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Examining Juneteenth; Interview With Author Timothy Snyder. Aired 2- 3p ET
Aired December 24, 2020 - 14:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
This holiday season, we're bringing you some of our favorite interviews from this year.
And here's what's coming up.
Tonight, we turn to some of the best historians of our time to make sense of this extraordinary year. Amid Black Lives Matter, Carol Anderson and
Eric Foner join me to discuss a Juneteenth like no other.
Timothy Snyder tells me why his own brush with death taught him that health care is, in fact, key to American freedom. And Jon Meacham and Annette
Gordon-Reed speak to our Walter Isaacson about Thomas Jefferson and America's moral reckoning.
Welcome to this special edition of the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
It's been a year like no other. And, tonight, we're looking back at some of our favorite interviews with historians for their vital perspective and
First up, a conversation about the uprising for racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May.
Eight minutes and 46 seconds has become an awful mantra. It is how long Floyd begged for his life while a white Minneapolis officer looking
straight into a camera kept his knee on his neck.
This killing of an unarmed black man finally struck the conscience of the United States and all around the world, laying bare the reality of everyday
racism. The movement that followed is also why this year's Juneteenth was it long last given the focus it deserves, as the day that officially marks
the end of slavery in America 155 years ago.
I discussed the significance of the anniversary and this moment with two distinguished historians, Carol Anderson, professor of African-American
studies at Emory University in Georgia, and, in New York, Columbia University History Professor Eric Foner, whose Pulitzer prize-winning work
explores slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
AMANPOUR: Welcome, both of you, to the program.
Let me just start by getting a pulse check. I just want to know after all the work you have done on the history that you teach and that you're so
intrinsically involved in, how shocking has it been for each of you to see what we're seeing, certainly with the death of -- the killing of George
Floyd, and before that, Ahmaud Arbery, and before that Breonna Taylor, all of these people you we've seen. Let me just ask you first, Professor
CAROL ANDERSON, PROFESSOR OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDIES, EMORY UNIVERSITY: The deaths haven't been shocking because they're part of a pattern, but I
think it's been the convergence of the coronavirus, the economic collapse and Trump that have really laid bare and led to this kind of uprising and
this call for really understanding our history so that we don't keep doing this.
And that's been heartening, seeing that kind of activism.
AMANPOUR: Professor Foner, to you.
Are you heartened by the activism and also by the sort of cross-racial protests that we've seen? It's an uprising on the streets today that's not
just within the black community, but for the black community by whites and others as well?
ERIC FONER, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Yes, I agree.
I find the events that are going on now inspiring, actually. I mean, I have -- I'm old enough that I have seen these movements come and go. The civil
rights revolution of the 1960s, et cetera.
But I think you're right. It's not just the multiracial character of these protests and marches, but the fact that they're happening all over the
country, including in really small towns and cities that have never been a major focus of racial justice demonstrations.
So, yes, I think it's a wonderful moment in a way, even though the things that are being protested are dire problems in American life.
AMANPOUR: I want to ask you, Professor Anderson, maybe we weren't as familiar with Juneteenth as we should have been on a mass scale.
What is the significance of it, and particularly as it relates to today?
ANDERSON: I think that the significance is that you get this moment where the general from the U.S. Army gets to Galveston, Texas, and in -- June 19,
1865, and informs the enslaved that they are, in fact, free.
The war has been over for several months, but they are, in fact, free. That sense of freedom -- and that was a freedom that had been born by years of
resistance, of uprisings, of running away.
And so that resilience, that taste of freedom, was sweet. We know, though, that it was fleeting. And so, what we're dealing with today are the
residuals of the inability of the U.S. to come to grips with slavery and all of its legacies.
AMANPOUR: Professor Foner, do you think the fact that President Trump was going to have his rally not just on Juneteenth, of course, it's been
postponed until tomorrow, but also in a city that is the center of one of the worst massacres of black residents by white neighbors? Of course, that
was like 1921.
But that -- I mean, can that be an accident?
FONER: I don't think that President Trump is well educated in American history. So, I can well believe that he personally did not know very much
about the Tulsa massacre.
On the other hand, I do believe that there were people in his entourage and the White House who certainly did know, and when I heard that he had chosen
Tulsa, what it reminded me of was how Ronald Reagan in 1980 launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was the site of
the murder of three civil activists during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Holding a rally and launching your campaign, or relaunching it, in the Trump case, in a place like that sends a message. It's a subliminal
message. It's not overt, but it sends a message about who you think your supporters are and what is important to you.
So, I don't think the choice of Tulsa was just an accident or inadvertent. It sends a message, not that President Trump approves of the massacre of
hundreds of people, but just, which side are you on, fundamentally?
