Revolution 250 Podcast

George Washington and the American Crisis with William M. Fowler

August 01, 2023 William M. Fowler Season 4 Episode 31
Revolution 250 Podcast
George Washington and the American Crisis with William M. Fowler
Show Notes Transcript

When the British surrendered at Yorktown, the war ended and American independence was secure.  Or was it?   The British still occupied Savannah, Charleston, and New York City, and the Congress was not able to pay the American army.  During the two years between Cornwallis's surrender and the final British evacuation, George Washington faced one of the gravest crises in American history--an attempt by some of his officers to usurp the authority of Congress and establish themselves in power.  Would Washington go along?  We talk with William M. Fowler, author of American Crisis:  George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown 1781-1783.  You thought winning the war was difficult--wait till you hear about winning the peace!  

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 Welcome, everyone, to the Revolution 250 podcast.
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 I'm Bob Allison.
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 I chair the Rev 250 advisory group, and we are a consortium of 70 groups in Massachusetts looking at ways to commemorate the beginnings of the American Revolution.
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 And our guest today is Bill Fowler, William M. Fowler, Jr., a distinguished professor of history, emeritus, Northeastern University, the author of many books on the revolutionary era and on maritime history.
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 But today we're going to talk about George Washington in the years after the revolution.
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 So, Bill, thanks for joining us.
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 Well, thank you, Bob.
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 It's a pleasure to be with you and all of your listeners.
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 So, Bill, we know about Washington as commander-in-chief.
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 So then what happens when the war ends to Washington and his army, and why is this important?
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 Well, you know, Bob, I think one of the most essential traits of a historian is curiosity.
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 And for many years, I taught courses in the American Revolution and wrote some books about it as well.
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 For the popular image, the American Revolution sort of ends in 1781 with the surrender at Yorktown.
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 But, of course, the peace doesn't come until late 1783.
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 And so I was rather curious about this.
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 What was going on in those two years?
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 In particular, what was George Washington doing?
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 Through research and through a lot of reading and visiting places, I love to visit historic sites, I began to put together a picture of those two years.
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 And those two years, a lot was happening.
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 Washington was very active.
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 And in fact, the revolution was hardly over.
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 Washington's victory at Yorktown ended one phase of the revolution.
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 After that victory, the British were still in occupation of New York City.
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 They still occupied Charleston.
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 They were still very, very powerful Navy, powerful army.
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 So what did happen?
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 After Yorktown, Washington returned to the vicinity of New York City, which the British still occupied.
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 And he took up his position at a place called Newburgh, New York.
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 By the way, I encourage your listeners to visit Newburgh.
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 It's a state historic site.
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 Washington's army was there encamped at Newburgh watching over the British down in New York City.
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 At the same time, after Yorktown, the French left.
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 They had business elsewhere in the world, had to defend their possessions.
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 So here is Washington with his army doing essentially nothing, watching the British down in New York City.
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 In the meantime, the peace negotiations are going on in Paris.
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 But they're taking a long time.
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 Not much is happening.
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 And the American army in Newburgh is becoming very uncomfortable.
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 What is happening?
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 Peace is in the air.
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 In 1780, the Congress had agreed that the officers would be paid half pay for life.
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 That's how they kept them in the army.
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 But after 1780, the fact of the matter was the
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 Congress had no money.
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 And so the officers are becoming quite agitated.
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 They don't know quite what's going on.
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 The British are still down there in New York.
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 They don't think they're going to get paid.
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 They don't trust the Congress, et cetera, et cetera.
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 In the midst of this, there arrives at the Newburgh encampment, General Horatio Gates.
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 General Horatio Gates and George Washington had a long, unhappy relationship.
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 They detested one another.
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 But Gates had influence in Congress, so Congress set him up to Newburgh.
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 And he took up his headquarters at a place called Ellison House, not far from the Newburgh encampment where Washington and the Army was.
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 Well, in the meantime, of course, agitation.
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 Are we going to be paid?
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 Who's going to pay us?
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 Is the war over?
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 What's going on?
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 What's going on?
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 And there are a few young officers serving under Gates.
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 These are ambitious, let me be frank, somewhat unscrupulous men.
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 They are friends of Gates and not friends of Washington.
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 They're very impatient.
