♪ ♪ (theme music plays) RUBENSTEIN: Hello, I'm David Rubenstein, and we're going to be in conversation today with Lynne Cheney who is a New York Times best-selling author, and the author, most recently, of The Virginia Dynasty, Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation.
Lynne, thank you very much for coming, today.
CHENEY: Oh, my pleasure.
RUBENSTEIN: So, as we go through um, these four uh, men, I would say, probably most of them, it could be said, accomplished an enormous amount before they became President... CHENEY: Mm-hmm.
RUBENSTEIN: And some um, you could say, did, maybe Monroe did more during his Presidency.
But let's go through this.
If you could have a chance to talk to, ask Washington, or what do you think Washington's view would be, what would he say was his greatest accomplishment before he was President?
CHENEY: You know, I think Washington just wouldn't answer a question like that.
He was uh, such a stolid fellow, that that would seem a little fanciful to him.
Um ... you know, I was about to say that I think he was more reinforced and well regarded during the Revolution than during his Presidency, but I'm, I'm not sure how much difference that made to him.
He certainly thought of himself as an historic figure, and he worried about his reputation, as indeed did they all.
But, both were difficult.
The Revolution was difficult, he was constantly criticized as being indecisive uh, someone who didn't know much about uh, the military, and as President, he was uh, constantly criticized for being a monarchist, someone who wanted to bring monarchy back to the United States after we had just uh, gotten rid of it.
So I'd say, both periods had some happiness in them, and he was most happy at Mount Vernon, but they were also both challenging.
Now, Jefferson uh, clearly, thought of his achievement as writing uh, the Virginia Declaration of uh, Religious Freedom, uh, as important.
Um, he put on his uh, epitaph, or on his uh, uh, stone at uh, is over his grave, that that was important to him, that the Declaration was important to him.
And he just listed these three things, and the third was um, founding the University of Virginia, which he did after he was President, for the most part.
But he, he didn't put President on there, which has always puzzled people.
RUBENSTEIN: So, Madison, uh, he would his greatest accomplishment before he was President was... CHENEY: Was uh, the architect of the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights.
Uh, and you know, those two uh, accomplishments revealed so much of his skill as a politician.
Um, he was certainly an intellect.
But you know, he understood how, how people worked, and he understood how the process worked.
And um, that was invaluable.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, Monroe was not as well-known as the other three, before he became President.
Uh, was there something he did before he was President that you would say, he would think is the most important achievement prior to his Presidency?
CHENEY: Well, marrying his wife.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, uh, whom he loved.
There was just, he was ... what's that word?
Uh, uh, a uxorial man, someone who just loved his wife, and tried to spend as much time with her, and as, his daughters, as possible.
Um, so that was very important to him.
I think that personal achievement was.
He was also a man of great ambition, he would try uh, for an office that there was no possibility really of his achieving, and you know, he'd, he'd create some eminency by doing that.
And uh, uh he kept um, doing it anyway.
He was not a deep thinker, as were his two predecessors, um, Jefferson and Madison, especially, and people noted that.
Um, even his friends noted, one wrote, "He has a mind, neither rapid nor rich, but he has great patience, he listens."
One of the things he learned to do before he became President, was to listen to people who were experts, people who knew more than he did.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, let's go through their presidencies for a moment, Washington's Presidency, eight years, what would you think he would say would be the greatest achievement of his presidency?
CHENEY: He's such an enigma.
But I think the opinion of the world is, that he kept the nation together.
It was a very fragile undertaking, and he was the, the perfect personality for that moment and that time, and he was worshiped.
If it hadn't been Washington in the White House, I think people would have been much less enthusiastic about the new government.
RUBENSTEIN: Now Jefferson, his most important accomplishment as President, would that be the Louisiana Purchase?
CHENEY: Yes, I think so.
RUBENSTEIN: So Madison, what would you think he would say his greatest accomplishment was, as President?
CHENEY: The War of 1812.
Um ... and if you think about it, it's just almost unimaginable, that the British uh, could raid Washington, burn the uh, central buildings, uh, displace a lot of people, and that Madison, by the time he left office, would be valorized beyond measure.