And choosing Tulsa tells us something about that.
AMANPOUR: So, then, let me ask both of you, because he is obviously a divisive president and has used division at certain very, very key moments
of his political career.
Even now, he's threatening so-called anarchists and troublemakers that they will be treated -- quote -- "roughly" if they protest his rally in Tulsa.
So, I want to ask you both of you about the concept, because you are professors of African-American history, of this constant cycle of what
looks like progress followed by backlash, so, progress in the South, and then progress in civil rights, followed by white backlash to what black
Americans have gained.
Professor Anderson, can you just put that into context and sort of connect it to today, because it matters about what might happen next today?
ANDERSON: It matters so much.
It was the basis of my book "White Rage," in fact, looking at that phenomenon and looking at it via policy, that, whenever African-Americans
make a significant gain toward their citizenship rights, you see a wave of policies coming up to undercut those rights.
We see it coming out of the Civil War, where African-Americans are no longer property, where you get the rise of a Supreme Court that is just
eviscerating the amendments that dealt with the matters of the servitude of slavery, citizenship and the right to vote.
And we see that again coming in the Great Migration, where you had African- Americans fleeing the South and going North, and, again, a wave of laws to block their access and to block their aspirations for decent housing, good
And Brown -- the Brown decision that ended Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal, you saw public school systems shutting down across the South so that
black children would not get educated, but white children would get funding to go to all white private academies.
And that leads us to the civil rights movement and then to Obama. And it was the backlash against Obama that helps feed the rise of Donald Trump.
So, it behooves us, as we used to say in church, to be able to know those patterns and to not get complicit or complacent in what this incredible
moment means, as we're seeing these policies being generated, because we know the backlash is coming.
AMANPOUR: Professor Foner, you write about, obviously, a lot of instances because of the Reconstruction work that you've written about.
But you write about a specific case study. I think it's the 40 acres and a mule. So, after the Civil War -- I mean, you're going to explain it to us,
but the freed slaves had been given land to be able to, whatever, farm, build, have some economic security for themselves, only to see it taken
away from them afterwards.
FONER: Yes, you're right.
Of course, there was some land distributed at the very end of the Civil War by General William T. Sherman, 40 acres of land in parts of South Carolina,
Georgia, and a mule to come along with it. That land was all sent -- given back to former owners, at the order President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded
And you can fast-forward 60 years. The Tulsa massacre was really sparked by black economic progress. You know, Tulsa, the black neighborhood there was
called the Black Wall Street. There were many, many businesses of all kinds. They were systemically destroyed.
So, as Professor Anderson said, unfortunately, in our history, there have been too many incidents where progress in racial justice, progress of
African-Americans rising up the social scale, has then led to violent backlash and retreat.
We have to make sure that this time that does not happen. I'm cautiously optimistic that this time we will see more permanent changes as a result of
this large -- the large-scale demonstrations that have been taking place throughout our country.
AMANPOUR: So, I think I want to explore that with both of you. How does one keep up the momentum? Because I guess it's not going to be protesting
every day from now until structural racism is dismantled.
So, how does the protest on the street translate into a political movement? And I just want to read for our viewers some of the terrible structural
disadvantages built into the system. I mean, there's so much of it, but, look, we've just got a few here.
The net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family. African-Americans are incarcerated more than five
times the rate of whites. Blacks are twice as likely to experience barriers to voting as whites.
On every single level, jobs, housing, health care, criminal justice, voting, blacks face obvious inequality and justice.
How do you see a systematic progress on all these issues that we've just mentioned in order to level the playing field in a proper way?
ANDERSON: I think one of the key pieces is the power of the right to vote and having that honored, and then having policy-makers who understand
structural systemic racism, that we're not talking about the kind of racism where there's one bad person and -- but we're talking about how it's built
into the system, where have -- being African-American with a college degree doesn't mean that you're going to have the same kind of wealth as a white
person with a high school diploma, that these kinds of structural barriers must be overcome.
And that's going to take the word of policy-makers and it's going to take the work of the people continuing to hold these policy-makers accountable.
AMANPOUR: Where do you think white people fit into this?
I mean, certainly we have heard -- we've seen on the streets that there is a lot of comradeship between whites and blacks on the streets. We've seen
whites do all sorts of hashtags and reach out. But we've also heard from African-Americans that they're getting a little fed up with constantly
being texted, how are you, what can we do, as if, again, putting the burden on so-called the victims of this injustice, for them to also now tell you
how to fix their situation.
Historically, as you study this, where do you see the white people and the white privilege and white advantage being able to take the initiative and
do the right thing going forward?
FONER: You know, movements for racial justice have always been interracial in this country, whether you go back to the abolitionist movement, the
NAACP. When it began, there were many whites in the leadership, mostly, the civil rights movement.
