Re-examining American History & American Icons | New Hampshire Public Radio

Re-examining American History & American Icons

Jun 28, 2020

How well do you really know George Washington? If you’re picturing wooden teeth and a cherry tree, you will want to tune in for a conversation with historians Alexis Coe and Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Their work challenges conventional wisdom about this founding father and the runaway slave he pursued to Portsmouth, N.H. Recent topplings of Confederate statues have prompted a national conversation about other American leaders who were not a part of the Confederacy but who owned slaves, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. NHPR Reporter Casey McDermott hosts.

Air date: Wednesday, June 24, 2020


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Casey McDermott:
I'm Casey McDermott, in for Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. When is the last time you read a presidential biography that does not just focus on that particular politician's biography of their childhood or perhaps their early political career, but also includes lists of things like his pettiest acts or his frenemies. Today on The Exchange, we'll revisit the legacy of perhaps the most mythologized founding father, George Washington, with historian Alexis Coe. She challenges us to rethink not only what we think we know about our first president, but also the notion of whose stories are told and how those stories shape our idea of democracy today. Spoiler alert: A lot of that has to do with who's in power or at least who held power when those stories were being written.

Casey McDermott:
Later on the show, we'll also be joined by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, whose work uncovered the story of Ona Judge, a slave who journeyed away from the Washington estate to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And we'll also hear from JerriAnne Boggis, who is working to bring new life to Judge's story locally. And to start off the show, I would like to welcome Alexis Coe. Alexis, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Alexis Coe:
Thank you for having me.

Casey McDermott:
Thanks. And I just want to start off again with a disclaimer in the interest of public health. We are all broadcasting remotely. I'm here in my apartment in Manchester. Alexis, you are also talking to us from your home where you're sheltering right now. And our guests will also be remote as well. So if you hear some background noise, that's what the reason is. But please bear with us. We're trying to still bring you as as good a conversation as possible, even while we're socially distancing. So, Alexis, I just wanted to start off by asking you to talk a little bit about the book and your work looking at George Washington. In the preface of this, You Never Forget Your First, you open by describing this moment where you're sitting at your desk. You had rearranged your collection of George Washington books and you had this kind of realization about those books. Could you describe that moment?

Alexis Coe:
It was a jarring one. I was well aware that there is and there is a male skew when it comes to presidential biography. I know that anecdotally in the spaces that I move in. When I went to George Washington symposiums, it was almost entirely male. People would ask me whose daughter or wife or grad student researcher I was. And of course, I had a big book deal and I was there to write a biography and have been a historian, you know, for a couple decades now. So I was well aware of all this. And the general tone of presidential biographies is quite masculine and celebratory. It's, you know, it's called great man history for a reason. But I didn't totally understand because, of course, I read widely and I read books, not just biographies on Washington, but I read about his relationship with his wife, farming, slavery, you name it. And so I decide to, you know, move everything around as one does when you're a couple years into a project and you're moving your desk. And I had one after the other. White male, white male, white male, white male. And this is not to say that we need diversity. You know, the argument is sometimes made that, you know, diversity is only diversity for diversity sake.

Alexis Coe:
That's absolutely not true, because anyone who has has read literature or existed in a space that has been dominated by one group of people knows that they tend to share an opinion. And so what I realized when I saw all these men was, oh, my goodness, this is why all the George Washington biographies proceed in the exact same manner. I am the first woman historian in one hundred years to write a book on Washington, a biography. And I am the third woman in the last 40 years. So there hasn't been one in 40 years. And the two other women were a journalist and a novelist. So, you know, they wrote good books, but they weren't rigorous. And I think it's important to emphasize when I say women, I mean white women. There has been no woman of color who has been a biographer of George Washington. And I would have been hard pressed, I've been asking this question of fellow historians, you know, we can't think of too many besides Annette Gordon-Reed. And so I think that that explained a lot about the way that these biographies tend to be laid out.

Casey McDermott:
So in addition to having an interest in adding a new voice to the perspective of who's telling Washington's story, what made Washington such an interesting character for you to revisit at this time?

Alexis Coe:
Everyone bemoans Washington as being too marble to be real. He's the greatest, you know, this is actually a title of a book, this is the greatest man who ever lived, the indispensable man, you know, all this hyperbole.

Alexis Coe:
And I think that Washington is a little bit, people are defensive about him because, you know, we brought up Annette Gordon-Reed and Jefferson. There she always pushes nuance. She does a wonderful job of explaining that, you know, you can't just ignore Jefferson, but you also can't deny these very obvious things that we know existed in his life.

Alexis Coe:
You know, Sally Hemmings, the children they had together. And the reality of the circumstances of their relationship, that it was unequal, that we certainly for a long time historians called it a love affair. And when it comes to Washington, because he doesn't have Jefferson's beautiful words or other things, you know, people get nervous about him being, you know, quote unquote, canceled.

