11 Questions with Thomas Fleming

When the electric typewriter was the newest technology. Courtesy of Thomas Fleming.
When the electric typewriter was the newest technology. Courtesy of Thomas Fleming.

Thomas Fleming is one of the most prolific authors of American Revolution history. He has written 20 nonfiction books that have won prizes and praise from critics and fellow historians, as well as 23 novels, many of them bestsellers. He is perhaps best known for his appearances on C-SPAN, PBS and the History Channel. I had the privilege of working with Tom on the peace treaty section of Reporting the Revolutionary War and recently interviewed him to reflect on his impressive background and ask some hard-hitting questions about time travel and favorite quotes.

1 // TODD: You always wanted to be an American writer, not an Irish-American writer, and you say in your bio that immersing yourself in American history helped you cross that bridge. As one of the most prolific writers of books about the American Revolution, what else has American history — and specifically the Revolution — helped you see/do/accomplish?

TOM: I think the key word is empowerment. That’s what I got – and still get — from my study of the Revolution. Knowledge of that period is a sort of intellectual compass that has helped me understand and interpret other periods of American history. So much of what happened later is virtually anchored in the Revolution. The whole Civil War pivots on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Even Woodrow Wilson’s wild claim that we were in World War I to make the world safe for democracy (allied with the British Empire, where 440 million people lacked the right to vote)  goes back to the sense that we were launching a revolution that would change the world. And it has! How many people know that in the century after 1776, over 200 declarations of independence were issued around the globe?

2 // TODD: Liberty! The American Revolution, the award-winning PBS series, remains the must-see video production for those interested in the era. You authored the companion book, which was just as epic as the film. How did that opportunity come about and what do you recall most about your work on that large volume?

TOM: My memories of Liberty! are still intense. It was written at an almost suicidal pace. The producers of the TV show decided they wanted a companion volume and gave me six months to write it. I remember writing until midnight in my Connecticut summer house and reeling downstairs to lie on the living room rug, trying for a quick cure for my exhaustion.  Now I think the pace had a lot to do with the book’s vitality. You might say it was hot off the press – in my head. I had written over a dozen books on the Revolution and this was the perfect way to combine them. What I remember most vividly is a call I received from Catherine Allen, the show’s producer. She told me that when she finished reading the book — she cried. Alarmed, I asked her why. “Because you’ve gotten six times more in this book than we can ever get on the screen!”  As a book man, I have treasured those words.  Though I also think the TV show was superbly done. The writer, Ron Blumer, deserves very high marks for what he accomplished in his medium.

3 // TODD: As someone who mastered the art of storytelling, I imagine you are a connoisseur of other fine writings and engaging narratives about the Revolution. What books (written by others) do you most recommend to fellow American Revolution history buffs?

TOM: The First Year of the American Revolution by Allen French — still a tour de force. The War for America by Piers Mackesy — a superb account of the British viewpoint. Private Yankee Doodle, the memoirs of Joseph Plumb Martin – the best account of the war from the bottom up. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind by Merrill Petersen — a crucial perspective on the Revolution’s most complex character. Fame and the Founding Fathers by Douglas Adair. This is the title of the lead essay in this book. It provides a huge insight into a subject that most 21st Century Americans don’t understand. Party Politics in the Continental Congress by H. James Henderson — a forgotten masterpiece on a subject that has escaped too many people. Rise and Fight Again by Charles Bracelen Flood – a great account of how we survived shattering defeats. The chapter  on the debacle of the Penobscot Expedition to Maine is alone worth the price. Lt. Col Paul Revere wound up under house arrest, accused of disobedience and cowardice.

4 // TODD: Describe your workspace.

TOM: My workspace is not neat or orderly. There are books piled everywhere. Filing cabinets bulge with the latest research on the book I’m writing. On the walls are all sorts of mottos and quotes that I found profound or simply entertaining. One is Moliere’s observation, “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love  of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.” Then there is Sir Joseph Antley’s prayer before the battle of Newbury (during the English Civil War): “LORD I SHALL BE VERIE BUSIE THIS DAY. I MAY FORGET THEE BUT DOE NOT THOU FORGET ME.”

Addressing the National Association of Scholars. Courtesy of Thomas Fleming.
Addressing the National Association of Scholars. Courtesy of Thomas Fleming.

5 // TODD: If you could time travel and visit any American colony/state for one year between 1763 and 1783, which colony and which year would you choose? Why?

TOM: I would time travel to New Jersey in 1775 and watch Governor William Franklin trying to sabotage the Revolution while his heartbroken father watches and wonders and grieves. If I had to choose the best chapter in the books I’ve written, I’d suggest “Revolutions Break Hearts” in 1776: Year of Illusions. It’s about the two Franklins,William and Ben.

6 // TODD: Which nonfiction book can you read over and over again?

TOM: It’s not a nonfiction book. It’s Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. This was the book that made me a Revolutionary War historian. It tells the whole Revolution from a loyalist point of view. I read it at the age of 15. I think historical novels are very important vehicles for understanding the Revolution. I regard the two I’ve set in that era as among my most important books. Liberty Tavern is about a hostelry on the King’s Highway in New Jersey, run by a retired British army officer. Dreams of Glory is about the intelligence war in 1780. I’ve published over 20 novels, most of them historical.