Now, today, yes, it seems like it's slightly more multiracial than we've seen, especially among the younger generation.
You know, I think what's demanded of white people is what's demanded of everybody in this country. That is to think seriously and creatively about
how to address the kinds of problems that you indicated before. Social progress always comes from this combination of grassroots activism and
political leadership, enlightened political leadership.
That's how slavery ended in the first place. It wasn't Lincoln himself, although he was important, but slaves demanding freedom, abolition is
working with them, the Union Army. It requires everybody to sort of say, this -- to identify the problem and say, OK, here is how we're going to
The one factor that is missing right this minute is political leadership, at least at the top. Possibly, that may change later this year. But without
leadership from Washington, it's a lot harder, not impossible, but a lot harder to think about ways of addressing the structural problems that still
exist in this country.
AMANPOUR: Professor Foner, finally, first, do you think there will be massive voter turnout? Because it was a little questionable certainly in
the African-American community last time around in 2016, and many of them say, we vote, we vote, we vote, but no administration actually meets our
And Reverend Barber, William Barber, has said 61 percent of African- Americans live in either poverty or low wealth. So, there's that.
But then there's also, what if society blows it this time? This is an amazing moment that everyone said could be a tipping point. What happens if
even this doesn't work?
FONER: I think there will be a lot of frustration and anger if this massive outpouring of demands to change does not produce some very
You know, throughout American history, even though we pride ourselves on being a democracy, at least rhetorically, the right to vote has always been
contested. African-Americans could not vote, except in a handful of states, before the Civil War, and then, in the South, their right to vote was taken
away in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century.
We see voter suppression laws being passed today in many states. Georgia -- putting aside the long lines, Georgia has thrown many, many people off the
voting rolls for trivial reasons. So, efforts to stop people from voting go way back and are continuing today.
And I think it's very important to maintain that, in a democracy, the right to vote ought to be respected, not challenged. That's all I can say about
that. We are hoping that a genuine democratic election will take place this fall.
AMANPOUR: Professor Eric Foner, thank you very much.
And to you, Professor Carol Anderson, I see you're wearing the 1619 badge on your lapel there, of course, 400 years since the first slaves came to
the United States.
I just want to end with a quote for our viewers, something you wrote after Ferguson in the op-ed.
You said: "With so much attention on the flames, everyone had ignored the kindling."
And I think that is absolutely, you know, relevant today. Why is this rage happening in the streets?
Thank you both so much, indeed, for joining us.
AMANPOUR: Of course, we now know that voter turnout was the highest ever in American history, and health care was a top issue for most people.
That's where we turn for our next conversation. After his own brush with death, author and Yale history Professor Timothy Snyder says that he
realized universal health care is at the very heart of being free in America.
He wrote about it in his latest book, "Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary," where he takes the reader through his experience. And he
joined me to talk about it.
AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.
You know, it really sounds awful what happened to you, and you've diarized it and you've put it in this book.
Tell me about how you came to think that what happened to you was part of a much, much bigger problem that you needed to write about.
TIMOTHY SNYDER, AUTHOR, "OUR MALADY: LESSONS IN LIBERTY FROM A HOSPITAL DIARY": What was happening to me was that, thanks to a series of medical
mistakes, a condition which should have been treated, as you were kind enough to say, almost killed me.
What was happening around me taught me that the things that looked to me at first like mistakes or like coincidences or like bad luck were actually
part of a larger system, that I was getting, as a very privileged person most of the time, a look into a system which is fundamentally based upon
profit and based upon inequality.
So, look, what I tried to do was take notes of the things that were happening to me, the things I saw happening to other people, and make a
And the diagnosis basically is this, that we have a notion of freedom which is just too narrow, which is just too thin. If we don't think about our
bodies when we talk about freedom, then other people are going to think about our bodies as a way to make profit.
And before we know it, the thing which we need to be free people fundamentally, our health, is bought and sold. So, that's the basic idea.
AMANPOUR: Before I get into some more of that, I want to just ask you.
This happened to you at the end of last year, 2019. Are you fully recovered? How do you feel?
SNYDER: Well, that's very kind of you to ask. I'm not fully recovered, but I feel very good, all the same.
It sounds a little bit silly to say it, but I'm happy to be alive. I appreciate sounds and smells and tastes and all these other things, which I
was taking for granted for a long time. I'm feeling really well.
I'm feeling really well, thank you.
AMANPOUR: I guess I want to understand, and American people will want to understand, and the people around the world, when you say that, without
access to proper health care, you could not expect to have a proper democracy, a proper set of freedoms, put those two together.
Why not? And how would it be rectified?