Alexis Coe:
And I think that that is an unfortunate. Underestimation of readers. I think that readers and Americans want all the information and they want to be able to come to their own conclusions. And I think that when we embrace all that Washington was, his incredible triumphs, his achievements. He built the nation. And he also made sure it looked a certain way for a certain kind of person and enslaved hundreds of people. I think when we look at that really honestly and we look at those conflicts, we can understand what's going on in our country today. A whole lot better.

Casey McDermott:
Well, in addition to the the kind of hesitance to to revisit Washington's legacy or really, you know, any kind of pivotal politician's legacy in in American history. As you point out it as as the title of the book, of course, acknowledges Washington was our first. So that on its own also contains a kind of nostalgia. And in a lot of people, minds that, I think you've acknowledged, makes it sometimes even more difficult to have a really honest reckoning with his legacy and his life and what that means for our country even to today.

Alexis Coe:
Absolutely. And from the very beginning, America, remember that we were a new country. We didn't have a history. The history that we had was was tied to a monarch. And we didn't want that to be the stories we told. So, of course, Washington becomes president late in his life and then he dies. And the first person to write a biography happened to have started the last year of Washington's life. And his name was Parson Weems. He was an itinerant minister who promised his publisher that his book would sell like flax seeds, which is what we would call a bestseller today. And it did. And a lot of it was because he simply invented apocryphal stories that Americans wanted to tell themselves about, about the country and about the man who was the great general and the first president. And so that's where we get the wooden teeth. That's where we get I couldn't tell a lie. We knew he could tell a lie. And if we admitted that we're telling the lie, we could acknowledge that he was an incredible spymaster. We could also acknowledge where he lied about his personal preferences. And, of course, every person in power lies a little bit. And I think all of that is really is really interesting. And I find that that continues that we really need to perpetuate this myth.

Alexis Coe:
But when we look at the presidency itself and we look at Washington, it's important to remember he didn't want it. He called it, you know, I'm on my way to my execution. And the first term was OK. But rocky. The second term, you know, you mentioned the frenemies, it's important when we discuss the founders, they're presented as a monolith. They're presented as these guys who agreed on everything and not only understood their time perfectly, but understood the one that we live in now, which is not at all what they intended and not the reality of their relationship. And so it was important for me to both explain that in the chapter that follows. But to present the information right there in front of you in a way that you understand in the way that we read now. And that's OK. There's nothing wrong with it. Read it. That's that's the main point. Collect information and interpret it and engage with it. But, you know, Washington was estranged from almost every founding father except for John Adams who he just simply didn't include in a lot of things, by the time he died. And that's significant. That's really significant divisions. Partisanship, all of this all goes back to him.

Casey McDermott:
So I'm glad you you brought the frenemies back up, because I mentioned that not only because it was kind of, you know, a nod to the way that we think about relationships in modern times, but I also really loved the way that you formatted this book, which is maybe a little bit inside baseball. But as a journalist and as someone who deals with charts and graphs and I'm always trying to think of how can I present information in the clearest and at times most creative way to make sure that the really essential parts are coming across in an engaging way. I love that you started off the book with these really efficient charts, mapping various aspects of his life, his jobs, his favorite writers, and also, as we mentioned, his pettiest acts and his frenemies. Why did you decide to take that approach before diving into a fuller retelling of the parts that you wanted to focus on?

Alexis Coe:
Well, you know, there's also religion, there are his various innovations, there are the titles he held. It's important that, you know, that he was called General, but also Master. And what I wanted to do is, look, the world does not... The title of the book You Never Forget your first was the subject line of the first e-mail I sent my agent when I wanted to write this book. Because the world, you know, didn't necessarily need another George Washington book. But if we forget the things that we've been told, we don't know a lot about him. The way to make everyone learn about him is not to present another thousand page book that is sold on Father's Day. It's to attract people who have felt alienated by what I call, you know, dad, history: women, people of color, people who just don't want to read a huge book. Who, by the way, I've heard from many people they don't actually read those books. They buy them. They intend to. And they look nice on the shelf. And I wanted a book that people read. I wanted a book that made people feel like, hey, I don't know a ton about the founding era. I don't know a lot about early America or American history. George Washington. But at the beginning of the book and at the beginning of every section, his youth, the revolution, the presidency, and then his his short retirement, which is very significant when it comes to slavery, I wanted everyone at the beginning of each section to have everything they needed to proceed as if they had read 20 books on the revolution, as if they had read a ton of books on George Washington to feel like an expert and well-equipped. Everything they had, they had there, they could go back and they could also take breaks if they were new. I've heard from so many people that they're new to nonfiction. And by the way, people who are just thrilled to read about George Washington in a different way, who've read tons of books on him. And this is the way to make sure that, you know, we have literature that's that's for everyone. We have a ton of books, as I've described, that are dad history. We needed something else. And I hope that this it seems to have been talked about and sort of embraced by fellow historians as a well-needed change. And so I'm really hoping that we see this for every president, because until we can talk about the presidency a little bit more honestly, too, we're not going to be happy with what we see.

