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.