David O. Stewart, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
I’ve done five books – four histories and one novel – on the American Founding era (1770-1815), beginning with our Constitutional Convention (The Summer of 1787). It is an extraordinary period when a relatively small community invents a new form of government and political community without a monarch, with no aristocracy, and with elements of self-government. The effort was far from seamless; tolerating slavery in half the nation was tragic. Yet that pivotal era brought out the absolute best in many key actors, while the American example inspired many around the world to seek self-government. It’s a fascinating time and place to learn about and think about.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
In 2005, when I started researching my first book, I spent many weeks at our Library of Congress and schlepped to different archives to hunt down sources. In the few years since then, the digitization of historical sources has been nothing short of dazzling. For my book on George Washington, which issued a year ago, I reviewed his entire collected papers online – more than 60 printed volumes of material and the collected papers of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. And, of course, many newspapers of his era, plus memoirs and writings of his contemporaries, have been scanned and are also available online. For more obscure sources, research libraries usually are willing to scan documents and send them to me via email; the charges for such help sometimes seems steep, but they are certainly less than the cost of traveling to that archive. This democratization of access to resources is a great blessing.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
Of course. Look at the massive literature of the holocaust wreaked upon Jews by Nazi Germany, who lost the war. Then compare the relatively scanty literature about the far greater holocaust inflicted on the Russian people by Stalin’s dictatorship – a dictatorship which Russian governments (including the current one) have not wished to see explored. The crimes of the winners are much more difficult to find.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
A number of history books showed me that close, imaginative study of key people and events can produce not only great understanding, but also great literature. I would include Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing; Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Not having academic training in history – which is not a regret – I can’t single out a historian who influenced me.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
Too many historical figures would be fascinating company to name just one (Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, and on and on), but there is an event I would love to attend: In spring 1782 in Philadelphia, George Washington dined with financier Robert Morris and the fiery Thomas Paine (and possibly with the urbane Gouverneur Morris). In one small room, the American Revolution’s military and symbolic leader sat down with its principal money man and with the advocate who wrote the words that rallied the cause. Those are the essential talents for any revolutionary or political movement. What a marvelous opportunity to hear how they made it happen; if I knew anything about writing plays, I might try to capture that remarkable gathering for the stage.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
The most important way to teach history is in depth, exposing students to differing and inconsistent accounts of what really happened, why it happened, and what its consequences were. When one of my sons was twelve years old, his history teacher spent most of a semester on the Battle of the Alamo, looking at it from the White view, the Mexican view, and from the perspectives of slaves and Indians. They studied and compared first-person accounts. That’s such a good way to understand the stuff of history, and also to gain ways to look at one’s own times. Memorizing a roster of dates and “the three causes of the American Civil War” doesn’t produce critical thinking or thoughtful citizens. Far more useful is exploring how different people experienced events and trends.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Take chances. Be as bold as you can stand to be. I passed up a few chances, which are now regrets. And I took a few chances, which are not sources of regret.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
My principal project right now is the draining business of book marketing in a pandemic. Starting last February, with the launch of my George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, I am publishing four books in twenty months, through every Covid variant (take that, coronavirus!). My fictional trilogy of American history, The Overstreet Saga, began with the publication in November of Book One, The New Land, and will continue with launches of Book Two in May (The Burning Land) and Book Three in October (The Resolute Land). And then will come the paperback versions of each. Promotion is not my favorite part of writing books, especially when doing virtual/Zoom events, but writing is an empty exercise if no one reads your work.
I am pecking at a new non-fiction project that would be a significant departure for me – not American, not the 18th century, not focused on political events. But I’m still trying to figure out what kind of book it would make. Stay tuned!