SNYDER: I think that's a really essential question for we Americans, and it's something that Americans take for granted and that puzzles the rest of
We take for granted that health and health care is somehow a matter for the left, and that liberty, freedom, that language is somehow a matter for the
right, and we let them get separated.
But common sense tells us -- and my experience in the hospital brought this home -- you can't really be free without health. When I was too weak to
talk, I didn't have freedom of speech. When I was too weak to move, I didn't have freedom of assembly.
And when I thought I was going to die and my thinking was about all the futures that were closing off to me, then I wasn't free at all, because
freedom is about thinking about the possibilities that you and the people you care about have in the future.
Now, if you extend that thought from one person to a society, you start to see many ways that Americans are unfree. It's the case, as you say, that we
die too often, we die too early, and not just during pandemics. But more than that, we're anxious and fearful all the time because we don't know if
we're going to have access to health care.
Too many of us can't go to the hospital because we can't afford it. That's simply wrong. But even those of us who have decent insurance, like me, are
caught in a system where we know that somewhere in our hearts that we're getting care because someone else is not.
We're in a competitive system where there just shouldn't be competition. And that makes us less free. It also makes us less patriotic, because it
means, in these fundamental situations of life and death, instead of thinking about ourselves as one society, we're thinking about who has
privilege and who doesn't have privilege.
And more than that, freedom and health go together because we can't be a free country as a whole unless we can all look around and say, everybody
who's an American is going to fundamentally have the same basis. People talk about freedom of opportunity. That's fine.
Opportunity includes the same right to health, the same chances from childhood to adulthood that everyone has. When we look around and see that
everyone has the same chances, we feel better about ourselves as a country, but we're also certainly more free.
AMANPOUR: I wonder whether you can tell people what -- where you see the solutions and what country or government gets it right.
You're there in Vienna. I know you do a lot of your research there. Where do you see democracies getting it right in terms of propping up democracy
by an equal-access health care system?
SNYDER: I think the word democracy here is very important, because it does strike me that, in a situation, like the one America is in right now, where
there is so much anxiety and fear and pain, almost all of it unnecessary, this is actually a threat to democracy.
If you have too much pain and anxiety inside the system, it's very hard for people to think in terms of their own interests, in terms of the future,
and those are the kinds of things that are necessary for democracy.
In general, democracies do much better than the United States in health care. No system is perfect, but if we think back a couple generations,
Americans lived about as long as people in other development countries.
That's no longer true. We're now giving away three, four, five years. And that's a long time. I mean, that's a long time to miss with your children
or your grandchildren, those five years.
And the gap has grown because, fundamentally, in countries of comparable wealth, for example, European countries, health care is acknowledged as
something to which everyone should have access. If you begin from that premise, you're not going to build a perfect system. No system is perfect.
But you can build a system, like people do have in many countries do in Europe, where you're not anxious, because you know that you're going to get
care, and you're not fearful, because you know that the care you get is not going to be a matter of how much access you have or how much money you have
or who you know.
So, I -- for Europeans, this is all obvious, I'm afraid, but, for Americans, it's very important to see that the world is actually full of
systems that work much better than ours. And while we're on the subject, the systems that work much better than ours also cost an awful lot less
than ours do.
AMANPOUR: Yes. I mean, yes, obviously, I mean, there are taxes and other issues that provide those systems for the people.
But I want to ask you, because, clearly, this has been exposed during the COVID pandemic. Your case was not a case of COVID. This happened way before
that. But when you look at the Americans' record, you have got 4 percent of the world's population and yet 25 percent, about, of the current world's
caseload and deaths due to COVID.
And we've also seen what you're talking about exposed in terms of how its hit minority communities so much more than others. And, to that, I want to
ask you to broaden this out a little bit in terms of the sort of racial equality question that we're going through.
President Trump was speaking about this to the author and journalist Bob Woodward. And he quoted President Trump, in terms of getting him on tape,
talking about inequality and race relations that are underway right now.
I just want to play this, and we'll talk about it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
BOB WOODWARD, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, to a certain extent, as it
put me and I think lots of white, privileged people in a cave and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain
particularly black people feel in this country?
Do you --
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No.
You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don't feel that at all.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, he rejected totally the idea that there was privilege and a lack of privilege.
What is your response to that? I guess I ask you for several reasons. But, also, how do you cure this malady that you have written about if leaders
are not willing to accept this two-system America?
SNYDER: Yes, I mean, the first thing that I want to say is that my time in the emergency room in the hospital was a clear reminder of just how wrong
Mr. Trump is about all of that.
The third time I went to the hospital, the time when I was closest to dying, I had a friend with me, and that friend was a hot shot doctor. And
the problem, though, was that it was midnight on a Saturday night. And that friend was also a black woman.
