Interview: Paul Lussier
Lussier is a writer, film producer and historian who has recently
published his first novel, Last Refuge of Scoundrels: A Revolutionary
Novel. Lussier majored in critical studies and literature at
Yale University. As student of the New History he has spent over
years doing research for this novel. He is an award-winning producer
and is currently working on the HBO/People’s History Project and
a four-hour mini series for ABC on the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth
Rock (as seen from the Native American point of view.) In addition,
Lussier is working on the screenplay for Last Refuge for Scoundrels,
which is being made into a movie by Warner Brothers. He is also
at work on his second novel set in the American Revolutionary period
and focusing on Thomas Paine. Paul Lussier lives in California
and lectures throughout the United States.
Robert Birnbaum: David
McCullough’s John Adams book is obviously a phenomenon (perhaps
destined to be one of those best sellers
that largely go unread) and with the Ellis book, seems to signal
a large and burgeoning interest in the American Revolutionary period.
I take it that mini-boom has washed over to Last Refuge of Scoundrels.
How has that affected your book?
Lussier: Yes it has. The book
is 40-to-50,000 sales strong now … certainly the New York
Times didn’t come to the party. Either
did the Boston Globe. It’s been a best seller in virtually
ever major city including Boston for three to five months — it’s
been amazing that without the embrace of mainstream media such
as the Times, that the book has found its audience. And that the
audience is as devoted and enthusiastic as it is. I don’t
subscribe to this notion — and it isn’t even a theory,
it’s a notion — I
don’t subscribe to this notion that in writing the story
of the American Revolution and confining your focus to the Founding
and somehow making that analysis slightly zingier, slightly fresher,
slightly more sarcastic somehow represents any kind of forward
movement. One could argue that by making the story more palatable,
more hip, more interesting, more contemporary you are only further
serving to reinforce the story of the American Revolution as the
parade of the Founding Fathers. That’s not the story that
I tell. I believe that the burgeoning interest in the Revolution
about seeking out a reaffirmation of the story that is the status
quo, the cultural mythology…I think it is a thrashing about,
RB: Who is searching? The readers of your book …
The readers of my book and we as a culture are searching — in
particular university students. The search is a result of this
tremendous gap between scholarship, historical scholarship and
research and all of these new insights as a result of new takes
on history. You can’t go into the academy and read a story of the
American Revolution — from the point of a lowly enlistee
like Joseph Plum Martin or the point of view of a Native American
or black American — and then go back into popular culture,
visit Williamsburg, visit Yorktown, visit these institutions and
see that what you have learned is not at all reflected. There’s
an error there that ultimately we want to bridge.
RB: Is the academy
exemplified by historians Eric Foner and Gordon Wood providing
basic sources that include farmers and Blacks and
other traditionally marginal [to historiography] people?
what people can read today. But what happens is that the dots are
not connected. The implication of those points of
view and exploring and elaborating on those points of view are
not the same as introducing those points of view. This is something
that I came to discover even though I had been schooled in revisionist
modes of thought. I had no idea what it truly meant to take the
perspective of the working man, the common woman, the black, the
native American Indian, the fey, feminized aide de camp to George
Washington — what it really meant to bring these people to
the story of the American Revolution. I did not know that bringing
these people to the story of the American Revolution, that as a
result of bringing them to that story would change. I wound up
telling a very different story than I thought I was going to tell.
I thought I was going to tell the story of the American Revolution,
but I would also include the perspectives of those belonging to
the lower class — what they called back then, “the lower
sort.” I was writing a novel that would be more inclusive.
even realize what the implications were when you bring these people
to the party, and bring their points of view to the narrative the
narrative as you and I know it explodes. Suddenly, the Stamp Tax
is not issue that sets it all in motion. Suddenly the Founding
Fathers find themselves marginalized. Suddenly Yorktown doesn’t
mean the victory of anything but our independence. That’s
all it means, that we have secured independence as a nation. It
speak to the cause of freedom or the quest for greater fairness.
It doesn’t speak to the utopian impulses that were absolutely
latent, if not kinetic in the people’s quest. That’s,
I like to think, what this novel captures.
