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'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents': Kenneth C. Davis reveals strange facts about America's leaders

George Washington breaking the law? The president with the most corrupt presidential administration in American history? Writer Kenneth C. Davis discusses surprising facts about our past leaders.

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It’s very significant to me because I remember being a young boy standing in that field and having this palpable sense of something extraordinary having happened in that battlefield – not really understanding the issue of war, of course, but having a sense that history happened here. That sense that history is something that happened to real people in real places is a fundamental sense I had largely because my parents took us to places like Gettysburg and Valley Forge and Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York on campaign trips. It can’t just be a recitation of dates and battles and legislation and court decisions.

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What surprised you most as you researched this book on the presidents?

Obviously, I know the history pretty well, having written about American history for more than 20 years, starting with "Don’t Know Much About History." A lot of the basics were familiar to me and certainly, some of the more notable presidents I had done a great deal of research on over my career writing about history.

But I am always constantly amazed at the new discoveries I make. Little surprises I learn almost every day. I tell people, if I don’t learn something every day, it’s kind of a disappointment. You can take the most fundamental story – we all think we know the Washington story pretty well, but I’m constantly amazed at the things I learned about him. With Washington, my surprising discovery was the revelation about what he did with his slaves when he was president.

We all know Washington kept slaves and some of us may know he wanted to emancipate some of them in his will; he couldn’t emancipate all of the slaves because they didn’t all belong to him. But this curious connection between Washington and slavery has always fascinated me. What I did not know was that when he went to Philadelphia as president – it was the temporary capital of the United States – he brought slaves with him, but Pennsylvania then had a law under which slaves were emancipated if they were in the state for more than six months. Washington had to shuttle slaves back and forth every six months to keep them from being freed even though the state law in Pennsylvania specifically said that that was illegal. They figured someone was going to try and get around that loophole.

So Washington clearly broke a law in Pennsylvania. Several of (his slaves) did escape there. One of them was named Oney and he spent spent a good deal of time, money, and effort trying to recover her. And she was eventually found. They tried to talk her into coming back to Mount Vernon, which she refused to do. She had no interest in returning to a life of slavery.

One of the points you make is that campaigns and elections have been fraught with ugliness from the beginning. Why do Americans forget that each time another election comes around?

Because we do have short historical memories and most of us have no historical memory for this. Also, there’s a very important point about the early years of the republic and the early presidents. We tend to paint a picture of the past that is filled with pride and patriotism that leaves out the seamier side of the story.

This started before Washington left office. The two parties began to form. Washington warned against it before he left, most of the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, talked about how bad the party [system] was. Washington warned against the “baneful effects” of party. But it is, as Washington himself said, human nature, that we seek out those who are like-minded and form alliances. Just like on “Survivor,” [that’s] how I explain it to kids who want to know about [political] parties. We band together out of mutual self-interest and find those people who are going to achieve our ends. That is essentially what the parties are.

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