HamilTEN Questions with Thomas Fleming
Thomas Fleming is an historian and historical novelist, with a special interest in the American Revolution. Born in 1927, Fleming served in the US Navy at the close of WWII and eventually went on to become a full-time writer. His first history book, Now We Are Enemies, an account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, was published in 1960. Since then, Fleming has published numerous books about events and figures of the Revolutionary era, including acclaimed biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and the companion volume to the PBS series, Liberty: The American Revolution.
Fleming has written about Alexander Hamilton in his book Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America (1999), as well as in other books including Washington’s Secret War, The Hidden History of Valley Forge (2005), The Perils of Peace, America’s Struggle to Survive After Yorktown (2007), and The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation (2015).
He has also written about other periods of American history. In particular, Fleming's publications on military history include his book West Point: The Men and Times of the U.S. Military Academy (1969) and articles in magazines such as American Heritage, Military History, History Today, and MHQ, the Quarterly Journal of Military History.
Thomas Fleming has been a frequent guest on PBS, A&E, the History Channel, and C-SPAN. As the AHA Society Keynote Speaker for CelebrateHAMILTON 2013, Fleming gave a talk on "Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the US," which is available to watch online from C-SPAN3 American History TV. Thomas Fleming will also be the featured speaker on the Hamilton-Burr duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 2016 as part of CelebrateHAMILTON 2016 - event information available here.
HamilTEN Questions with Thomas Fleming
1. Your first book on the Revolutionary War (on the Battle of Bunker Hill) was published in 1960, over fifty-five years ago. What differences, if any, have you observed in the study of the Revolutionary War now compared to five decades ago?
When I wrote Now We Are Enemies, the American Revolution was a blank in the public mind. The Civil War and the two world wars had obliterated it. No one had written a line about Bunker Hill for 90 years. Today, the Revolution has become a familiar topic. It has figured in two highly successful Broadway musicals. Literally hundreds of books have been written about it. I learned only yesterday that Hollywood is considering a movie on Bunker Hill. When I sold my book to the movies in 1960, they could not raise a nickel to make the film.
2. You are obviously a very prolific writer, as was Alexander Hamilton. What is your favorite piece of writing by Hamilton?
My favorite piece of his writing is Washington’s Farewell Address. I think it is one of the great state papers of our history. We should make sure young people reread it. I must add that Hamilton wrote it in very close collaboration with Washington. The ideas are almost all the president’s. But it is superbly written. After reading it I thought, Washington was undoubtedly the revolution’s indispensable man. But Hamilton was the indispensable man’s indispensable man.
3. You chose the subject of the Hamilton-Burr duel for one of your books (Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America). If you could have any question answered about the duel by either Hamilton or Burr, what would you most want to know?
I would like to know what I already suspect – – whether Hamilton planned to fire at Burr. I think he planned to fire in the air. This was known as a delope. It was a way of humiliating an opponent by declaring you didn’t think he was worth shooting. Around this time, the Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, fought a duel with a member of Parliament outside London on Hounslow Heath. Pitt fired in the air and his opponent was so humiliated, he immediately resigned from Parliament.
4. If you could be present for any event in Hamilton's life besides the duel, which would you choose?
I wish I could’ve been with him when, as a young aide, he rode virtually nonstop from Valley Forge to Albany to tell Major General Horatio Gates that Washington wanted him to send every available man to the main army as soon as possible. Gates had recently won the battle of Saratoga, and was intriguing to succeed Washington as commander-in-chief. To underscore his attitude, he sent the news of his victory to Congress, but did not bother to inform Washington. I think Gates is one of the most detestable characters in the Revolution. I would have loved to be there as he got his comeuppance from Hamilton. At first, General Gates could not believe the effrontery with which this young lieutenant colonel spoke to him. Hamilton, emanating contempt as well as authority, made it clear without quite saying so that he knew Gates was trying to supplant Washington. After a few go rounds with Hamilton, Gates released virtually every soldier he had under his command.