RB: Would we read John Adams described
in the following manner in McCullough’s book, “There
was the ‘so very fat’ John Adams who just wanted to be liked — another
one History regards as a lover of the people. Which is particularly
Adams phobia of crowds and any activity that involved small talk,
flattery, kind remarks, or discussing under any circumstances horses,
women, weather or dogs. Instead of relating, he preferred simply
to judge and did so harshly. Even his own wife, his beloved Abigail,
he excoriated publicly for singing like a canary and looking like
a pigeon when she walked. It was widely believed, in fact, that
his commitment to laying the foundation for our independent country
was mostly an excuse to get away from his wife, from whom at one
point he stayed away for well on four years.”
RB: And what’s your source?
PL: First of all,
in John Adams’ own diary. All those observations come from
a variety of sources and that includes Samuel Adams’
diary, John Hancock’s writings — however slim. These
men were dishing each other like crazy as they were writing to
other. As a matter of course when we study these men we study the
documents that they wrote for public review. We traditionally don’t
think it reliable or necessary to the story — that behind
the scenes Samuel Adams was trashing John Adams and John Adams
was embarrassed by Samuel Adams. Somehow that is not considered
relevant. And the reason is that as a rule the story of the American
Revolution only concerns the story of the American Revolutionary
Founding Fathers as they were public figures. It’s no different
if 200 years from now if you were to base a biography of
Clinton on his own approved autobiography or a few mainstream press
stories on everything that happened in the Clinton Era. What you
would walk away with, 200 years from now, was an account
that wouldn’t remotely capture the e-mail version of that
same experience. It would be sanitized. It would be too respectful.
It would not be reproachful. And it wouldn’t be sensual.
RB: I beg
to differ with you.
PL: You think so.
RB: So much more “inside baseball”
information makes it into the mainstream so much earlier than it
used to. And what could be sanitized
about the Lewinsky affair? His various real estate deals. His consistent
desertion of his friends. All this and more is in the public record
courtesy of an independent prosecutor. And possibly because of
revisionist history we seem to learn the private information earlier.
I think that’s true now. Just as people were in the present
behind the scenes with the Founding Fathers. John Adams’ experience
of the Stamp Act at the time, people living at the time did not
see John Adams as this great figure who ultimately was advocating
the abolition of the stamp tax. That is not how they viewed him.
They viewed him as an attorney with a burgeoning and occasionally
dismal practice who showed up as such riots as these because he
wanted clients and to handout his card. Furthermore, when John
Adams defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre this
caused horror and disgust, but not disappointment. There wasn’t
this sense that John Adams had disappointed the populace because
they had never elevated him to a pedestal. To return to your rebuttal,
the experience that we have of Clinton 200 years from now will
not be recounted in our history books. The excitement, the disgust,
the sensuality, the real chaotic mess that the whole Clinton Era
ultimately represented will fade next to the story of his accomplishments.
That’s what ultimately the story will be. Allowing for his
impeachment, allowing for scandals …
RB: As if we had not learned anything about
how to record and study history.
PL: That’s absolutely right.
RB: History has
its own inexorable beat …
PL: Right, and it hallows those public
RB: Why is that? I understand why popular mythologies
might be in someone’s interest but today, as we sit here, what
by perpetuating historical myths?
PL: As a rule it’s a matter of
course and habit and it’s very subconscious. When we think
historical narrative we think a certain vocabulary.
We think a certain syntax. We think a certain kind of narrative.
Ultimately as we have come to learn it, know it and study it, it
is not a narrative that really and truly includes the voice of
common man. As a result history as you and I study it is the history
of the gentlemen who rule, it is the history of kings, of emperors
and a military chronicle primarily. History has not respected or
recorded the housewife who wrote about Clinton in the local newspaper.
That’s not something that would be included. We automatically
assume that we write history from the point of view of those who
history but we don’t question that assumption. The public
figures are the people who ultimately constitute the historical
but those are not the people who move history. Those are often
the people who reflect history. Writing about George Bush and confining
your assessment of him to his accomplishments would completely
ignore and render irrelevant everything that we know George Bush
to be: a product of certain constituencies, all everything that
makes him what he is, is not traditionally considered fodder for
RB: So we are still captivated by the
Great Man Theory of History. That major figures drive history and
study them gives us an
accurate picture. The immediacy of our ability to find things out
seems to make that a superficial model … not to mention that
it would seem more difficult to hide information. But what’s
more basic to me is whether people care about history as an accurate
approximation of what has happened.