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 They think Washington is doing nothing, doing nothing.
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 And so they send out an announcement to the officers at the Newburgh encampment.
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 And they announced that there's going to be a very special meeting.
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 All of the offices on March the 11th.
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 And they're going to meet in a building called, interestingly enough, the Temple of Virtue.
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 During the encampment, just to keep the men busy, Washington had them building huts and laying out roads.
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 And the Temple of Virtue was kind of an assembly hall.
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 But Washington had not had anything to do with this March 11th meeting.
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 As soon as he got notice, as soon as he got notice, can I just?
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 As soon as he got notice that this meeting was going to take place, he realized there was a conspiracy afoot.
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 The conspiracy was against him.
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 And the conspiracy was against him.
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 So he immediately canceled the meeting.
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 But he understood that he could not ignore the pleas, the concerns of his officers.
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 So while he canceled the meeting on March 11th, he said, we will meet on March 15th.
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 Commander in Chief, he was organizing this meeting.
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 So for about four days, March 11th or so to March 10th,
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 There's a lot of activity at Newburgh.
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 Washington is busy with his officers.
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 And what he is doing is he's trying to manage this meeting.
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 He knows that tensions are rising high.
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 If he doesn't placate the officers, if he doesn't address them and answer their queries, he's in danger.
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 Mutiny is in the air.
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 And so he consults with his officers.
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 And during this time, he writes a speech that he intends to deliver.
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 On March 15th at noon, at the appointed hour, the officers assemble at the Temple of Virtue.
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 When they assembled, they did not know that Washington was going to attend the meeting.
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 He hadn't been clear on that.
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 And so the meeting is convened by General Gates.
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 Gates convenes the meeting.
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 As he is convening the meeting, Washington, the consummate actor,
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 rides up to the Temple of Virtue, and outside the guard hears the sound of hoofs.
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 And there through the door comes the commander-in-chief.
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 Now imagine this for a moment.
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 Washington is a big man, about six foot.
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 He enters this room dressed always as he was, elegantly in the blue uniform of a continental officer.
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 The men in the room, about 300 of them, are startled to see him, the commander-in-chief there.
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 So they immediately come to attention.
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 He walks to the front of the room.
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 General Gates moves aside.
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 Washington takes charge of the meeting.
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 It is at this moment that he delivers to them perhaps one of the most important speeches of his entire life.
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 Room is tense.
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 Everyone is waiting to hear what will the general say.
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 He delivers a speech, not very long, about five, six minutes maybe.
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 And let me just read you what he said to them at the end of that speech, because this is a very, very emotional moment, emotional for Washington, as well as for his officers.
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 He says to them,
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 Let me conjure you in the name of our common country as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes under any species pretenses to overturn the liberties of our country.
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 and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.
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 Here, of course, he is talking about General Gates.
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 He goes on to say to these men,
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 By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes.
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 You will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice.
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 You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings.
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 And you will, by the dignity of your conduct,
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 for an occasion for posterity to say when speaking of this glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, quote, had this day been wanting, the world has never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.
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 There was not a dry eye in the box.
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 The officers were in tears.
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 Washington then folded up his speech
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 and left, leaving the officers in silence.
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 A few moments passed, and then the officers agreed and voted unanimously to support the commander in chief.
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 In that one moment, Washington pushed aside a mutiny.
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 He had reassigned himself, connected himself with the men who loved him so much.
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 He had saved the revolution and saved
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 although they might not have even deserved it, have saved the authority of Congress.
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 And so the officers settled down and awaited.
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 Not long after that speech, news came from Paris.
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 And the news from Paris was that peace had been established.
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 Not the final peace, mind you, but peace nonetheless.
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 And so now the officers wanted nothing more than to go home.
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 So whatever their grievances were, whatever they expected from Congress, what really was most high in their minds was home, home, home.
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 And so most of the officers disbanded from Newburgh and returned home.
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 And then there was one more event that Washington needed to attend to.
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 With peace, the British were required to abandon to evacuate New York City.
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 The British commander in New York City was Sir Guy Compton, a very distinguished British military officer.
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 Sir Guy had arrived in New York in the spring of 1782.
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 The British ministry had sent him there, so he thought, to finish the revolution.
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 They had been somewhat disingenuous.
