus and remis. britain has king arthur, spain has el sid. but notice all of those people are fictional characters. the american founders were real people. and we created in the 19th century a mythology surrounding them, probably for sensible reasons. but it's long since passed the time when those mythological renderings are really credible orel vent. in fact, there is this dialogue
between adams and benjamin rush, i recommend to you, it is available in a book called "spur of fame." here is rush. what i'm going to tell you is that most of the founders don't want to be mythologized. rush, i shall continue to believe that the whole idea of great men are a lie, and that there is very little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in what the world has called great men and in that which leads us to believe in witches and conjurers. adams, the thesis and funerals in honors of washington is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes, kings and the whole hierarchical system was created. washington itself would object to the pilgrimages to mount vernon as the mecca of
jerusalem. adams' grandson, in editing his letters and his works in the 1850s had a preface in which he "we are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves. we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit. one of the things that trarlz franc charles francis adams is saying is if these guys were all gods what in heaven's name do we have to learn from them? because certainly we're not. so i think that we are at a moment when we have begun to move past this. i guess, how many of you have
seen "hamilton"? unbelievable play. i'm not a fan of the hip-hop and didn't think i would like it. but it is the single most interesting depiction of hamilton and if you were to ask me, and i supposedly know something about this, which of the founders is going to end up getting this attention, the last one i would have picked is h hamilton. and i called ron chernow and i said, you lucky son of a gun. [ laughter ] why didn't they pick jefferson? there are kids -- i've driven kids to soccer matches in the last couple of months. who are in the back seat reciting lines from "hamilton" the play because they've got the script, or the record of the script. have you seen it? it is almost like the harry
potter phenomenon among children and adolescents. by the way, is there a bunch of middle school kids here? okay. i thought there might -- somebody told me there might be. i have to watch my language a little bit. at any rate, in addition to the "hamilton" phenomena, humanizing hamilton, that there have been books over the last 10 to 20 years, some by speakers in this series, walter isaacson and stacy schifflin on lynn. david mcculloch on adams and the year 1776. ron chernow on both hamilton and washington. and even yours truly has contributed -- in fact, three of his three boys have all had their college educations paid in part because of books that were sold.
why is this happening? and now, there is a book on the best-selling list about jefferson and the tripoli pirates. one reason is that each of the founders have been the subject of massive documentary research into each of their papers, most of which was begun in the middle of the 20th century, and those collections have been marching toward at a stage -- a very glacial pace, but we now have into their papers and one into the 20th century, and each of those collections have been going towards a glacial pace that we now have for the founders as a whole, the fullest documentary record ever put together for to a political elite in world history. all you have to do is to sit down and read 87 volumes of the washington papers, which i had to do, but the material is there.
to do, and the material there. there's the second reason that i think that the founders are in vogue. we are unhappy with the current political leadership. we believe that the gold standard is back there in the late 18th century, and the current leadership, republican and democrat, represents a debased form of that currency. or as henry adams, the grandson of john, put it in the middle of the 19th century, if you look at the history of the american presidency chronologically, you've got to believe that darwin got it exactly backwards. [ laughter ] all right. we are at a moment that we want to seize and we want to humanize these people. we want to learn from them. who are these people? what am i talking about? the founders. okay.
there are two foundings. not one. one occurs in 1776, the core document is the declaration of independence. the core experience of the war for independence successfully waged. the second founding is in 1787. the core document is the constitution. the core experience is the creation of a national government in the 1790s that endures despite what all european experts thought was going to happen. these are very different moments with different impulses. i will talk about that at the end. in order to make the list of the most prominent founders, those at the top of the american version of mount olympus, you have to have been a major player
in both foundings. now, that is going to limb nate certain people who were prominent at one but not the other founding. it is eliminating john marshall, george mason, john jay maybe, although jay is coming up. if you were investing in the founders put your money on jay. he's going ascend in worth. sam adams. henry, patrick henry, robert morris, and you probably don't know who robert morris is, gouverneur morris, the don't make it. who makes it? there are six people who make the list. this is, i guess, my list, but i defend it. they are george washington, pri movement s primeos inte
inter paris, the foundingest father of them all. they would say he was the greatest. they all said that. no disagreement. he's the toughest to get to know. benjamin franklin, the grandfather amongst the fathers. franklin was born roughly the same time as jonathan edwards. he grew up knowing increased mather in boston. he's an old guy. he at the time in an international poll would rank higher than washington, because of his reputation as a scientist in england and as a philosophe in france. washington's key value is judged. he got all the big things right.