PL: No, but they don’t care
about history. Which is one of the reasons I wrote this book. They
don’t care about history. In my
view the reason they don’t care is because they don’t
see their own experience reflected in it. When you read a biography
if it is going to confine itself to his accomplishments and policy
failures, you do not see your experience of Clinton in that narrative.
You have a good point when you say we have all this information
and that the Matt Drudges of the world have changed the landscape
or more to the point that the academic environment has changed
the landscape. Or even more to the point, that the academic environment
has changed the landscape because there is all this information
that’s available in academia.
RB: And the Internet has changed
PL: … And
the Web has changed things. But what it hasn’t changed — and
this is where Howard Zinn and the others come in to my life — is
that this information, these facts, these details,while they may
change the landscape of scholarship, haven’t made a dent
in the cultural mythologies that take hold and are firmly embedded
entrenched in our culture. To wit, the Cherry Tree mythology and
the ideology attendant to it, which dates back to Parson Weems
and the Cherry Tree Story. That story has been trumped and trumped
and trumped again over 200 years because there has been
an entire canon of literature, art, sculpture, novels and plays
that support that point of view. Most adults will say to you that
the Cherry Tree mythology is not true. That doesn’t stop
them from going to Mt. Vernon, to the tune of 4,000 to 10,000
a year — as
I did in my youth — asking for the site of the stump. The
reason the story holds on is because that is a story that speaks
to certain yearnings. That is a story that has an emotional stranglehold
on people, that for better or worse, feeds the soul. Facts and
research do not do that. Stories do it. The reason that the traditional
paradigm, I feel has taken hold, is because scholars back then — and
there was a conscious decision — to embrace Parson Weems
and his ideology.
RB: Who is Parson Weems?
PL: The author of the
Cherry Tree Story. And traditional historians since 1806 when Weems
wrote the stories have embraced the mythologies
and storytellers in a way that forms a kind of cathexis between
traditional historical narrative and stories. To go back to your
point, the gap that we speak of between information and popular
culture is due to popular culture’s assessment of popular
culture as is largely determined by stories. Not by very obscure
research written by scholars for other scholars. This whole wealth
of information that you and I are privy to is virtually ghettoized
in academia. Progressive and revisionist historians — and
Howard Zinn is the first to admit this — have been very slow
to embrace their own storytellers. As a result of there not having
been any storytellers to accompany this movement there has been
this breach. The academy is very progressive, by and large. But
you go to Williamsburg, you go to Yorktown, go to any of these
places with the possible exception of Plymouth Rock, it is as
sanitized as it has ever been, it is as white and it is as unprogressive
as it has ever been. That’s because the people love that
story and they ain’t gonna let it go until they have a new
story that feeds certain yearnings. I like to think that that’s
what I am making a contribution towards. And in my own small way,
I am contributing
to a new cultural mythology that — at the very least — if
not competing head on with the Cheery Tree myth and ideology — at
least presents a choice. There is the story of the American Revolution
that begins with Lexington and Concord and ends with Yorktown and
is the story of the Founding Fathers, men of great virtue and great
ideas, whose ideas had a trickle down effect and inspired people
to pick up arms. Then there is the other story, which is: This
is 1765 Boston. Yes, some people are rioting against the stamp
tax, OK! But also there are women rioting in the streets for
a greater voice in their male households. Farmers rioting against
John Hancock for fencing in the Common where once cows grazed freely.
Hancock is a crazy man in your novel. Is he ever characterized
as a nut case anywhere?
PL: No, never. Well, the man was a hypochondriac
and he was out of his mind. Even amongst the other Founding Fathers — Samuel
Adams in particular — were constantly making cracks about
what was going to be the new ailment of the week that Hancock was
going to come up with. And there were women rioting and indentured
servants rioting to protest a custom that had been just a custom
in England that had become law in Boston. Whereby if you are a
poor man on the sidewalk and a richer man than you is approaching,
you are to step in the sewage sludge that ran rivulets along the
sidewalks to afford the richer man passage. People were protesting
these things. There wasn’t a word for civil rights, but there
is this sense that many of the common folk who had come over here
as indentured servants were looking forward to a day when they
would earn themselves their freedom and they were saying, “Oh
no, no, no. I didn’t go through all this and indentured myself
to servitude for 16 years to ultimately wind up in a world
where farmers are going to be imprisoned for their debts. Where
my cows can’t graze freely.” There was this burgeoning
sense, no, that was then this is now, it ain’t gonna happen.