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 They really wanted to end the war.
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 The war had gone on for so long.
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 It had been so costly and was in the eyes of the ministry and even the king not winnable.
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 And so Sir Guy Compton found himself now in New York City, not as the commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America to subdue the rebels, but the man who was required now to negotiate the peace.
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 And so Washington met with Sir Guy Compton,
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 And they arranged what the withdrawal of British troops would be.
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 On November 25th, 1783, Washington's army, of really what was left of it, passed at the edge of New York City and began their magnificent entry.
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 In the meantime, the British were withdrawing.
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 But, you know, the British were not terribly good losers.
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 There was a flagpole down by Wall Street.
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 They took down the Union Jack.
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 And then so that the Americans would not be able to raise their flag, they greased the pole.
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 And so as Washington and his army entered, he ordered, the general ordered the flag, the American flag be raised.
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 And by some marvelous feature of clinging on to that pole, an American soldier managed to get to the top and to post the American colors.
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 And the British left.
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 New York City was now in American possession.
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 And for all intents and purposes, now the war was over.
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 Washington City for several days.
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 And then it was his time to say farewell to his officers.
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 And so he gathered them at Francis Tavern.
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 Still there, by the way, and well seen.
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 And there at Francis Tavern, he gathered his officers together.
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 And with a moment of great emotion, he summoned each of them.
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 And he took the hands of those officers who were present and bade them farewell.
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 After the farewell at Francis Tavern, Washington then crossed the Hudson River to make another epic journey.
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 This time he was going down to Annapolis in Maryland where the Congress was meeting.
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 It was his turn to return the commission that had been given to him when he had taken command in 1775.
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 He arrived in Annapolis, and again, the consummate actor.
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 He presented himself to the Congress, and in this extraordinary moment, when you think about this, here was a general, a commander-in-chief who had won a revolution.
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 He had been in the field with his army for eight years.
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 The army loved him.
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 And what was he doing?
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 He was returning his commission that the Congress had given him as commander-in-chief.
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 He was setting down the military laurels, literally gave them physically, gave the president of the Congress his commission.
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 He then made a few remarks, not many.
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 Washington was not one for long speeches.
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 And then he returned home, and he returned home to Mount Vernon Christmas Eve 1783.
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 After all those years, war was now over.
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 Bill, you may be wanting to tell this story, and if you are, I apologize, but the story is that Benjamin West, the portrait artist, who was actually the king's portrait painter, and he was an American born in Pennsylvania, and the king said to him, what do you suppose Washington will do now that the war is over?
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 Now, the king knew the only real force in the country was the Continental Army.
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 Congress was pretty much powerless and ineffective.
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 And think about it, at the end of a war like this, the conquering general would, we would assume, take power.
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 But West said, I imagine he will go back to his farm.
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 And the king said, if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.
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 indeed indeed it may be apocryphal but it certainly summed up washington's extraordinary when you think about this he was a man who had been a military officer for a very long time it served in the french and indian war with great distinction and the american revolution obviously and he set down the sword he put down the sword and did in fact return to mount vernon
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 It was his intention.
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 I do believe we really can't get into George Washington's mind, but I do believe that he really did want to go back to being a farmer.
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 He was a farmer.
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 That's what he loved most.
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 When you read Washington's writings, it comes through every time when he's talking about wheat and horses and all that sort of thing.
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 He was very, very not.
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 He was a scientific farmer.
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 When he returned to Mount Vernon,
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 1783, he took up correspondence with a number of Englishmen and French, for that matter, experimental and scientific farmers.
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 He was a very fine farmer.
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 Of course, as it turned out, the Republic was in crisis, understood that, and of course he returned to become president and save the Republic.
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 There's no question of that.
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 But he did it reluctantly, I think, and did it only because he realized and
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 This was no amount of humility, by the way.
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 Everyone realized that he was the only person who could lead the Republic, and he did, and did in great fashion.
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 it's amazing we're talking with bill fowler professor emeritus at northeastern university and author of an american crisis george washington and the dangerous two years after yorktown talk about this extraordinary story about washington leading the continental army through the revolution and then turning his power back over to congress and going home as the republic continues to experience crisis crisis after crisis in the 1780s
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 Early in the war, Bob, very early in the war, Billy Tudor, T-U-D-O-R, a Bostonian, he was the Adjutant General, served under Washington.