franklin's is wisdom. he's probably the wisest of them all. people say, well, what would franklin say about the affordable care act? you can't do that. so i've developed the answer. he would not care because he's on medicare. [ laughter ] john adams, i like him best, and you will see why, because he tells you more than any of the founders in his diary and his letters. he's probably the best read. he's the most contrarian. he's the feistiest. he's the most human. thomas jefferson, probably the most intellectually sophisticated, and the most
resonant in both senses, meaning he is the greatest and the most lyrical and the author of the most famous words in american history. we hold these truths to be self-evident. and also the most racist and the most explicitly so racist and the most duplicitous. none of the political shenanigans that we're watching in our world today would at all surprise jefferson. james madison. the most politically shrewd, the guy who makes things happen on the ground. if god were in the details, madison would be there to greet him upon arrival. he's the lawyer's founder. he thinks like a lawyer, even though he was never trained like a lawyer.
you tell me what my client, who it is, and i will prepare the case. jennifer will tell him who his client is. and the tandem of jefferson and madison are the single most important partnership in the founding era. finally, alexander hamilton. hamilton's probably the smartest. he's the prodigy. he would have got the highest grades on the lsats. he's also the most dangerous. if you let jefferson go, we become slightly or almost an anarchy. if you let hamilton go, we're at risk of becoming a totalitarian dictatorship. and therefore there's one thing present in this mix that you should notice.
it's a diverse group of people. diverse intellectually and ideologically. that the founding -- well, washington is primus inter parros, as i said. the founding is a collective achievement. and while we're familiar with the doctrine of checks and balances as a way of describing the constitution, there is an inherent check and balance in the collective leadership of the founding. they argue with each other throughout the 1780s and 90s and into the 19th century, and we'll see jefferson and adams arguing this the correspondence at the end of the talk. history is an argument without end, and they have created a republic in which the constitution is not supposed to provide answers, it's supposed to provide a framework in which
we argue productively. anyway, diversity in the original sense of ideological and political differences. now, let me ask -- this is a question, another question i hope you can think about. i call it the wilkes-barre question. why? because the population of wilkes-barre, pennsylvania is approximately the size of the white population of virginia in 1776. got that? now, if you and i go walking down the streets of wilkes-barre today, do you think that we can find george washington, thomas jefferson, james madison, george mason, john marshall and patrick henry?
they've got to be there, you know, like latent leadership potential, but certainly we're not going to find them. so what happened in the late 18th century to generate a generation that is beyond much question the most creative political leadership generation of political leaders in american history? well, albert toynbee said that all leadership in all society s is a function of crisis, and that the late 18th century was a crisis, and it was that, the revolution, and the creation of the american nation state. now, the problem with that argument is that we can all think of great crises in american history where great
leadership doesn't show up, like now. [ laughter ] now, you can't say there was something special in the water back then, can you? that doesn't make sense. and nor can you say with any credibility that tongues of fire appeared over their heads in philadelphia in 1787 or even in 1 1776. washington believed that providence -- he never used the word god but he used providence a lot. god was guiding him. and providence was guiding him. i think that i don't have an answer to this question. that the talent did emerge. one kind of answer is the united states in the late 18th century
compared not to now, this is what modern students want to do, and it's not right, it's presentistic, compared to england, france, or other european countries is open to talent. much more than any of those other countries. if washington were in england he would have made major in the british army, no more. if adams were in england, he would have been a country lawyer. franklin would have been a book seller. hamilton, god knows about hamilton. he was literally a bastard. adams called him the bastard brat of a scotsman peddler. so that it's not an egalitarian society in our fullest sense of the term, but it is open to talent in a way.