Uh, he made his way through that so well, that uh, it's another sign of his political success.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, and Monroe, I assume his most famous accomplishment as President would be seen as the Monroe Doctrine, or is there something else?
CHENEY: No, I think ...
I think that's right.
Uh, I think most people recognize that John Quincy Adams was responsible for much of the uh, the content, but the interesting thing was that John Quincy Adams never claimed credit.
You know, he was sort of the perfect uh, Secretary of State.
He did wonderful things, and he always gave the boss credit.
RUBENSTEIN: Now let's talk about their relationship with their wives.
Uh, it seemed to be a pretty strong relationship, obviously Jefferson's wife died uh, relatively young, but Washington's wife was very close to him, uh, a very good partner, you would agree?
CHENEY: Yes, uh, Martha gave him calm, uh, she brought him comfort.
She traveled to the winter camps.
Um, there was this idea that armies shouldn't fight in the winter, so they went to miserable places like Valley Forge, and uh, spent the winter there.
Martha would arrive there.
She would come visit the troops, and of course, her husband.
And she would hearten everyone with her presence.
Um, visiting the sick, uh, working with other wives who were there, to knit and to sew for the, for the soldiers.
So she was a wonderful um, helpmate.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, Jefferson's wife died very young, he went into depression afterwards, as you point out in your book.
But he never married again, his wife said to him, "Please, I don't want to have our daughters have a stepmother, I had a terrible stepmother, so don't ever marry again," and he didn't.
But um, he, he did have some other lady friends, I guess that's right, but nobody, he never married again, is that, that right, and he had as official hostess, um, he used um, Dolly Madison, at wh, at the White House?
CHENEY: Yes, exactly.
Of course, he had the relationship with Sally Hemings that uh, we didn't know about for a very long time.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, let's talk about that for a moment.
Uh ... Sally Hemings' relationship was denied for a long time, when DNA evidence came out, it was irrefutable, I think.
But um, it was never very clear what the nature of the relationship was.
Do you have any thoughts about it?
Was it forced, coerced, romantic ... uh, what was, what's, what was the nature of the relationship, in your judgment?
CHENEY: I just think that the most important clue we have, and I'm not sure we can reach a hard and fast conclusion from it, but when they were in Paris, she went with him to Paris, um, and he wanted to go back to Virginia.
She had the option, at that point, of not going, and if she had stayed in Paris, she would have been a free woman.
Um, but she did go back with him, and uh, the story is told that she made him agree, forced him to agree, if uh, he wanted her to go back, that her children would be free.
And in the end, they were.
Uh, he didn't free uh, many slaves, but he freed uh, the Hemings family.
RUBENSTEIN: So, Madison, uh, he did marry the very famous Dolly Madison, and what was the nature of that relationship?
CHENEY: Well, he just fell head over heels in love with her, when he saw her walking down the street in Philadelphia.
She was the Widow Todd at that point, her husband had died, and she had a, she had a child.
Uh, the story was, or people said, that when Dolly walked down the street, young men just stopped in their tracks.
She was so gorgeous.
Um, Madison contacted his friend, Aaron Burr, they had gone to college together, um, because he wanted to meet Dolly.
And Aaron Burr arranged the meeting.
Uh, Dolly was all dolled up, she had on uh, a necklace, a low cut uh, burgundy dress, and uh, it wasn't long before Madison asked her to marry him.
It's not clear if she was thrilled at first, with the idea.
Um, but, but it grew into love.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, she didn't say, "He wrote the Constitution, how bad can he be?"
(laughing) CHENEY: No.
RUBENSTEIN: So, what about Monroe, you've said that Monroe and his wife had a terrific relationship and I assume that was uh, a real love affair.
CHENEY: It was, and she was sick most of the time.
They had two daughters, one of whom, the oldest, uh, kind of took over, the First Lady's role, when uh, when she was ill so much.
Uh, this older daughter, Eliza, offended many people, because she was very strong-minded.