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 And this was a time, 1776, when things weren't going so well.
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 Washington was being driven out of New York City.
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 But Billy Tudor wrote home to his wife, and I'd just like to quote what Billy Tudor said about Washington, because I think it sums up the way the men in the Continental Army felt about this general.
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 Billy Tudor wrote to his wife.
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 He said, and this, by the way, at a moment when the war was not going well, he wrote to his wife, quote, I cannot desert a man
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 And it would certainly be desertion in a court of honor who has deserted everything to defend his country and whose chief misfortune among 10,000 others is that a large part of it wants spirit to defend itself.
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 And I think that really some Washington was persistent.
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 I don't know that he was a military genius.
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 I made several military mistakes.
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 But one of the things that characterized Washington was that his demeanor was the same in victory as in defeat.
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 He exuded the same courage, personal, professional, physical courage, the same determination no matter whether he was winning or losing.
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 That's what big people like Billy Treer saw in him, and they could not desert him.
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 And it also is what the officers at Newburgh saw.
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 He says in that speech that he has been with them throughout the war, where Gates had not, and that he had been there.
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 And there's a striking moment when he doesn't feel like he's quite convinced them.
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 So he has a letter.
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 Again, you tell this story in your book about the letter he pulls out and then puts on his glasses.
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 He pulls out this letter, and the letter is from a congressman, Joseph Jones is his name.
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 The letter itself is not terribly important.
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 But as he begins to read the letter to these assembled group, he stumbles over the words.
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 And as he stumbles over the words, again, the consummate active, he reaches into his pocket and he brings out a pair of glasses.
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 Now, mind you, these glasses he had only received about two weeks before.
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 He had never worn glasses before.
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 And as he puts on these glasses, he says to the men in front of him, gentlemen, you must excuse me.
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 My eyes have grown dim in the service of my country.
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 Well, again, got a dry eye in the house.
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 So Washington was the consummate leader.
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 When we think about this, the war was eight years.
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 He went home once.
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 Eight years, he went home once.
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 So he was in the field with his army all the time and frequently in the midst of the battle.
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 He was a visible leader, a remarkable man, a very, very remarkable man.
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 Where do you think this character came from?
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 I mean, his real extraordinary character.
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 That's a very good question.
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 Washington was an aristocrat.
 20:15.554 --> 20:17.075
 Make no mistake about that.
 20:17.736 --> 20:19.938
 And he grew up in an aristocratic society.
 20:20.778 --> 20:34.289
 The 18th century aristocratic society, very much in Washington's world, a military society, was based upon certain fundamental elements, certain fundamental traits and virtues, bravery in combat, loyalty, discipline.
 20:34.349 --> 20:35.550
 He was a very disciplined man.
 20:36.530 --> 20:38.092
 He expected respect.
 20:38.152 --> 20:38.532
 20:40.753 --> 20:52.844
 There's one anecdote told about Washington that when he was presiding at the Constitutional Convention, someone thought that Gouverneur Morris was a bit like Drake himself.
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 Washington was always a very distant man.
 20:54.986 --> 20:59.750
 They said, I bet you don't dare go up and put your arm around General Washington.
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 Well, Gouverneur Morris took the bet, put his arm around General Washington.
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 Why did he give him a stare that would have frozen an iceberg?
 21:06.716 --> 21:14.043
 So Washington is a very aristocratic man, a man who devoted to honor responsibility as he viewed it.
 21:14.343 --> 21:19.167
 So I think that's what drove him forward was his sense and also a sense of dignity.
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 He was he understood.
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 It sounds so strange to say this.
 21:24.452 --> 21:31.739
 He really sort of understood his his place in history, like perhaps.
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 I can think of other Americans who thought they understood their place in history.
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 Washington truly did.
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 And it was this dignity, this aloofness, again.
 21:41.894 --> 21:47.337
 I suspect if George Washington were to reappear in 2024, he probably could never be elected president.
 21:48.328 --> 21:49.149
 No, probably not.
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 It wouldn't happen.
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 I don't know if he would want, well, if he would want to be.
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 He certainly wasn't one to suffer fools.