now, the talent has to be white and the talent has to be male, okay? get used to it. that's what it's going to be there. okay. that's the founders and some speculation about why they emerge, and some argument that their collective identity is important because within the collective there's a lot of different points of view. i want to do two things now. what did they -- look, i'm saying this is the greatest generation in terms of -- all apologies to discussions of the world war ii generation, which is my father's generation. but this is the greatest generation in terms of political talent in american history. in my judgment, those historians who are studying the late 18th
century and say i don't want to study politics, i want to study something else, and a lot of them are doing that now, that's like showing up at fenway park with a lacrosse stick. but what did they do? why were they so great? what did they achieve? what were their major achievements? i think that there are five of them. number one, they won the first war for colonial independence. well, a lot of countries end up winning colonial wars for independence after them in asia and africa and south america.
colonialism is only a way staigs to independence. but they're the first to do it. and on the face of it it looked like that was not going to be possible since the british army and navy together was the most formidable military force in the world. the british army itself wasn't as good as the prussian army and it wasn't as good as the french army. it was pretty good. but you put it with the navy and we know what's going to happen over the next century with the british empire. they are truly formidable. and how can this ragtag group of amateur soldiers, which is what they were, win a war against such a formidable force? what's interesting is that washington figured out after some horrible experiences on manhattan, especially in long island, a truly elemental strategic reality. washington lost more battles than any successful general in
american history. but he understood one thing. he didn't have to win. the british had to win. all he had to do was not lose. it's a lot easier not to lose. when people ask me -- again, this is a historical question. what would washington say about our policies in iraq? my first answer, he doesn't know where iraq is. he's busy being dead right now. but if i wanted to be controversial, i'd say, how have we become the british? because the british have the problem that all conventional armies have in trying to win a
counterinsurgency war. in the early stages of the war washington thought that if general howe appeared before him, and later it's going to be clinton, he was honorbound to meet him on the field of battle. that it was a matter of honor. not to do so was to deny the honor code. you get what i'm saying. that's stupid. and he came to realize by 1777, '78 that to fight it was not a guerrilla war, because it is a conventional army, but a war of posts. therefore, if the american war for independence were a conventional war, there was no way the american side could win.
once it became a war for the hearts and minds of the american people, there was no way that the british could win. and if you think about it, we never won. they just gave up. after yorktown they just said we've still got 35,000 troops in north america but it's time to get them out. it's not worth it. we've got other fish to fry in europe and the caribbean. but they won the war, and that's a big thing. by the way, during the war support for the continental army was very, very patchy. washington early in the war wanted to raise an army of about 100,000 troops. he looked at the population of the united states at that time and said between the ages of 18 and 50 we could raise an army of
400,000, all i'm asking for is 100,000. he never got more than 15,000. and it often went down at the end of terms and service down to 8,000. because the states were concerned with defending themselves with their state militia rather than providing troops for the continental army. most of the guys in the continental army never got pensions. it's a disgrace. but that's another story. number two achievement. they are the first nation-sized republic in world history. what's the big deal about this? the assumption was that republics could only work in small areas like swiss cantons or greek city states, they were too weak as a form of government
to impose their will or to represent the people easily and effectively. the great montesquieu in the spirit of the laws, had what everybody regarded as the definitive work on republics. republics can't work in big populations and big areas of la land. think about lincoln at gettysburg. when he said whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. right? a lot of people thought that you couldn't be a republic of this size. most european pundits of the time presumed the united states was going to break up into a series of confederations. they made it work.
and that's the reason the term american revolution is a term that i would defend. it is a revolution. it's not a revolution in the sense of the french revolution or the russian revolution, which is a class marxis-based kind of experience, but it's the creation of the model for the liberal nation state. that will come to dominate the world over the next 200 years. it defeats the european monarchies in the united states, and defeats the japanese and german versions of totalitarianism, and the soviet version of communism, and it is the liberal model, and there is no effective alternative unless you believe in the islamic caliphate. which i don't happen to believe in. they did it. that's the reason it was a revolution. third, they created the first secular state.