7 // TODD: History is an infinite space with new and exciting things always being discovered. What new or exciting thing about the American Revolution have you recently learned or discovered?

TOM: The relationship between George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. I’m writing a book about it. It’s amazing how little understood it is. So many people – including historians – think of Washington as a figurehead. He was the total opposite of such a figment. He was PRESIDENT. He invented the idea of  a strong presidency, which Harry Truman once told me was, in his opinion,  the most important political office ever created by the mind of man.

8 // TODD: Favorite quote from a Founding Father?

TOM: “To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.”  George Washington said this while trying to decide whether to back the Constitutional Convention. It explains the last twenty years of his life – and possibly the previous twenty.

9 // TODD: I see on your website that you are currently working on a book that will explore why the United States became the only nation in the world to fight a war to end slavery. Are you finished writing about the American Revolution? If not, what Revolution-related tome(s) is/are still in the pipeline?

TOM: My new book, which will be out in May, is A Disease in the Public Mind, A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. In the preface, I tell how dismayed I was to realize that less than forty years after the deaths of the last of the  founders, we became the only country in the world to fight a murderous civil war to end slavery. Everyone else ended it peacefully. The Revolution permeates the early pages. There is a chapter about Washington, “The Forgotten Emancipator,” explaining why he hesitated to free his slaves while he was president, though he was repeatedly tempted, thanks to pressure from Lafayette, He didn’t do it because he feared it would fracture the fragile American union. He freed them in his will – an act that had virtually no public impact. The shock of his death reduced their emancipation to a trivial subtext. The book is a kind of descendant of 1776: Year of Illusions. The diseases in the public mind that led to the Civil War were deeper and more complex than an illusion. But the essential critique – the way nations and peoples can plunge into wars driven by delusions – remains the same.

10 // TODD: Best untold or rarely told story of the American Revolution?

TOM: The best untold story of the Revolution is Anthony Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794. I – and others – consider this the last battle of the Revolution. It put an end to the British plot to arm the Indians and drive the Americans east of the Appalachians. When Washington asked Congress to pass a resolution congratulating Mad Anthony, the Jeffersonian-dominated solons said they did not think it was proper for the august Congress to praise a general of the American regular army. It’s a marvelous glimpse of Jeffersonian hostility to a standing army – and the kind of problems Washington confronted as president. He calmly replied that he was unbothered by Congress’s decision. The President of the United States would thank General Wayne, on his own.

11 // TODD: Which book of yours gets the most feedback from readers? Why?

TOM: The book that gets the most feedback is Duel. (1999) The clash between Burr and Hamilton is the most misunderstood episode in the Revolutionary era’s later years. I spent 25 years researching it.  Incidentally, the book is amazingly popular among black Americans. I asked a black friend why.  “Duel shows how history screwed Colonel Burr,” he replied. “That makes us  feel we’ve got a lot in common.”

UPDATE 2/4/13: Yesterday, Thomas Fleming was awarded the DAR History Medal, a lifetime achievement award for contributions that significantly advance the understanding of America’s past, by the Morristown, NJ, chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Congrats, Tom!

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3 Comments

  • This Q&A with Thomas Fleming is simply outstanding.

    He doesn’t simply answer – he expounds with excitement. And, history IS exciting. While I’ve read many of the books he mentioned I’ve noted others and will get about acquiring them.

    Back in the mid 1970’s I had grown up on Long Island (something I keep a secret here in Ga.) and transitioning to Ohio. At that time there was a guy running around NYC lighting fires. He was known as “Marvin the Torch.” I don’t know what happened to him – but, around that time Thomas Fleming wrote an essay that helped sink the history hooks even deeper into me, “The True Story of Nathan (“The Torch”) Hale: No Wonder They Hanged Him.”

    This piece really got my attention as it was one of the first times I’d read an article that told a story that was contrary to the accepted “known” history. Hale wasn’t a spy – – he was an agent sent to NYC to set it afire!

    I’ve never forgotten it. Just found it online – http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/fc/fleminghale.html

    Hugh Harrington

  • After I retired thirteen years ago, I signed up for a “life-long learning” course at a nearby community college. To me, the Revolutionary War began at Bunker Hill and ended at Yorktown, with that nasty winter at Valley Forge in between. I’ve been taking every course offered since in colonial history.
    I live fourteen miles from Gettysburg and everything revolves around the Civil War. It’s been gratifying to see people come into these classes and get drawn into the remarkable, fascinating history of our country’s beginnings.
    An elderly gentleman I met in class loaned me his copy of Kenneth Roberts’ book, “The Lively Lady.” I was hooked, and read many more, but “Oliver Wiswell” was my most recent and I feel it was his best. Is the fact that it’s told from the loyalist point of view the reason it’s not as well known? My husband and I are planning a “pilgrimage” in Oliver and Buell’s footsteps from Hampton Roads to Charleston (the loooong way!)
    Now I see I must read some more Fleming!!
    Thank you!

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