RB: In writing
a historical novel what is your obligation to the historical record?
Why should the reader accept, through the character
John Lawrence, your debunking of the traditional narrative, as
in: “It sounded simple, if you believed as future generations
would, that the Continental Congress … was composed of sweet
visionaries, enlightened men all, united in common rebellion against
tyranny and in making a case for freedom ….”
PL: First of
all the idea is that you love the character that you are following
and that you have affection for that character and
that you trust the narrator. You have to allow for a certain investment
in your protagonist and therefore a certain reliability in his
point of view. As it happens, all of the words that I put in the
Founding Fathers’ mouths, for example, at the Second Continental
Congress, all of their words that I put in their mouths are their
own. When you search the record for some sense that these men were
really and truly interested in arming the Yankee rabble to rise
up against the British Empire, you find it is not there. Secretary
Thompson who saw this gap between the stories that were being perpetrated
and perpetuated upon the American public — the gap between
the stories being circulated and the facts — the clerical
records themselves of what was said. There was such a vast gap
between the two (and the story is famous), he burned as many records
as he could get his hands on before he was stopped. Because as
he said, “It was not his job to disabuse the American public
of the fantasies that were being heaped upon them.” Now this
was the secretary. So those words were their own. I’d like
to think that if you fall in love with your character and you trust
character — even if you have doubts that the author has included
the actual words of the Founding Fathers verbatim that there is
an actual record for — that you at least trust that his perspective
means something. And that it’s valid even if you don’t
believe every single detail.
RB: You call this a revolutionary novel,
and when I think of it I can’t identify many novels that
have attempted what you have,
but there are certainly films that have. So is this the
first of a series?
PL: Yes, the next one is on Thomas Paine
and it’s called Common Sense. There is no question
that some auteur directors have
to weave a new mythology more than destroy the old. There’s
a difference. The American Revolution, like the Bible, is one of
the core mythologies
of our culture has absolutely not been dealt with. The Patriot is
as good as it gets. What happens when we try to represent the common
man in the American revolution? He is nothing but a plebeian
embodiment of the Founding Fathers’ ideas. He is still, at
best, someone who is reluctant to join the fray until there was
violation upon his person or his family or upon his home that ultimately
induced him to join the Founding Fathers in their revolt.
do we still talk about the “Founding Fathers”? Wouldn’t
we chip away at the prevalent myths by changing the nomenclature?
a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that.
RB: Do you know Daniel Lazare’s
book The Frozen Republic? It challenges the notion that
we must hold the Founding Fathers’ views sacrosanct.
PL: Talking about
redubbing the Founding Fathers as ordinary men, we also have a
long way to go to reframe the Constitution in the
spirit it was held at the time. We tend to think of it as this
sacrosanct document. At the time it was a document, particularly
in Massachusetts, [that was a reaction to] riots in the streets.
It was commonly understood that one of the chief objectives of
at the Continental Congress for the Constitution was to prevent
something like Shay’s Rebellion, which happened in Springfield,
Massachusetts, and to prevent it from ever happening again. The
Constitution was a document that was to prove to be a bulwark against
what they thought was anarchy but Daniel Shays and those farmers
rebelling against their property being taken from them because
of debts due and taxes levied saw the Constitution as a bulwark
against democracy. There was never this consensus that the Constitution
represented an achievement. To a preponderance of veterans, the
Constitution represented a failure, represented a loss of the
Revolution. So suddenly, somewhere down the line, we have the Constitution,
this fabulous document. We say to ourselves, can’t
it be a living breathing document? It will never be, until we bring
to the story
of the Constitution the reality of the context it was created
in and the results that it caused. All of which has been wiped
out of history. And more importantly, even if it’s not been
wiped out of the history in academia, it’s been wiped out
of the history of popular culture as its been disseminated because
the vehicle of the dissemination of points of view and ideology
in popular culture. Without the lucky happenstance of DNA we wouldn’t
be discussing Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. The scholars
would be debating it, but it would never have come out.