Casey McDermott:
So in the interest of focusing on how to kind of cover or write about a president, more honestly, one of the other areas that you really focus on at the at the top of the book and, you know, the whole and throughout, is this idea of the lies we believe about the man who could not tell one, which is, of course, a nod to that fable that George Washington was so very honest that he confessed to cutting down a cherry tree. But as you point out, there's actually no evidence that that actually happened as retold. And that's just one of the kind of pieces of lore that's become entwined with our image of him. But is is not really true.

Alexis Coe:
Right, that's the that's Parson Weems again. That's a very effective gentleman. And it's funny because there's no historian who says, OK. He has wooden teeth. He didn't tell a lie. We all embrace it as false. And actually, you know, my first job out of graduate school was at the New York Public Library. We had every edition of Weems. And I used to call it, you know, watching Pinocchio in action, because if compared all the different editions, you saw the stories get bigger as they were working. I think what the problem is, is we have not been taught to think critically about our founders. We have been taught to treat them not as what they are, which is historically significant. And that's what we need to start. Well, we've instead been taught to treat them as if they are role models, that we're assigned, as if it's like a pen pal or something automatic. It's not. That's a personal relationship. And so the question we need to be asking when we when we talk about wooden teeth is, OK, we all know that they weren't wood. What were they made of? But we don't because we don't engage with them and we're just not you know, as we know, you say anything right now.

Alexis Coe:
And even if it's true, even if it's found, say, in his ledgers, there's going to be a lot of pushback. But we need to start with the facts in the archives, not the facts as we believe them in our hearts, to the facts in the archives, which we know from Washington's ledgers, from his own hand. He kept them himself. You know, I pity the fool who messed with his money. He wrote down that he paid the enslaved people on his property money for their teeth because he did, in fact, have terrible teeth. And we know, again, because we look at primary sources and when I say we, I mean me. I also looked and Erica Dunbar, who will join us later, an esteemed fellow historian. We know that, not only do we know this from his ledgers, but then we know Dr. Greenwood, his dentist. And we know advertisements he put in the paper in which he was offering to pay people more for their teeth than Washington did. So Washington basically decided, hey, why am I paying, as most rich people did at the time, my doctor to buy teeth? So I'm paying retail basically when I can just, I own hundreds of people, I'll just pay them for it. And I'm not saying that George Washington is the tooth fairy. We don't know how these teeth came about, but we have to remember that. They were underfed. They're described as the people who visit Mt. Vernon, his plantation. They describe in forced labor camp. They describe the enslaved population as being poorly clothed and fed. We know that they were trying to supplement their diets. They would try to fish. And when they got too good at it, because Washington heard they were really raking it in. He then decided that was another thing he would like to sell when they should spend their time selling it to him first. So, you know, again, let's look at this man as a business man, because that's what he was and that's how we got this revolutionary generation. Remember Jefferson, Washington, all these guys owned plantations. They were businessmen. They were not the Thomas Paine's, Bernie Sanders, of our of our world. They did not want to inconvenience all, you know, inconvenience themselves with a war. They tried to make it work. And when it didn't for them, they went to war. They rebelled.

Casey McDermott:
So we are coming up on a break. So I do want to just follow up on what you were just talking about, because that is a big part of the story about Washington, as you remind us, is his treatment of slaves and his views on slavery and the actions that he took during his lifetime to preserve his ability to to keep people enslaved within his family. Why was it so important for you to make sure that you focused on a really honest way on that part of his life story? Did you feel like that was not adequately addressed and other things that you had read about his life?

Alexis Coe:
Absolutely.Erica Dunbar was the only book that, you know, accurately addressed it honestly. Here's the thing. If you're telling someone's story, you need to you need to really consider what they saw on a daily basis and what their concerns were. And we know from Washington's letters and from his ledgers again that he was concerned with the hundreds of people he owned as much as the presidency in his tobacco, in his tobacco sales.

Casey McDermott:
And so I just I'm going to just jump in. Sorry one second. We're going to pick that right up after a break. I apologize to cut you off, but I really want to return to that as soon as we come back from the break. We'll be right back. On The Exchange on NHPR.