But if you look at that uh, phenomenon closely, what you see is Eliza being very sensible, and the rest of Washington was not very sensible, at the time.
RUBENSTEIN: Now at the time that all four of these men were living in Virginia, uh, owning slaves was not considered to be a moral offense, particularly, though they did have some views on slavery not being so wonderful.
But um, all of them were slave owners, and how do you look at that as a, as a uh, historian?
Should we judge people who were slave owners by the fact that they were slave owners, but they did great things as Presidents, and other things in their life, or should we um, not honor them at all, because they were slave owners?
How do you think a historian should look at that, and the country should look at that situation?
CHENEY: I think of it, as they're living in contradiction.
On the one hand, they own slaves and they, they held other human beings in bondage.
They all knew that was wrong, and they said so, Jefferson more eloquently in perhaps a greater extent than the others.
They knew it was wrong, and they didn't see any way to the total emancipation that justice demanded.
I mean, how would you do it?
Um, was the question that, uh, came up again and again.
Monroe uh, and Madison too, worked on a plan for partial emancipation, later in life it had first been seen as an attempt to encourage emancipation, but it was later seen as uh, exploitive of slaves.
So um, that didn't work.
So they all expressed moral repugnance and personal discomfort at the idea of uh, being slaveholder's, but couldn't see a way out.
At the same time, on the other half of the contradiction, they were steeped in these wonderful ideas.
The Scottish Enlightenment in particular had brought forward the ideas of freedom and equality, and justice.
And of making the world better, making the world for people better than it had ever been.
So they set out on that path, which was very different from uh, the path they were on as slaveholder's.
And when I think of memorializing them, or honoring them, the really significant thing is how much they changed the world, and uh, how much our lives are uh, better than they would have been without these men.
RUBENSTEIN: So, when I picked up your book and started to read it, I thought, "Okay, this is the book that could be called The Team of Allies," because you know, they weren't rivals.
I thought they were all friends.
But as I read it through, I thought maybe actually they were a team of rivals at some point, and you point out, and we're going to discuss, they, they were great friends at some times, they fell out, sometimes they came back together, sometimes they stopped talking to each other forever.
So let's go through that.
Um, Washington's relationship with Jefferson, what was the nature of that?
CHENEY: He admired Jefferson.
He admired his skill.
Uh, he asked Jefferson to be his Secretary of State, uh, once he was elected President and Madison uh, and Washington together really pressured Jefferson.
He wanted to go back to Paris.
Um, gradually, the relationship soured, part of it had to do with Alexander Hamilton, and uh, what Jefferson and Madison perceived as Hamilton's unhealthy influence on Washington.
They believed that Hamilton encouraged this uh, streak that Washington, they perceived, had of, of wanting uh, a mono, monarchy, a place where the President would be all powerful.
Washington had this idea, you know, he was a more old fashioned fellow, than the other three, that the purpose of citizens was to elect a President and then leave him alone until the end of his term.
Now, that would be quite pleasant, to have a presidency like that, if you were the President.
But uh, Madison and Jefferson thought that was the end of the great experiment, in uh, in building a republic.
And that was really the source of the break.
Different views of what government should and shouldn't do.
RUBENSTEIN: You mentioned that he appointed uh, Jefferson to be Secretary of State, it's an unusual way they did it, then.
He was appointed, confirmed by the Senate, and Jefferson didn't even know until he came back a month or so later, from Paris, we was appointed and confirmed as the, as the Secretary of State.
He said, "Okay, I'll do it."
CHENEY: But, but he did wrestle around a little bit, uh, saying, "I don't really want to do that."
But in the end he uh, he acceded.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, toward the end of Washington's life, Jefferson was, had fallen out with him so much that they stopped talking, is that right?
CHENEY: Well, it was, it was worse.
Uh, um, when Washington died, um, Jefferson did not go to his funeral.
Uh, though he could have, and I believe Dumas Malone, some of the great Washington scholars agree that that was quite purposeful.
He just didn't want to go.
And once Jefferson had been uh, I think it was nominated for President, um, he went to visit uh, Martha Washington and she told her friend later, it was um, a day in her life that was ... only a little worse than the uh, uh, day Washington had died.