 21:59.015 --> 22:00.496
 No, that's very true.
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 So a lot of us would be out of luck if he were trying to get close to Washington.
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 We would be dismissed from his presence, I'm sure.
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 Almost immediately, yes.
 22:11.624 --> 22:17.127
 So he doesn't suffer fools, but then he does manage to attract coterie, a very able people.
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 Oh, yes.
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 Hamilton, Henry Knox, Nathaniel Green.
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 You know, it's an interesting collection of talent because they all don't get along, obviously.
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 I mean, Jefferson and Hamilton certainly didn't get along.
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 But he had this capacity.
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 I think that people wanted to serve with him.
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 I don't know serving under him.
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 I think that's a bit of an exaggeration.
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 But it was a distinct pleasure and a privilege to serve with him.
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 By the way, when you read the letters of these men, Jefferson, Knox, Hamilton, all of these men, they always treat him with the greatest of respect.
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 Rarely do you find – you can find it, but rarely do you find –
 22:53.456 --> 22:58.457
 Any disparaging remarks, they all held him in very high regard.
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 He was above all of them, I think, and he understood that.
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 He understood that somehow he was on a level above them.
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 Now are there any who feel that he is overblown or that I should be on this other than say Horatio Gates?
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 I know John Adams is jealous of most people.
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 Well, you know, we've had over 200 years to search the character of this man, to read his letters, to read other letters, etc.
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 And I don't think there's any person in American history who's been examined more closely.
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 And guess what?
 23:29.524 --> 23:30.644
 He comes out pretty good.
 23:30.664 --> 23:33.665
 I mean, he has his flaws, but
 23:34.739 --> 23:58.668
 you know unlike certain other figures in american history who have somewhat shady characters shall we say washington never did he was as he appeared to be now he has his faults again he wasn't necessarily military he had a temper by the way yeah he had a ferocious temper but no we've examined him everybody you know turned over every leaf every page of his writings and he always comes out pretty good
 24:00.953 --> 24:01.674
 That's interesting.
 24:03.095 --> 24:05.877
 Now, of course, Billy Lee is with him through the war.
 24:06.117 --> 24:08.939
 Yes, yes, yes.
 24:09.599 --> 24:12.181
 Billy Lee was his servant, his slave, to be sure.
 24:12.582 --> 24:13.382
 Washington had slaves.
 24:13.402 --> 24:14.063
 There's no question.
 24:14.083 --> 24:15.644
 He was a typical southern planter.
 24:15.964 --> 24:19.727
 But Billy Lee was with him almost from day one to the end of the war.
 24:20.720 --> 24:23.522
 After the war, Billy Lee is incapacitated.
 24:23.542 --> 24:29.067
 I don't know what the proper description would be, but he was somewhat immobile.
 24:29.267 --> 24:33.751
 But Washington brought him, and he was in company with Washington all of the time.
 24:34.671 --> 24:37.213
 Washington had an interesting attitude towards slavery.
 24:37.494 --> 24:38.895
 Not that he was a modern man.
 24:39.475 --> 24:40.556
 He was a slave owner.
 24:40.596 --> 24:41.637
 There's no question about that.
 24:42.449 --> 24:44.930
 But in his will, he freed his slaves.
 24:45.750 --> 24:46.631
 He could not free.
 24:46.671 --> 24:48.412
 He also owned many slaves.
 24:48.452 --> 24:50.332
 Well, they actually owned Martha, his wife.
 24:50.773 --> 24:51.833
 And he couldn't free those.
 24:52.153 --> 24:54.594
 But the slaves that he owned, he did free.
 24:56.750 --> 25:01.714
 Washington had deep misgivings about slavery, and I think from many points of view.
 25:02.215 --> 25:07.099
 I mentioned that he was a very fine farmer, and he was, and he saw slavery as inefficient.
 25:07.539 --> 25:14.225
 He saw it as a poor way to farm because the slaves had no incentive to do better.
 25:15.726 --> 25:18.007
 He was very interested in modern methods of agriculture.
 25:18.047 --> 25:25.212
 He found it hard to implement them because what incentive was there for the workers, for the slaves in this plantation to do that?
 25:25.653 --> 25:30.416
 And also, I think he had moral questions about it, too, as did many Southerners.