Casey McDermott:
Welcome back to The Exchange. I'm Casey McDermott, filling in for Laura Knoy. And we are back with author and historian Alexis Coe. She has written a book about George Washington called You Never Forget Your First. It's probably unlike any presidential biography you've read before. And I just want to pick back up on something that we were talking about right before the last break. Alexis, I'm so sorry to cut you off because that was such an important point that we were getting to. But you were just talking about why you felt it was so important in your book, in your biography of Washington, to really have an honest reckoning with his record on slavery.

Alexis Coe:
I think it's the only way we can understand him. Slavery was a part of his life. He inherited ten slaves when he was 11. That's important. Enslaved people were, and he learned from his mother, you know, she set the example of how to how, you know, she decided to function, which, you know, in her will, she split up families. Washington didn't. He knows that that is not well received. And so he sort of passes the buck to Martha later. But, you know, the thing that I thought was important is, I don't care about battles. Washington wasn't at Lexington and Concord makes an appearance in almost every Washington book and takes up pages, which is a waste in my mind of those pages. And he wasn't there. He was often in a tent writing letters. So let's think about what his concerns were. A lot of those letters, even during the revolution, during the presidency, they were about Mount Vernon. So Trump loves to say that Washington had two deaths. Totally false. Completely made up fake news, as he would say, of his own invention. But Washington was concerned about what was happening on the plantation, his forced labor camp, Mount Vernon. And it's really important to look and Mt. Vernon has been lovely to me. And I research thee, and they invited me to spend the night and give a talk. But we disagree on one really important point. They love to say that Washington is the only founding father who freed the men, women and children he enslaved outright in his will. And I really articulate outright for a reason. One man, William Lee, was emancipated when Washington died. That's outright, that's without any conditions. That's what the definition is in the dictionary. The rest of the people and Billy Lee, as he's called, although he went by William Lee, but for some reason, historians, male historians have been calling him Billy Lee for a long time. He spent two decades with Washington. He was crippled in his service during the revolution. And he was the exception. Washington thought he was the exception. He said, you know, Negroes, is what he said, they don't have any pride in their work. I mean, that's the amazing thing. He didn't think like, well, that's because I'm not paying them or feeding them or giving you know, they have no freedom to make any choices. It's pride. And he thought that Billy Lee did. So what Washington did was he said, my enslaved community, because his wife had been married before she had her own, will be free upon Martha's death or at her discretion, the reason he did this. And again, you know, it challenges this idea. And it was very much legacy building. He made sure that that will was circulated and he wanted Martha to have use of those slaves to make money for the rest of her lifetime. He didn't know she would die a year later, two years later, 20 years later, who knows? So, Martha, because these have been circulated and I'm not sure she even knew about the will --there were two wills. He dramatically burned one before he died, the night before she died. She didn't necessarily know. And because this has been circulated, because Washington wanted people to know that he had done this because, you know, things were changing and the perception in the world of slavery, he had it circulated and Martha was totally afraid that she was going to be murdered in the middle of the night, that they were going to burn down her house. We know this from Abigail Adams. We know this from a Supreme Court justice. And so she does, in fact, emancipate his enslaved community a year after Washington dies. That's about as much as she can take. So, yes, it was incredibly meaningful to the people who were emancipated, but complicated because they could never see a lot of their family members again who were owned by Martha and her family and her descendants. And that's a whole other heartbreaking turn that has been ignored. But you know, he did it in a way that was not because he suddenly wanted to show how he really felt. And the fact that it has been presented as you're free, I'm dead, just go along with your life right now is, I think, reprehensible.

Casey McDermott:
So that leads us actually really well into the next section of our conversation, where I'd love to bring in two more guests. One of them is Erica Armstrong Dunbar. She's a writer, historian and lecturer and the author of "Never Caught, the Washington's Relentless Pursuit of the Runaway Slave Ona Judge." She's been on The Exchange before in 2017. If you want to take a listen back to that conversation, I would highly encourage you to do that. It's on NHPR.org. I also want to bring in JerriAnne Boggis. She's the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. And we're bringing these three guests together because Ona Judge, the woman at the center of Erica's book, fled to freedom in New Hampshire. And JerriAnne has been a part of trying to keep Ona's legacy and her story alive here locally. So thank you, Erica, and thank you, JerriAnne, and for joining us today.

Casey McDermott:
Erica, I was wondering if we could start with you. Could you just tell us who Ona is and how you came across her story?