it was assumed that any major nation must have an established religion. the established religion would provide the mental and intellectual glue that bounds people together. otherwise, they would all disagree about things all the time. no nation in the world before the americans created a separation of church and state. there are plenty of places in the world, certainly the middle east is one of them, where that very idea is still impossible. i did a seminar for federal judges in which we -- gordon wood and i at uva several years ago in which we asked the judges, if you were in charge of the judiciary in baghdad, what was the first -- what would be the first thing you'd try to do
and what would you look to among the founders? and this one federal judge said thomas jefferson, separation of church and state. we said bingo. of course it won't work there. they created political parties that routineized debate and created the possibility of a legitimate opposition. now, political parties are notoriously bad things, right? we all know that. most of the founders hated political parties. jefferson said, if i must go to heaven in a party, i prefer not to go at all. at the very moment he said that, he's creating the republican party. which is confusing to people because the republican party becomes what is now the democratic party. in the 1790s it's called the republican party. by the way, you look in
textbooks and you see democratic republican, hyphen. that's wrong. didn't call it that until about 1816, 1817. but the routinization of debate means that what happens in other religions doesn't happen in the united states. in france the jacobins decide to kill all the gerondist and kill the aristocrats at the guillotine np in russia the bolsheviks kill the menshoviks and it's the firing squad wall. there is no guillotine, no firing squad wall in the american revolution. because people argue but they don't kill each other. with the exception of burr and hamilton. next, they create a government in which there are multiple sources of sovereignty. again, this is supposed to be something you can't do.
aristotle said you can't to this. there needs to be some ultimate source of sovereignty to which you can refer. blackstone in 1765 says, yes. and the british empire must have a place in which the ultimate resolution of all policy questions resides, and that is parliament, and parliament and the king, really, but for our purposes parliament. think about it. this is the reason the american revolution happens because the plern american legislatures say, the assembly, we want to be able to tax ourselves, and later they say we want to be able to legislate for all forms of domestic policy for ourselves. this is in the 1760s and '70s. and the brits say no, you can't do that, we can't let the empire function this way with sovereignty existing in all these little colonies.
if they had been able to see -- the americans say, look, we'll still be loyal to the king, but we want to have our own form of political sovereignty at the colony level. if the brits had been able to say okay to that, we wouldn't have had a war. and they would have discovered the british commonwealth 100 years earlier. but they believed they couldn't do that. and they also believed they had the military power tone force what they wanted. but we created the situation in which -- who's sovereign on the issue of -- well, let's say capital punishment. the states? yeah. how about -- and by the way, most of the founders didn't
envision the supreme court as the ultimate arbiter of the constitution. i know that there are fans of mr. scalia out there, but if he really went with the original intent, the original intent of the founders was to not let the supreme court decide on matters of constitutional legitimacy. scalia would have to recuse himself from everything. of course he's in heaven now, so he doesn't have to recuse himself from anything. finally, this is not a separate point but it's a separate achievement, but that in addition to winning the war, becoming the first nation-sized republic separating church and state, creating political parties as a form of routinized dissent and living with multiple definitions of sovereignty, ambigui ambiguity, this was a weird kind of revolution. it was a conservative revolution.
which on the face of it is a contradiction in terms. this is controversial about what i'm going to say, and therefore i didn't make it a separate point, and people can honestly disagree about this. that the revolutionary generation recognized that they could not implement their full agenda at once. and that if they tried it would fail. they are not utopians. they are anti-utopians. they don't believe that human nature has changed in america. the french believe that. the french believe it that once they kill off the aristocracy, and lenin believes this. once you get rid of the a aristocracy and the proletariat takes over we're in paradise.