And being the black woman ended up counting more than being the doctor. And so, for just a flash, as she was ignored and neglected and mocked, even
though she was the right person in the right place at the right time, just for a flash, I could see the things that she and other African-Americans
are going through all the time in this system.
If we look at Mr. Trump and the pandemic, I think his comments there are very revealing. We know that Mr. Trump knew that the pandemic was going to
be deadly. We also know that, soon after that, they took the decision in the White House to allow the disease to spread in the blue states, that is,
where black people live and brown people live, on the logic that they could then blame the governors and that these weren't our people anyway.
That, of course, was a terrible strategy on its own. And it backfires because of the nature of the virus. And now people are dying all over the
country. And we're in the situation where Mr. Trump's only hope for winning reelection, which he has to do, is taking the pain -- from his point of
view, I mean -- is taking the pain and anxiety which is caused by all this unnecessary death and twisting it around and turning it and pointing it in
This is a way that a public health crisis can bring down a democracy.
I think the way to solve this to think big, not in terms of minor repairs. I think the way to solve this is to remind Americans that, not only can
things be much better than they were before the pandemic. They can be much better than they were before 2016.
They can be much better than we actually understand, that we can have a broader sense of freedom that includes health, and that we can build
institutions where we can allow us not only to avoid this kind of crisis, but also allow us to avoid the political pain that comes along with this
kind of crisis.
We do have a national malady. Our malady is that we die too soon, we die of the wrong things, and we often died tragically for terrible, terrible
reasons. And part of that malady is the racial and inequality of wealth that's become entrenched.
Building back up a new system on the basis of universal access and fundamentally on the basis that we all have a right to care can create an
America in which we're much freer. And we need -- I think the way forward is to have a vision of a future that's like that, not minor repairs of the
past, but a radically better vision of a radically better America.
AMANPOUR: Timothy Snyder, just picking up on something you said, proof how a health crisis, a pandemic can bring down a democracy, right, this unequal
health care that you're talking about. And yet, it's interesting, because we look at some of the populist nationalist leaders who are, you know,
suffering the wrath of their people because of the way they dealt with coronavirus.
I mean, President Trump and his polls, Boris Johnson and his polls. Look at even Lukashenko in Belarus. The opposition leader said that it was because
of his response to COVID that it got people out onto the streets, Jair Bolsonaro, you know, Duterte. All these strongmen are being criticized by
their people because of their response to COVID, while, you know, the president and the chancellor of Germany or New Zealand or South Korea, all
the Scandinavian countries, which have responded much better -- and the figures show it -- are doing better.
I just wonder whether you think that this is a moment where some of this nationalism, this populism, this strongman authoritarianism may be
compromised because they're dealing with a fundamental health issue?
SNYDER: Yes, I agree completely. First of all, thanks for mentioning Belarus, which is one of the most interesting countries in the world right
now, not least because, as you say, it was the realization of Belarusian women and Belarusian men that they had to deal with COVID themselves that
may have been the final straw that made people realize, not only that their government was hopelessly corrupt, but also that they could do something
Now, with the populism. I agree with you completely, because what we're calling populism is based upon the idea that a leader can spin a myth and
that we're going to trade our reality for that myth. This modern -- this modern nationalism that we have, of which Mr. Trump is such a good example,
involves trading away factual reality for a kind of day-to-day, often digitalized, emotional reinforcement.
That works so long as the nationalists and the populists get to manufacture their own crises. But when they face a real crisis involving the real
world, they, of course, fail. And, here, I agree with you. Mr. Trump is failing democratically.
The problem is that he's intelligent, and he's aware that he's failing democratically. He knows that, from this point forward, he doesn't really
have a chance of putting together an electoral coalition. What he has left is the possibility of using the anger of the economy and the anger of the
disease and other sorts of resentment in this country to spoil an election and to create chaos.
So, he's certainly paid a political price. Now he's backed into a corner, and that's why we're facing the very rough situation we will be facing in
the next few weeks.
AMANPOUR: One-minute left. Timothy Snyder, you have done a lot of work on Russian interference in the American elections and the American system. But
from the perspective of American countering that, do you feel that there are still big gaps, or has the U.S. intelligence and everything else
responded to this constant threat?
SNYDER: There are still enormous gaps. There are two big gaps in consciousness. One, of course, is in the White House. There are -- as you
say, there are a lot of good people working very hard in federal state agencies. But, without leadership from the White House and without
legislation, which was blocked in the Senate, it's hard.
The second big cap in consciousness is in Silicon Valley. It's in social media, because, of course, the basic model, profit model in social media is
polarization, which the Russians and other actors who interfere understand very well. We now know a lot more than we did in 2016.