Erica Armstrong Dunbar:
I'm happy to do to do that. You know, I always put the disclaimer out that I am not a George Washington scholar. George Washington ended up sort of enmeshed in the work that I do. I'm a scholar of of African-American women's history. And George and Martha Washington, of course, because they were both slave holders, because they enslaved hundreds of women in particular, end up sort of front and center in the story. The book that I wrote back in twenty seventeen, I was doing some research in Philadelphia and I write about how about how enslaved and free women lived the end of the 18th and early 19th century. I'm a Philadelphian and I was at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania looking through the old advertisements, old newspapers. And I came across a runaway slave advertisement from the president's house in Philadelphia in 1796. And the advertisement actually named Ona Judge. The Washingtons referred to her as Oney the same way that they referred to William Lee as Billy. So I call them Ona and William as sort of markers of of adult dignity and the names that they went by themselves. And when I saw this advertisement, I just sort of knew I had to figure out who this woman was. At the moment I was sort of excited to come across the advertisement because I thought, oh, wow, OK, here's another project. But I was also mildly angry because I asked myself, why don't I know this woman's name? I'm a scholar of early African-American women's history. And why is it that she's barely mentioned in the all of the texts about Washington? So I set out for the next nine years really to recover her life.

Casey McDermott:
JerriAnne, I just want to turn to you, because one of the large themes in both Alexis's and Erica's books is this idea that history is really shaped by those who write it. And as someone who is trying to preserve and educate people on that history locally, in particular in the case of of Ona Judge, how do you deal with that in your work? Trying to preserve and elevate the stories of New Hampshire's black history when the accounts may be somewhat limited by those who've been writing them for the last several centuries?

JerriAnne Boggis:
Well, thank you so much, Casey. One of the things I just wanted to say, and I'm so grateful that Erica stated it so clearly about naming. Naming is so important that we have Ona instead of own instead of Oney and William instead of Bill, giving that adult dignity, as Erica just said. So I think one of the things that we do, is really we look at the stories through our lens, right, through a black lens more than a white lens and see how we tell the story. We look for the stories of courage, resilience and survival. You know that doing normal human things, the dignity of being human instead of writing and recording these histories in the lens that would say that ours are folks are lazy, when they're working sunup to sundown in the fields, or they're illiterate when we know they're writing documents like the 1779 petition. Or in the case of Primus Fowle, who was a printer. I mean, it says that he would typeset the print for the newspaper, and the legacy tells us, the story comes down that he was severely illiterate. Back to the thinking that, you know, we need to critically think about these narratives that we read. You know, if we look and see that somebody is a printer and he is laying out the letters, how could he possibly be illiterate? So we have to open our minds to these stories and interpret them through a different lens and really engage with them. So that's what we do at the Black Heritage Trail. We try to bring these stories, first of all, bring them to light, because the the mythology is that New Hampshire is one of the whitest states in the union. Totally erasing this rich, vibrant history of African African-Americans, of people of color, contributing greatly to the state.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar:
Can I jump in for a quick second, because I think what JerriAnne and Alexis said earlier is really important here. This is about how we craft history, how we write history. And we're having this explosive debate about that right now, via the taking down of monuments. Right? That monuments have represented a kind of history that celebrated certain people, including George Washington. And I really think it's important for us to look at the books that I've written, that Alexis has written, at what they're doing in New Hampshire, that in terms of black history, that we have to look at who is writing history and through what lens. Because when we have a variety, when we have something to compare, the story ends up sounding quite different. I made it a point of writing a history about the founding of the nation through the eyes of an enslaved woman. Not through George Washington or Martha Washington or any of their well-landed elites, founding fathers. That was interesting to me, in part because it's been done. We have a bazillion books that tell us that story. But when you shift, when you change your lens as JerriAnne has just said, you get a very different story. Ona Judge gave us the opportunity to explain what it meant to live as an enslaved person at the dawn of the founding of the nation, across the nation. She moved - forcefully. She lived in Virginia. She lived in New York. She lived in Pennsylvania. And then finally in New Hampshire. And so to tell her story, to explain what it meant, what it felt like to live at that moment with the founding father that everyone knows and his wife as her owners -- that changes how we see George Washington. It changes our perspective on history. And I think that's the kind of sea change that I think we're headed towards right now.