the founders don't believe in paradise. they believe in this world and human nature as it is. they believe that meaningful social change happens gradually rather than being imposed all at once. that's why, you can think of the big bang theory, namely in 1848 the women gather at seneca falls and they begin with the words "we hold these truths to be self-evident." lincoln looks back to 1776 at gettysburg and says request slavery is incompatible with the values of the american republic. martin luther king appears on the steps of the lincoln memorial in 1963 to give his "i have a dream speech," and he says "i've come to collect on a promissory note written by thomas jefferson for black
social and political equality." and the supreme court in the commonwealth of massachusetts, my home state now, decided five years -- six years ago i guess that you cannot prevent -- or you cannot claim that gay people are prohibited from marrying because of the language in the massachusetts constitution drafted single-handedly by john adams in two weeks in 1779. now, but if you believe that justice delayed is justice denied, the argument that i've just made is reprehensible. and i understand that. and on the issue of slavery, i would be hard pressed to defend the position. and we'll talk about that in just a second. but that this is a burkian revolution, a conservative revolution, that believes that the mandate for equality that is
inherent in the language of the declaration needs to expand over time. and that's the way it worked. okay. if those are the achievements, there are two significant failures. and i can see that i'm really running -- i'm going to go over. but bear with me. you want me to go over? okay. thank you. the powers than probably say no, don't do that. there are two great failures. one is the failure to reach a just accommodation with the native american population. and the other was to end slavery short of a civil war. anybody that says that either one of those things shouldn't be blamed on the founders is misrepresenting history. anyone who wants to finesse these issues, especially slavery, is not being true to
the facts of american history. you've got to face it. the question is not whether these are tragedies. they are. the question -- now, listen. are these greek tragedies or shakespearean tragedies? what does ellis mean by this? a greek tragedy, [ speaking foreign language ] 'tis the will of the gods. it means it's inherent, it's embedded, it's intractable, it's unavoidable. shakespearean tragedy -- and some of my literary friends question this. but think hamlet, othello, lear. the flaws are in the characters. that would mean that the founders are responsible here because they're the agents who did this. and therefore they bear a lot of
responsibility and culpability. that's the argument we should ha have. let me introduce you to the way we could have it. on the native american question there's a moment in 1782 in versailles when john jay is leaning over a map of north america with count aronda, the spanish foreign minister to france, and arhonda puts his finger somewhere on the great lakes, draws a line straight down to what is now ohio, tallahassee, and he says everything east of that is yours, everything west of that is ours. jay doesn't need to draw a line. he points to the mississippi. everything east of that is ours. everything west of that is yours. and that's non-negotiable. and that becomes a part of the
treaty of paris in 1783. living between the alleghenies and the mississippi at that moment are approximately 110,000 native americans who never got to be consulted on that decis n decision. and with the signing of that all their rights are completely absorbed -- or ended. and the question is -- and we know the end of this story. it's going to end with jackson and the trail of tears in the 1830s and the eliminate igs of the native american population by and large east of the mississippi. it's called indian removal. i'm going to give you some numbers here. 1780, 100,000 native americans, 5,000 white anglo-saxon americans west of the alleghenies. 100,000, 5,000. 1790, first census, these are
rough numbers. 80,000 native americans. 50,000 white anglo-saxon americans. get this one. 1800, 70,000 native americans, 300,000 anglo-saxon white americans. what we see here is a demographic of white population simply streaming across the alleghenies. why is the indian population going down? disease. they are not -- they don't have immunities to especially smallpox and measles. most of them don't. and that therefore, as the demographic wave begins to hit indian settlements, all of a sudden people start dying. it's like an artillery barrage
in world war i. with microbes and viruses doing the work of the artillery shells. could this have turned out differently? washington tried to do it. in the history of his presidency a lot of biographers and historians have missed this or not given it sufficient significance. he makes the resolution of the native american dilemma his primary domestic responsibility during the first term. he delegates all economic policy to his genius hamilton and he and knox, his secretary of war, focus on can we find a way to avoid indian removal? they create the treaty of 1790 with the creek nation. there's a creek chief there called alexander mcgillavray who's a real character and he's literate in english, french, spanish, and creek.
he's called the talleyrand of the southern frontier. they essentially say we want to create a homelands policy in which the native american enclaves east of the mississippi in which the native americans will be able to live and practice their own way of life and that the waves of emigration from the east are going to pass around them. we're going to defend them. we have treaties with them. and this establishes a constitutional point that's still quite relevant. it's relevant in the whole negotiation in the dakotas about indian rights right now. indian nations are nations just like france and spain. and therefore, they have -- once you make a treaty with them, they have the rights of that treaty. the problem was that washington couldn't enforce it. and they were streaming especially from georgia into creek country. they gave him -- they gave the creek nation pretty much what is now the state of alabama.
and they assumed over time it would shrink because they would have to move from hunting and gathering societies to farming societies. nevertheless, the vision was to create a series of enclaves east of the mississippi and over time, over the century to assimilate the native american population into the general population. that's what they wanted to do. it didn't work. they couldn't enforce it. if we had the supreme court arrangement we did by the middle of the 20th century, they would have called out the national guard and enforced it in the same way they did in segregation cases in kansas or arkansas and mississippi. they couldn't do that. i believe that the native american population is a greek tragedy. if you say, well, what was behind it, it's democracy. people pursuing their happiness.