I think some people are wiser consumers of the Internet than we were in 2016. But, sad to say, we have not repaired our electoral system the way
that we should have, which means that there's extra work for everybody who wants to vote and everybody who wants to observe and all the local and
state officials who have to make this happen. The history of electoral interference is long; 2016 is not the only example.
SNYDER: It's rare, though, to have a president or powerful country who seems to want more of it. And that's where we are. And that's an element of
where we are. And that's part of the test that our democracy is going to face in November.
AMANPOUR: More now on America's complicated racial history with our next guests, Pulitzer prizewinning historians, Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon
Meacham. They have teamed up to take a closer look at the legacy of one of the country's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.
"In the Hands of the People," was edited by Meacham and has an afterword by Gordon-Reed. As discussions swirled around the role of historical statues
and monuments, they talk with our Walter Isaacson about whether Jefferson's monument should come down.
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And, Annette Gordon- Reed, Jon Meacham, welcome to the show, both of you all.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED, HISTORY PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Glad to be here.
ISAACSON: You have done this book on Jefferson. And I want to ask you, Annette Gordon-Reed, a question that Jon asked in the introduction to this
book, which is, why turn to a slaveholder to give us advice about what to do in troubled times like this in a diverse culture?
GORDON-REED: Well, because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, American independence, and he wrote words that have meaning then and have
even more meaning now to what we're trying to accomplish as we transform society.
So, you know, his words matter, his ideals matter. And so, that's why he's a good person to start with, I think.
ISAACSON: You say his ideals matter. Jon, tell us, what is the Jeffersonian ideal?
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: The ideal is one of human equality. It was not realized then, hasn't been realized now. But he did, in a kind
of mission statement for the country, devote the national experiment to an ideal.
And you don't have to listen to me for that. Lincoln said that. In 1859, he wrote a letter about Jefferson, saying that he was the only man who, in the
rush of a revolutionary struggle for independence, actually initiated that it would be an idea that would drive it and an idea that would be a
stumbling block to tyranny and oppression for all future generations.
ISAACSON: How do you wrestle, then, with slavery and him writing about equality, but being a slave owner?
GORDON-REED: Because I realize that there are many things that people believe intellectually that they are not capable of carrying out
emotionally, because of their commitments to a particular way of life, to their commitments to a community, their people. And that's the fallibility
of humankind, of human beings, to be able to see something, and some things you can do things about.
He thought that moving from Great Britain, changing Virginia laws in lots of different ways, those were kinds of things that he worked on. But this
is something that he just could not bring himself to deal with. And that's a flaw. And that's a flaw that we recognize. Jon and I have written about
ISAACSON: Jon, you written both about Jackson, Jefferson and others who were slave owners. Tell us how you wrestle with the question of judging
them by the times that they lived in, and also judging them by our standards and our times.
MEACHAM: The way I come -- the way I decide this, because I have written about incredibly flawed people, right, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston
Churchill, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, you know, these were people who have significant, significant moral failings that were not just moral
failings. They were massive political ones. And they contributed to the most -- the deleterious chapters of our national story.
But my view is, you can't then banish those people from the public sphere or push them to the side, because that lets the rest of us off the hook.
These were political people. They were makers of manners and morals, but they were also mirrors of manners and morals.
And so, when you talk about Andrew Jackson, many, many Americans who are feeling awfully self-righteous about Andrew Jackson right now are living on
land that his actions brought into the presiding regime sphere of influence. And what we have to do, I think, is not look up at them
mindlessly and celebrate them. But we shouldn't look down on them condescendingly either, but look them in the eye, see what we can learn,
and then apply those lessons.
And the moral utility of history, in my view, is if the best people in the public lives of the nation in the past could get stuff so horribly wrong,
what are we getting so horribly wrong right now?
GORDON-REED: That's the thing that I talk to my students about quite a bit. What are the things today that people 100 years from now will look
back and say, can you imagine they did this? Now, this doesn't mean that you excuse people. I mean, I think history is a moral enterprise, I mean,
that you can't help, at some level, make judgments about the people about whom you're writing. It's a question of balance, however.
And remember that, if you're talking about a human being, that we have our preoccupations. We are preoccupied, and I think rightly so, with slavery as
an institution, with race as a problem. But Jefferson, those were not his categories, whether they should have been or not. That's not what he was
preoccupied with. Jefferson -- the signal -- the most important thing in Jefferson's life was his participation as a revolutionary in the American
Revolution and the creation of the United States of America, a new country.
And that's -- once that happened, you know, that became his focus. And he thought that that -- his life's mission would be to -- creating and
maintaining that country.
Now, this business about slavery, that would be something that would solve itself in time. Now, we know that's not true. We know that didn't happen.