 25:30.456 --> 25:32.277
 But nonetheless, he was a slave owner.
 25:32.297 --> 25:33.398
 There's no question about that.
 25:34.579 --> 25:42.084
 Now, how does he translate his military capability into then being president?
 25:42.144 --> 25:42.765
 I mean, what's the...
 25:43.442 --> 25:44.303
 What's the trajectory there?
 25:44.363 --> 25:47.648
 What's the learning curve for becoming a politician?
 25:47.668 --> 25:48.890
 Or have you always been a politician?
 25:48.950 --> 25:51.874
 Is that intrinsic to being a successful general, being a good politician?
 25:51.894 --> 25:53.096
 I think he'd always been a politician.
 25:53.116 --> 25:54.798
 Remember, he did serve in the House of Burgesses.
 25:54.878 --> 25:55.660
 That's true, yeah.
 25:56.220 --> 25:59.405
 I think Washington was the best connected man in America.
 25:59.986 --> 26:01.887
 He had eight years as commander in chief.
 26:02.387 --> 26:06.228
 He knew everyone who was important in every state.
 26:06.268 --> 26:09.769
 There was no other person in the nation who was as well known.
 26:10.089 --> 26:13.250
 So Washington had a very intricate network of contacts.
 26:13.710 --> 26:16.551
 He was in touch with many, many people who were in touch with him.
 26:17.051 --> 26:19.692
 He knew he had his fingers on the pulse of the nation.
 26:20.392 --> 26:24.513
 He knew what was going on in Massachusetts, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia.
 26:25.013 --> 26:27.474
 No one was better informed and better educated.
 26:28.280 --> 26:35.963
 And so he was at this, Mount Vernon is kind of a nexus of political activities, an intelligence center in the period after the war.
 26:36.263 --> 26:37.304
 So he knows what's going on.
 26:37.584 --> 26:38.324
 And he's very clever.
 26:38.624 --> 26:42.606
 He knows he is an astute politician, no question about that.
 26:43.006 --> 26:50.649
 So he's able to maneuver this thing and staying above the fray to be sure he knew what was going on in the fray.
 26:50.949 --> 26:51.129
 26:56.511 --> 26:57.031
 26:57.812 --> 27:09.197
 We've been talking with Bill Fowler, Professor Emeritus of History at Northeastern University, author of An American Crisis, George Washington and the Dangerous Three Years After Yorktown.
 27:09.217 --> 27:10.637
 I want to thank you for joining us, Bill.
 27:10.657 --> 27:12.718
 I think we just lost our connection with Bill.
 27:14.499 --> 27:15.059
 We're still there.
 27:15.579 --> 27:16.380
 I'm still here, Bob.
 27:16.420 --> 27:16.740
 Thank you.
 27:18.641 --> 27:20.081
 Bob, I want to thank you, too.
 27:20.141 --> 27:24.984
 And I want to thank you and all of your associates are doing so much as we get close to the 250th anniversary.
 27:26.499 --> 27:29.340
 It's an anniversary that we ought to celebrate and understand very well.
 27:29.360 --> 27:30.941
 So thank you for all the work that you're doing.
 27:31.281 --> 27:32.262
 Well, thank you for joining us.
 27:32.342 --> 27:39.545
 And I want to thank Jonathan Lane, who is our operator for Revolution 250, as we're trying to get all of these things underway.
 27:39.625 --> 27:41.286
 And I want to thank our listeners.
 27:41.306 --> 27:45.808
 You know, the last time you spoke to us, Bill, we imagined we'd have a small listenership, but it's actually grown.
 27:45.868 --> 27:47.089
 And so every week I...
 27:47.569 --> 27:50.853
 Every week, I thank people in various parts of the world who are tuning in.
 27:50.873 --> 28:00.003
 And if you're interested in one of our lapel pins or refrigerator magnets, send an email to Jonathan Lane, jlane at
 28:00.704 --> 28:02.226
 And this week, if you are in...
 28:02.646 --> 28:24.109
 cragero norway or north las vegas nevada needham massachusetts coatesville pennsylvania melbourne australia montreal or galway uh let us hear from you and i thank you for joining us and thanks to all folks between and beyond these points and now uh doug quigley and dave and peter emmerich will pipe us out on the road to boston