So, the animosity was uh, really great.
RUBENSTEIN: But what was the relationship between Washington and Madison?
CHENEY: Well, again, when the uh, government began, Washington had sat at the Constitutional convention while Madison had uh, guided the construction of that document, and uh, so he was a pretty good judge of who could help him build a constitutional government and he called on Madison.
He depended upon him so much, that when he gave his address and the House of Representatives thanked him, he trusted Madison to write the thank you to the House of Representatives, for thanking him.
Madison had also written the address.
You know, so it was like he was every place, all the time, and deeply trusted.
So that was the beginning.
RUBENSTEIN: Yeah, I think you point out in your book that Washington would give an address that was written by Madison, Madison then responded from the House, and then he would then write Washington's response to Madison's thing from the House.
CHENEY: You know, Madison's words were ringing off every wall.
It's, it's quite amazing.
But he did guide Washington through that early period.
RUBENSTEIN: But they fell out, as well, towards the end.
Is that right?
Uh, it, it was again, about the same time as uh, the falling out with Jefferson.
Um, Madison too um, believed that uh, government officials uh, should be accountable during their, during their term of service.
A point that seems so obvious to us, but uh, wasn't then, as they were struggling to build a new nation.
What was the relationship between Washington and Monroe?
CHENEY: Well, um ... it was never warm, I don't think.
Monroe, you know, Monroe was a hero, at the Battle of Trenton.
Uh, seriously, almost mortally uh, wounded.
And he felt that Washington never appreciated uh, his bravery or his sacrifice.
Um, that was a source of resentment that built and built.
Monroe had this funny habit, it's perhaps a very wise habit, of sitting down and writing the nastiest letters and essays he could think about, calling uh, Washington, you know, a silly actor on a stage, and uh, suggesting that everything he did was artifice.
Um, uh, using very strong language.
So, he would write something like this, and then never send the letter, never publish the essay.
But for some reason, um, it's still in his um, in his volumes of papers.
RUBENSTEIN: Writing letters that you don't send as a way of getting your venom out of your system.
I can't imagine ever doing that, right?
CHENEY: Well, he also, after a while, when he thought Washington had thoroughly disrespected him, he also wrote a public document castigating him.
And this made Washington furious.
One of the few times you really see uh, you really have evidence, you know, uh, firsthand evidence of Washington uh, being angry, he took all these notes in the margins of this book that Monroe had written about him.
And it, it's very interesting, to see uh, the unvarnished Washington.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, the relationship between Jefferson and Madison is generally pretty close, but I, from reading your book, it sounds like, as if Madison tries to manage the relationship, because he realized Jefferson sometimes goes off the deep end.
So how would you describe the Madison-Jefferson relationship?
CHENEY: Well, I would say that Madison kept Jefferson tethered to Earth.
You know, he had these great flights of fancy, and some of them were beautiful and useful, and resulted in the great prose, for example, of the Declaration of Independence.
But sometimes, you know, it was just all up there in the air, and Madison had to pull him back.
I think Jefferson also inspired Madison, um, giving him uh, a touch of poetry in his soul that he might not have had um, otherwise.
There was a period though, when the two men, who were fast friends for life, when they did have a little break, and that was when Madison was trying to get the Constitution ratified and Jefferson decided it was all wrong.
You had to have a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
So he started writing letters, secretly, behind Madison's back, to people, saying, in the different ratification conventions, saying, "Don't ratify it."
You know, "Let it hang out there until we get a Bill of Rights."
Well, Madison, being the politician he was, knew that wasn't going to work.
If you had um, 13 states looking at one Constitution, and each offering advice for a Bill of Rights that should be part of it, you would end up in total chaos.
A second convention, and Madison knew how hard the first had been, and was strongly uh, doubtful that a second would be successful.
What Madison did, and this sort of proves his patience, is he just quit writing Jefferson for a while.
And uh, finally, Jefferson came around.
RUBENSTEIN: And what was the Jefferson-Monroe relationship?