But if we're -- as biographers, as we all are here, if you're looking at a person, you're trying to figure out what mattered to them and why did it
matter to them, and it's difficult to do anything in the world. That's one of the things that we have all learned, to do anything. But to do lots of
different things -- and I'm speaking of Jefferson now -- is pretty amazing.
And, you know, I don't -- it's not a question of forgiving him for not solving the slavery problem. I think the slavery problem was solved the way
it was going to be solved. And that is not something a person who put together a union could bear to think about.
ISAACSON: Do you think, having read so much about Jefferson, and you have written two or three books really on him, Annette, and you have written a
magisterial biography, Jon. Do you think he wrestled with the moral issue of slavery personally, about having slaves and should he free them?
GORDON-REED: Wrestle would be too strong a word. No, I don't think he wrestled with it.
Peter Onuf and I, in our last book, one of the things we suggest is that France was a pivotal moment for him, when he was there as minister to
France. And he looked at Europe and saw the problem of the peasantry, saw pre-revolutionary France, how long it taken them to get to a point where
they would rebel.
And he -- his attitude about slavery, we think, changed there. And other people have noticed this. This is not something we have just come up with.
But we think -- we have some reasons why -- but he comes back. And he decides that, instead of working against it, he is going to be a "good
slave owner." Amelioration becomes the word for him.
And that happened to other people as well, but to do slavery, but do slavery in a different way. And, of course, once you do that, it's over, if
you start thinking of yourself as capable of being a good slave owner. And so, I don't think he wrestled, because he thought -- we look at it and say
-- some people may look at this and say, how could he? But he would think that he was a good person. And so, he begins to change his attitudes about
how to do this, and satisfies himself that he's doing as well as can be done until this situation was over.
Not satisfactory, but I think that's -- I don't see him -- he's not tossing and turning at night, saying, oh, my God, I know this is wrong, and I
should be doing something. I think he thought the next generation of people would do it. His job was to keep the federalists from ruining the American
ISAACSON: Jon, we have had a lot of talk about removal of Confederate monuments, and now even there's talk about removal of Thomas Jefferson. So,
let's look at that slope and see if we can get some footholds here, so it doesn't become so slippery of a slope.
First of all, with the Confederate monuments, how do you feel about now removing them, when they were put up to celebrate Confederate officers?
MEACHAM: Well, my view -- and my credentials here are, I was born in Chattanooga. I went to the university in the South. I grew up on Missionary
Ridge, a Civil War battlefield. I live in Nashville. So, this is not some Upper East Side view.
I firmly believe that, if you took up arms against the Constitution, and thereby ended the experiment and the journey toward a more perfect union,
you ended the context that gave us the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, however incomplete and however poorly implemented. You should not be
venerated on public property. I'm not going to tell you what you should do at your house or in a church or a school. That's for those institutions to
But if it's a courthouse square, and you attempted to end the United States of America, and create a slave empire that had ambitions to go into the
Caribbean and go into Cuba, to look south, to create an independent nation, I don't think you should be there.
And my test, which I proposed after Charlottesville, now almost three years ago, was, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, those people who were
wildly imperfect, should be judged by a different standard than Confederate figures.
ISAACSON: Annette, do you think you can draw such a crisp line between removing Confederate statues, but keeping up Jefferson and Jackson?
GORDON-REED: Yes. And I have written that. And I have said that. There's a difference between trying to destroy the United States of America and
trying -- and actually having created it. And the people who created it are individuals that we have to grapple with their lives, with the imperfection
of their lives, the good things they did and the bad things that they did.
But it's hard to go on living in a place that people created without some sort of acknowledgement of what it is that they did but what you can't do.
So, what Jon mentioned before, the sort of hero worship, the suggestion that they were gods, or that we can't criticize them, or that we shouldn't
talk about slavery, we should not talk about the way they fell short.
That's the problem. The problem is veneration, and without a realistic assessment of them. The Confederates, this is -- I don't know. It's sort of
odd to think how this -- what people have written about how we have come to this point, or came to the point where people who lost the war got to put
up monuments all over, and that people see them as people as worthy of veneration, that you can have the flag of the United States and the
Confederacy together, as if that's not mutually exclusive. It is sort of is hard to see how we came to this point.
So, I do think it's a good bright line to draw.
ISAACSON: Jon, Jefferson knew that -- and this is in your book, all these quotes, about partisanship. I mean, he was pretty dedicated to engagement
in political issues. But what would he think of the type of partisanship we have now at this moment?
MEACHAM: I think he would recognize it, honestly. He once said, divisions of opinion have convulsed human societies since Greece and Rome. Divisions
of opinion were the oxygen of a free government. I'm a skeptic of the prevailing scholarly view that the founders had this vision of a one-party
-- excuse me -- one-party state and we would all be on Olympus with powdered wigs and solving problems.