Casey McDermott:
Erica, I'm so glad that you brought that up, because I wanted to get everyone's thoughts on how this comes full circle and is is so relevant to the conversations that we're having today and have been going on for centuries. I want to put that back to you, Erica. Do you think that we as a country would be better equipped to have the conversations that are playing out right now around our legacy on race? Our legacy on slavery? Our legacy on on structural racism that runs so deep in so many aspects of our country? If we learned as much about Washington's record on slavery, if we learned as much about Ona Judge as we do about, you know, the contributions that he made that were more positive to the country's history.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar:
Most definitely. I think that part of the problem has to do with education. And, you know, teachers are like my favorite people on the planet because they're responsible for so very much with very little in the way of resources and aren't compensated the way they should. They have very specific targets that they must hit when they're teaching social studies and when they're teaching U.S. history. There's a very short period of time that they can really use to get through U.S. history. And in the past, because of that, the stories of enslaved people, of women, of people of color have sort of not made their way to prime time. Perhaps they're mentioned, usually in February. But, you know, I think that if we really consider a curriculum that really represents what America looks like today, we're speaking to the citizens of America in 2020, not the citizens of America in 1790. Then I think, yes, we at least begin the conversation. We can look at the very first president and understand that he was a deeply flawed person. He broke the law. He followed his his fugitive, enslaved woman across state lines or had slave catchers do it rather. He was in many ways, although he's been positioned as a sort of different person, a different president, because in his will, he emancipated his enslaved people upon the death of Martha. We were supposed to imagine him differently. And he kind of been able to avoid what I'd say Thomas Jefferson has had to deal with since Annette Gordon-Reed, you know, pulled the covers back and showed everyone what was really happening at Monticello. It's time for that. I think that's starting to happen with Washington - and not just Washington. This is about understanding and thinking critically, as JerriAnne just said, about our presidents, about our founding, about the creation of this nation. And until we accept truth, there's no path forward to reconciliation or moving forward in an anti-racist way. Period. Our history has to represent that in order to move forward.

Casey McDermott:
Alexis, I want to turn back to you on that and just bring it back again to some of your work on Washington, which, as Erica and as JerriAnne explained, is so relevant to so much more than just his life. But in your book and also in a column that you wrote for The New York Times earlier this year, you wrote about this section of Mount Vernon where there's a cemetery full of unmarked graves and that doesn't often come up in other stories about that place and in the piece that you wrote in The New York Times you write, 'There's always new information to discover and share, whether it's found and accepted texts or archives or well outside of them. That's how a legacy, like a democracy avoids corruption and decay.' And that's you referring to, you know, just being open to new information about a particular piece of history wherever you find it. How does talking about Washington's life, talking about his record as a slave owner, protect our democracy today against decay?

Alexis Coe:
Well, I'm parroting words that the founders used and that Washington used in his farewell address to the presidency. He said that one of the problems with the British Empire was that they had fallen to corruption and decay. And Washington, you know, hoped that we would protect our own institutions from it. That he expected us to fully rebel. It was believed, it's like mold. You know, once it gets to a certain point, you can't get rid of it. You have to sort of burn it all down. And I think what is really interesting, you know, Erica and I have reflected on the same things I did in the first part of this interview. And we're all really in agreement on this. And I think, what is so interesting to me is that, because there isn't the same engagement, you know, that I talked about before and that Erica talked about, as Jefferson has, for example. That when Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out things that people had been whispering for a long time, but she laid out this case, you could not debate -- although people still do -- that they grappled with it. And people worry that Washington doesn't have that. She does. There's a lot to interact with every single day and certainly throughout this presidency. She, you know, overstepped the Constitution at one point in one of the greatest displays of executive overreach that we've seen. Trump tried to parrot in which he turned the army on his own people when they wouldn't pay taxes because they weren't landowners and didn't vote, which is exactly why, of course, Washington, his cohorts rebelled. You know, I think when Erica talked about him breaking the law, jokes about not only pursuing through New Hampshire, but that, you know, Washington, there were laws in Philadelphia that Washington, if enslaved people were there for more than six months, he had to emancipate them. There are all these letters from Tobias Lear, their secretary, Martha, Randolph, a member of his cabinet, and they're all trying to figure out quite openly how to break the law. This is the president of the United States regularly breaking the law. So if we looked at that, we would have a far better idea of who our country was founded by. And a lot of the contradictions we see now, we'd see then and we've talked about that. But, you know, when it comes to monuments and when I think we need to really break down these issues, there's a difference between the civil war and the revolution, which, you know, it seems like confuses a lot of people. One was about founding a union and the other was about destroying it. We are talking about patriots versus traitors. Now, having said all that, the Washington Monument was struck by lightning on June fourth. And I thought - they're coming for you. But the thing is that you probably heard us there, we're chuckling at each other because everyone's making great points. And the thing is, you cannot cancel George Washington. You can not. He is essential to our founding.

Alexis Coe:
Someone who tried to destroy the union should have a page or a chapter when we teach our children history, which are which is paltry, not because of the heroic efforts of teachers, but because of the supplies that we don't give to them because we're too busy, you know, supplying the police department with war vehicles, you know, things that should only be used in combat. Now, there is absolutely no monument project in graduate school for history. Nobody has to pass the monument oral exams. They don't teach history. They barely have any information on them. George Washington, we will continue to talk about and learn about because he is essential. He's not our role model. He is historically significant. You cannot erase him. But if we had more honest conversations and we didn't constantly try to just vaunt, or put these men together as a monolith, these perfect humans, then we could know our country better again. And so many things that we see today could be addressed. But, Casey, I'm dying to ask these two people a question.