5. You have written for military history publications, plus a book on the West Point Military Academy (for which, as an interesting side note, Hamilton was a big proponent and even had the land purchased for federal use). Do you think being both a personal veteran of war and an author of military history gives you a unique perspective into Hamilton's long military career?
When I joined the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II, my father, who had been commissioned in the field during the battle of the Argonne in 1918, took me aside and said: “I was always proud of being an infantryman. But strictly between you and me, I’m glad you joined the Navy.” I tell this story to make it clear that my understanding and admiration for Hamilton’s military achievements have little to do with my personal experience. However, the three years I spent at West Point, writing my history of the military academy has helped me understand what attracted Hamilton to a military career. It is – and always has been – – an opportunity not only to serve one’s country, but to achieve fame. This desire was the driving force in Hamilton’s psyche. I remember coming home from a day of interviewing several generals at West Point and telling my wife, “they’re all in the history game.”
6. Your latest history book is The Great Divide—The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined A Nation. Though the book explores the evolving relationship of Washington and Jefferson, it also focuses on the broader split that Washington and Hamilton had with Jefferson and Madison. Why did you want to tell this story?
I wanted to tell the story because it has significant meaning for 21st century Americans. It is essentially about two versions of the presidency. One was Washington’s – – he saw the office as co-equal to Congress. Jefferson was convinced that this would lead to a dictatorship, perhaps a monarchy. When he became president, he tried to do the opposite of almost everything Washington did. For instance, Washington annually addressed Congress, bringing them up to date on the problems and solutions on which he was working. Jefferson sent a message via a clerk. It would be over a century before Woodrow Wilson restored the annual message – a crucial dimension of the presidency.
7. The Great Divide was recently voted the best book on the Revolution for 2015 by the American Revolution Round Table of New York. Congratulations! Interestingly, you had written an award-winning biography on Thomas Jefferson forty-six years before The Great Divide. Did your perspective on Jefferson change at all during the years in between the writing of these two books?
My book about Thomas Jefferson that was published in 1969 was subtitled “An Intimate Biography.” Its focus was on his relationship with members of his family. I was inspired to do it when I came across a book written by one of his granddaughters. It was published around 1870, and revived Jefferson’s reputation, which the Civil War had pretty much wrecked. I played down his politics. The book sold over 100,000 copies and was listed by the New York Times as one of the outstanding books of the year. Reading about Jefferson as a politician over the next several decades made me decide it was time to write a realistic book about that side of his complex personality.
8. What do you hope that readers take away from The Great Divide?
I hope readers take away from The Great Divide the realization that violent political differences existed in the founding years, just as they exist today. We survived them, and I think we will survive today’s unnerving entanglements.
9. In what ways can you relate to Alexander Hamilton?
I relate to Hamilton in many ways. One is in the realm of fathers. I had a strong rather laconic father. He seldom expressed personal emotion to me, though I knew he cared deeply about me. Hamilton was as close as Washington came to having a son. There were moments of tension and anger in the relationship. But they passed. I think there was love as well as respect between the two men. When Hamilton’s enemies exposed his relationship to Maria Reynolds, and he admitted his adultery in a blazing essay, his enemies, notably Jefferson and Madison, rejoiced. A few days later, there arrived at Hamilton’s house an exquisite silver service from George Washington. With it was a note declaring Hamilton still retained his respect and admiration.
10. What is your favorite fact about Hamilton?
My favorite fact about Hamilton involves a story. One of the great crooks of the era was the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. When the French Revolution grew bloody, he decided it would be healthier to spend some time in America. On his way home from a party, around two or three am, he passed Hamilton’s office. He was at his desk writing a brief for one of his clients. Talleyrand could not believe his eyes. He turned to the people with him and exclaimed: “There is the man who has made the fortune of his country toiling like a humble clerk to support his family. In France or England by this time he would be worth millions. If I had not seen him with my own eyes tonight, I would have dismissed the story as impossible.”