They may have had that vision. We all have that vision. But they understood reality. If you worry -- if you're worried about or if you doubt me about
whether they understood reality, read the Constitution, which is entirely about reality.
The Constitution -- if Jefferson was an enlightenment document, the Constitution is a Calvinist document. It assumes we are all depraved and
sinful and driven by appetite and ambition. And we have done everything we can since then to prove them right.
So, I think this is a -- the Hemings -- the story about Sally Hemings was first publicized in 1802. And we -- with all love and respect to Annette,
we don't know that much more than that first piece, do we?
MEACHAM: The basic -- but it was --
GORDON-REED: Oh, you mean the basic outlines of the story?
GORDON-REED: Yes. Yes. Yes.
MEACHAM: It wasn't seen as a historical or cultural document. It was a partisan attack.
GORDON-REED: Yes, yes.
GORDON-REED: And continued during that -- during his presidency, and a few times afterwards.
ISAACSON: There's been a big debate recently coming out of "The New York Times" 1619 Project of, how much do we need to revise our concept of the
founding of this nation? Do you think that makes sense? Or has it gone a bit too far?
GORDON-REED: Well, the problem is, historians have been writing about this now for quite some time. But what we haven't done as much is to think about
what that means for us today, that the legacy of slavery is still with us. There's a tendency -- there has been a tendency on the part of many people
to say, oh, well, we knew that, but that's over. I think that's the -- that's the contribution of the magazine, of 1619, is not to tell us
something, many things that we didn't know, but to say, there is a connection to this that is continuing.
You don't get rid of hundreds of years of slavery in a century or so. I mean, we really don't get going as legally full citizens until 1965, the
passage of the Voting Rights Act. That's not -- in the history, that's a blink of an eye. It's not even a total blink of an eye in history. And
thinking that this stuff is all in the past has been the problem. And that's -- I think that's what the project was trying to do, was to say, no,
this isn't over.
MEACHAM: I was struck, I believe it was the remarks at the signing of the Civil Rights Act in July, July 2, 1964. Lyndon Johnson grounds his remark
at the bill signing not on Philadelphia, but on Jamestown, and which I was struck by.
GORDON-REED: Yes. Talk about a complicated figure.
MEACHAM: Yes, there you go. Well, we're -- the Democratic nominee for president is a 77-year- old white man who was the vice president of the
first African-American president, incredibly loyal, and eulogized Thurmond and Eastland.
So, now, if you're looking for simplicity, if you're looking for straightforward figures, good luck. I don't know who they would be. I think
what Annette just said is absolutely essential. I have a theory -- I have bored Walter with this, I think, privately. Actually, that we're only a 60-
year-old nation, right? The country we have right now, the polity we have, which is soon going to be majority diversity, whatever phrase it is, was
really created in 1964-'65, not only with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but with the Immigration Act, which totally changed the
nature of the country.
MEACHAM: And so, no wonder this is so hard. No wonder we're having such a ferocious white reaction. This is kind of the 1830s in a way. And so, it's
not to excuse it, but I do think it explains it a little bit. And this idea of progress -- and I know it sounds tinny to people. And, look, if you look
like me, you can talk about progress, right? I'm a boringly heterosexual white Southern Episcopalian, right? I mean, things tend to work out for me
So, I stipulate that. But, but it's simply the lesson of history that we are, in fact, a better country than we were yesterday. Doesn't mean we're
perfect. Doesn't mean we stop, but are enough of us devoted to doing all we can as citizens and as leaders to try to create a country that more of us
can be proud of?
MEACHAM: And if we are, then let's get to it.
GORDON-REED: Yes. And I would throw in women, the changing role of women from the 1960s. And this is -- that's a good point. I wouldn't -- I agree
with 60 years, again, a short time in history where everything -- where everybody's sort of in place. It's like Ken Burns said, that he found it
difficult to call - - talk about the golden age of baseball.
GORDON-REED: And there were no black players in the Major League. How do you do that? And this is a similar situation, where you have blacks legally
allowed to vote, and those rights are protected. I mean, there's issues with voter suppression, but sort of, on paper, equality is there. And it's
hard. It's wrenching for people who have had power, who were used to a certain hierarchy, a certain way things are -- were, or they think about
their grandparents, the good old days. It's hard to get used to all of that.
And so, you're right. There's no wonder that there's a people upheaval.
ISAACSON: Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, thank you all for joining us.
GORDON-REED: Good to be here.
AMANPOUR: We wanted to bring you this important context throughout this program as we navigate these troubling times.
And that's it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media.
Thank you for watching this special edition of Amanpour, and goodbye from London.