Casey McDermott:
Can I ask you to hold your thought? I would love to open up the conversation because I love that you guys are all in conversation with one another. But we are going to take just a very brief break. Coming up, we will return to this conversation with Alexis Coe, Erica Armstrong Dunbar and JerriAnne Boggis on NHPR. This The Exchange.

Casey McDermott:
You're listening to The Exchange on NHPR. I'm Casey McDermott, filling in for Laura Knoy. I am here with Alexis Coe, author and historian who's written a book about George Washington called You Never Forget Your First. I'm also here with Erica Armstrong Dunbar, who is also a historian, who's written a book about Ona Judge, who was a woman who escaped enslavement by the Washingtons and was pursued by them all the way to New Hampshire. We also have JerriAnne Boggis, who is the executive director of the New Hampshire Black Heritage Trail. Thank all of you for staying with us this hour. I'm so glad you're here for this conversation. Alexis, right before the break, you said that you had some questions that you wanted to put to your fellow guests.

Alexis Coe:
I do. I'm sort of dying to ask them a couple of questions. So we have all talked about who gets to tell these stories. And we all in various ways, I'm sure, have answered this in the straightforward way that women weren't allowed, black people, indigenous people, people of color, women. They were not allowed in history departments until the 60s, 70s. And since then, they've been making up for lost time. Right. We have to wait about women. We have to write about people of color. We have to reinsert them into the narrative and we have to check everyone's work because they've been getting it wrong. And then what happens is someone like Erica forces people's hand, right? She tells them this is what happened. Ona Judge, Ona, not Oney, is not an end note, she is not a sentence in a book. She is a real person who had this incredible life. Who we need to study. And the Washingtons are actually background players here. And that means that places are going to have to acknowledge Ona Judge and acknowledge Washington's relationship with slavery to a certain extent, still just in this very small way. And so we know that, for example, I really think based on Erica's work that Mt. Vernon put on an exhibition about the enslaved community. And they also have an interpreter, an Ona Judge interpreter. The Mount Vernon is partially funded by the ladies of Mt. Vernon who pre-date the daughters of the revolution. They are a very powerful organization. You have, you know, people who have married into Robert E. Lee's family, including, by the way, one of Washington's descendants. So they have a hand in still the way the story is being told. Mt. Vernon, the ladies of Mt. Vernon, they all influence it. But what's happening in New Hampshire right now, what's happening, that JerriAnne is overseeing is very different. Erica, you can sort of speak to Mount Vernon's Ona Judge and what, you know, maybe you want to see in the world. And also, JerriAnne, I'm sure that you're familiar with how they present her, how that differs. I'm really excited by that.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar:
I'll start with what I've seen in or the change, maybe, perhaps a bit of a transformation, at Mount Vernon following the release of Never Caught. I do think that they've, of course, been more careful. They have really sort of important researchers; I'm thinking of Mary Thompson, who's there, who's really dedicated much of her life to uncovering the lives of enslaved people. But I'm going to sort of push the needle on this and suggest that I'm not going to Mount Vernon to learn my history, because I also understand that Mount Vernon is a business and that they expect, well, in the sort of pre_COVID moment, a million visitors a year. And with each visitor there's a certain amount of money that you pay for admission. So there's a specific job, a goal, of Mount Vernon, and that is to elevate and revere the memory of George Washington. I understand that. And I expect the work, the scholarship to come out of there that looks very sort of specific, just about that mission. It's people like me, people like you, Alexis, those of us who are writing history. It's our responsibility to, as I said before, with Annette Gordon-Reed, to pull back the covers. So I would suggest you don't go to Monticello. You don't go to Mount Vernon to really, quote, learn history. You'll see things. You'll be exposed to it. But I don't necessarily believe that those are the places where you can have the most objective encounters with history.

Casey McDermott:
So on that note, turning to JerriAnne one place that you can have a, you know, at least kind of on the ground local encounter with Ona Judge's story and her part of history is right here in New Hampshire. JerriAnne, and how are you trying to make sure that that story is told? And how are you thinking about how to memorialize or to bring more attention to Ona's story here locally, either for local audience audiences or people who may be coming from across the country to learn more?

JerriAnne Boggis:
So a lot of the things that we do is really telling her story and honoring her through tours and looking at the sites where she would have been in and preserving sites in that story. I just really want to mention what Alexis brought up a minute ago. Naming is so important. And that's one of the difference that I think that we're seeing here between the story that's told at Monticello and what we do here. Ona named herself. She calls herself Ona, not Oney, the diminutive name, so she gives herself her dignity. And I think it's our responsibility to call people by the name they give themselves. So that would be one of the differences here.