CHENEY: Well, it was very good at first, uh, Jefferson was his mentor, uh, Monroe had a traumatic uh, life in the beginning and Jefferson took him under his wing.
Uh, helped him find uh, his way in life, which turned out to be politics.
So uh, oh, and, and Monroe was deeply um, deeply grateful.
However, once Monroe became President, Jefferson had this idea of someone he wanted to be appointed to an office, and the one he wanted to be appointed was someone to whom he owed a lot.
Not money, so much, but uh, someone who had helped him when he was in debt.
Um, but there was a personal and a little bit monetary relationship, and Monroe wouldn't appoint him.
Not necessarily because of that, but because he had his own appointee.
Jefferson was simply um, dismayed, um, couldn't believe that after all the effort he had put into making Monroe a better person, that Monroe would do this to him, and that, that essentially ended their relationship.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, what about Madison and Monroe?
They started out, if I remember from your book, um, being competitors a bit, because they were running against each other from time to time, but then they ultimately wound up to have a pretty close relationship, is that fair?
Uh, I think Madison was uh, you know, a, he, he found Monroe a little amusing, because he was so much like an open book.
Um, he didn't seem to have any secrets, which when you're a politician is, you've got to keep some secrets, I think.
Um, but at the end, Madison and Monroe, all of the, the last three men all died within a certain timeframe.
Madison and Monroe uh, remained in correspondence.
Um, they expressed their high regard for one another, before they died.
Um, Jefferson and Madison remained very close and uh, in very um, moving letters, uh, expressed their regard from one other.
Monroe and Jefferson didn't write.
So, you know, at the end, um, Monroe and Madison um, Jefferson and Madison were pretty much reconciled, but uh, but Monroe uh, was the odd man out, when it came to Jefferson.
RUBENSTEIN: So four of the first five Presidents are from Virginia.
What about the other uh, 12 states, are they saying, "What about us?"
Or did they resent the fact that all the Presidents are coming from Virginia?
You know, it became a real political issue that the Virginians uh, struggled with.
They would uh, try to influence the choice of a Vice President from uh, uh, another state, usually from the North.
That's what they sought was the uh, North/South balance.
So yes, it was a very big issue.
Monroe was especially um, sensitive to it, I think perhaps because it weighed more on him.
And uh, uh, talked about uh, the jealousy of the Northern states, the jealousy that he understood as uh, as anyone would.
Four of the first five Presidents from Virginia is a lot.
RUBENSTEIN: What would you say is the key message of the book that you're trying to convey?
CHENEY: Well, uh, there is one important message that became more important to me in the writing of this book, and that is that uh, human beings, these four men, can make enormous contributions, um, to the world, that they deserve to be honored for, even if they were not perfect in their private lives.
That their greatness should be honored.
So I wa, I wanted to show that greatness.
But I was also intrigued by their effect upon one another.
It was a little bit of uh, group dynamics.
You know, without Jefferson, Monroe would have collapsed um, in, in his early days when he had trauma.
Um, without uh, Madison, Jefferson would probably not have been practical enough uh, to be President.
He probably would have been President anyway, but Madison just brought him back to Earth all those times.
Without um, Madison, uh, Washington would have had a very rough start um, in establishing the country.
So, uh, a, all of those dynamics played in.
I, I even ... see, this is one of my rabbit holes.
I went down uh, the rabbit hole of group dynamics, and there's been some wonderful writing, not the modern writing, but the older writing, a man named Kroeber wrote a book in the early 20th century, and quoted some amazing uh, Greek um, observations about you know, the gathering of mathematicians in this place, the gathering of artists in Florence, uh, and how greatness is encouraged by greatness.
That uh, being in the presence of others inspires you, makes you want to emulate them.
And rivalry too, as we see in the Virginia Dynasty, is a motivating factor.
RUBENSTEIN: We've been in conversation with Lynne Cheney about her new book, The Virginia Dynasty.
I want to thank you for a very interesting conversation Lynne, thank you.
CHENEY: Well, thank you for your great questions, I really appreciate it.
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