meaning moving out and getting land. only an elite that could impose an undemocratic policy, which is what washington tried to do, could have stopped it. and it didn't work. once a critical mass of population of english descendants grew up east of the alleghenies and then once the americans won the war, the native american population as a culture that has its own integrity is effectively doomed. it's not a pleasant story but i think it's a greek tragedy. i don't see how it could have come out differently. slavery, different. i'm going to be briefer -- this is really a big story. okay? to be sure. the founders thought they knew
that slafry was incompatible with the values on which the american revolution was based. nobody disagreed with that, including southern planters in south carolina. nobody said slavery was a positive good. nobody. but it's embedded in the economy of all the states south of the potom potomac. they as a group assumed that slavery would die a natural death over time. adam smith said this in wealth of nations. slave labor cannot compete successfully with free labor. so if we can confine it to the deep south, it will just shrivel up over time and die.
and they end slavery in all the states north of the potomac in the late 19th century one by one. the last state in 1802 is new york. they all adopt gradual emancipation. but it's really easy to end slavery in the north because of the numbers. 95% of the african-american population is living south of the potomac, or south of the mason-dixon line. almost all of them enslaved. if you free the slaves in vermont, there's three. you free the slaves in south carolina, it's 60% of the population. virginia it's 40% of the population. and here's the killer. this is the killer. we've got to face it.
the founders were absolutely imaginative as you can possibly be on winning a war against a superior power, separating church and state, creating political parties, creating the largest republic ever. they could not imagine a biracial society. nobody could. if you read uncle tom's cabin, the attend ix says and after we free him where are we going to send him? liberia or the caribbean? abraham lincoln in 1863, he sends a delegation of five of his executive leaders to panama to explore the feasibility of panama as a location for all the freed slaves. all plans for gradual
emancipation presumed that the african-american population upon emancipation would be sent somewhere else. some people think it's the west. could have been. but jefferson says that's where we're going to put the indians. anyway, i am going to abbreviate things here. i think we can talk about this at the q&a. that the slavery question was resolvable until about 1820 in the sense that economically there was a way to do it. louisiana purchase 1803. the land gained in louisiana purchase, the entire midwest from the mississippi to the rockies, we paid $15 million. over time the sale of that land
brought into the coffers of the united states the modern equivalent of $37 billion. create a trust fund, what they called a sinking fund, to compensate southern slave owners, prohibit slavery in the louisiana territory, use the revenue to essentially end slavery in the deep south. nobody thought of doing that. jefferson most especially. it turns out the window wasn't opening, slavery wasn't dying, it was growing. here it is. they couldn't foresee the cotton gin. they couldn't foresee the steam engine. watt's steam engine is first -- what's the word? patented in 1776. but it becomes effective as a
mode of producing a new kind of manufacturing in england by about 1820. so the cotton kingdom comes into existence, and once that happens the economics of it make it almost impossible to imagine end i ing. i wanted to talk to you, and i will do so in the q&a about what location in the past, in the 18th century i recommend. they've us as i'm a -- what? i'm a tour guide. the destination i recommend you look at most closely is the adams-jefferson correspondence. it's a correspondence between 1812 and 1826. adams said you and i ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.
they don't agree. we can see the disagreements and the dialogue between the two sides in the american revolution. they're called the north pole and the south pole of the american revolution. and they mean that not just geographically. one's a realist. one's an idealist. one things the american political recipe is transportable to all the rest of the world. jefferson believes that. adams thinks it's never going to work in most other places. adams thinks you know the term "american exceptionalism"? they don't use that term then. it's a 20th century term. but that yes, we are exceptional. we're unique. and that's the reason it's not going to work anywhere else. their definition, adams's definition of american exceptionalism is exactly the opposite of the modern use of the term. don't expect the middle east to work as a democracy. it's not going to happen.
he says it will never work in latin america because they're all catholics down there. so we can see in that dialogue a lot of the issues that continue to affect us and in the language that will challenge our categories and challenge the way we think about them in a fashion that's truly healthy. i probably had some truly eloquent conclusion and it's all written out. but as the psychiatrists i'm told say, our time is up. thank you very much. [ applause ] [ applause ] thank you.