JerriAnne Boggis:
We are also doing a story with New Hampshire Public Radio that is really looking at these burial sites as sites of memory, sites of memorial, sites of retelling these stories that have been hidden or disappeared from New Hampshire's history. And one of the sites that's on our radar right now -- it's really touching. We just went there, David Watters and I, a state senator, and we looked at where Ona is buried and it really is a telling, a current telling of the African American story here. It's hidden. It's under dirt. It's not preserved. It's not treated with the dignity that other stories are treated with. Even just as bad as a Native American story. So we're looking to make those story visible. I think for Americans, for us, for people, unless we see these memorials, unless we see these physical sites of memory, those stories, and those people do not exist. So it is our role here at the Black Heritage Trail to make these story visible, to retell them, to show the spaces that Black folks occupied in our state. The gravesite is one of those real, very touching memorial site that we honor. It's the cross between our physical and our spiritual world. And so we honor our dead. And seeing, bringing a site like Ona's back is bringing that spirit back as well. I mean, Ona never really left because as you can tell, everybody is doing her story now, but it's really bringing that story back to light.

Casey McDermott:
And this is a little bit far afield, but I do want to acknowledge we've been spending a lot of time talking about the founding fathers, talking about Washington, talking about choices to memorialize him and other founding fathers, in contrast to how people like Ona Judge have been memorialized. But here in New Hampshire, there's also an ongoing conversation about whether it's time to re-evaluate the legacy of President Franklin Pierce and the honors that are bestowed upon him by virtue of, you know, naming a law school after him or taking other steps to elevate his story. Alexis and Erica, I would love to hear from you. How would you advise people in New Hampshire to approach conversations about the legacies and the monuments to that president given his support for slavery?

Casey McDermott:
Alexis. You can you can take that.

Alexis Coe:
Here's what I want to sort of step back and say that these namings of buildings, of schools, of monuments, highways, whatever it is, they are fairly recent phenomenons that, you know, that were born far after the person died. And I want to go back to sort of, you know, when we talk about people, you know, we, JerriAnne and Erica, everyone has sort of touched on this. And you asked about it. I didn't quite address it right on. But the reason I ended the book with the cemetery of the enslaved community is because it does not show up anywhere in Washington's ledgers, and his diary, in his notes on Mount Vernon. And as I've said, that man knew every inch of his property. He knew every penny he spent. He was horrible to work with. The fact that he doesn't acknowledge it, he either didn't know it was there, it didn't matter in the least to him. I think he didn't know it was there because he would want to maximize all the space. So we completely, we're just like within the last couple of years starting to bring attention to those areas. And yet we have prioritized these men who achieved power. They achieved power, which is very different than what we always say: History is written by the winners. I think it's written by the powerful. But, you know, when you name these things, you do it far after the person is dead and they're done for a reason, which is usually less to revere and more to establish norms and values of a state, of a city, of a county. And to be sure that people get that message. In Americus, Georgia, and other places, you know, they're all there so many disturbing but great, great history coming out of these places where we know that police officers, you know, who were still attached to the lost cause after emancipation would make sure that they marched black people with with no reason, you know, they weren't arresting them for any sort of crime. But if they were simply, you know, in a pool hall, they would march them past the monument in order to make sure that the message was clear. That white supremacy was at the foundation of this country and that they would still be treated as if it was. And so if you take Pierce's name off a school, off a library, we're not going to stop learning about him. But the message that might be, you know, might be sent out will not be. And that is significant. And I think that that's really important. I think that Franklin Pierce, you know, to say that he was a man of his time is the most ridiculous argument. So were the enslaved people. They were alive as well. So let's give them the dignity of their life and their perspective. So my sort of feeling is let's talk less about the monument and the school and whatever. Let's let's talk about his life.

Casey McDermott:
Erica, we have only a few seconds here. Is there anything that you would want to add to that about the importance of focusing on on the lives and not just the life of the person in power?

Erica Armstrong Dunbar:
I think I'll echo what Alexis said, that we have to think about messaging and whether it's a statue of a Franklin Pierce or a school room. Ask yourself the question, how do black boys and girls walking into schools that are named after slave owners or those who supported the institution of slavery? What message does that send? And can we build an America where we have monuments and statues that message the America we want to be.

Casey McDermott:
Thank you so much, Erica. And thank you so much, Jerrianne and Alexis as well. I'm so sorry. I wish we had another hour for this conversation because there's so much to unpack here. But I'm so grateful for all of you for for being here with us today. And thank you to all of you who are listening here at home. Again, I'm Casey MacDermott. This is The Exchange. You're listening to NHPR.