RB: So you
see writing your style of historical novel as bridging the gap
between the bloodless sanitized historical record and popular
culture which is what people live in now?
PL: Yes, you put it better
than I could. History has marginalized itself. There is so much
truth, so much rebellious spirit, so much
passion locked up inside the academia, were any of that unleashed
and allowed to do its work, allowed to reach people that are not
sitting inside the Ivory Tower its relevance would be immediately
apprehended and progressive causes as we know them would begin
to take root in a way that they heretofore have not. This is why — and
I paid a price for this — I intentionally chose a rank commercial
publisher who to this day doesn’t understand this book.
is a Warner book that has been optioned for film to Warner Brothers.
Do they know what they have?
PL: Absolutely not. The publisher still
doesn’t have a clue. They just think it’s a funny … they
think I’m a Gore Vidal for the poor
man. It’s funny and naughty and fresh. That’s all they
see. With the movie, what I’m up against there — because
the book is “so
funny” — they see themselves wanting a Monty Python
kind of movie in which the audience walks away laughing. People
read the book and feel the vocation, but they are threatened by
it. They back-pedal from it. For example, after all the publicity
and attendant media on the book, the first note on the first draft
I got back from Warner Brothers was from a 22-year-old
development person. Ready? The first note I got was, “Shouldn’t
we…” — it’s always the “we” — “shouldn’t
we revere the Founding Fathers a little more?”
RB: Where do they learn that?
PL: Yeah, I know. “And
how come the Founding Fathers don’t play a bigger part in this
story? Shouldn’t we adjust that?” That
was note number one. And you think, “And there we go.” This
insane gap between what the book is about and what we as a culture
RB: Let me get this right. Your are talking
to a development person about a script you are presenting. Has
person read the book
the script is based on?
PL: Evidently not.
RB: Does he care to or does
RB: So he’s just looking at the script.
he’s shocked. This isn’t the story of the American Revolution.
Who bought it for Warner Brothers?
PL: The person who read it and
bought and made the decision to buy it had seen the review and
seen the response, seen the sales,
gotten some reader to cover it who loved it, and then made an offer.
And that person who is the head of the studio — it was a
very high buy as they call it — never looks at it again.
He attends the premiere and that’s it. In the mean time,
the minions, none of whom have read the book, because the book
after all, because we are doing the movie…This is why I believe
I can be helpful to Howard Zinn in his People’s History
of the United States at HBO. There is a bridgeable gap between
what we are used to as a good story about the American Revolution
instance and what we can go to, what we can ultimately accept.
Within that there is all kinds of room for analysis. I wrote an
article for Commonplace.com, an online magazine for historians,
which is all about if revisionist historians — and I hate
that word because it implies that there is a text that you are
veering away from that is somehow superior — if revisionist
historians are really and truly to embrace their story tellers
the first thing we need to learn is that the stories that we tell
are not going to conform to what we accept as traditionally good
stories. The whole definition of who we regard as hero and the
reasons why we regard them as heroes change — good versus
evil, beginning, middle, end, linear narrative — all of these
classic things that we are taught that make a good story suddenly
disappear when we want to tell a different story. We haven’t
even begun to come to terms with the way our definition of a good
is infused with ideology of a most unconscious kind that winds
up turning a story — no matter how radical, no matter how
rebellious, no matter how progressive — into the same old
story that ultimately is diffused and robbed of its political content.
For example, this is a promise I have made to my readers. The fact
that Deborah and John have an unconventional love story does not
in any way conform to a love story as we understand it in Hollywood
movie. To make that love story conform to what we accept as a good
love story means that what binds them can not be their ideas, not
their passion. It has to be about their lust and sexual longing.
And that tells a different story. What happens is that their concerns,
the things that have made her angry and his discoveries — these
outrageous discoveries about the world which he as a Charleston
kid was not privy to — are secondary, ancillary, tertiary to this
other love story. You tell a different story then.
PL: But we say, “That’s a
good love story.” No, no, no.
If you accept that that’s the definition of a good love story,
then ultimately what you are accepting is that this whole other
this whole other quest, what unites Deborah and John their passion
for battle. Passion for a fair world is just irrelevant. That’s
a whole other discussion that hasn’t been broached yet.
your level of confidence that you can get the movie version of
this story made?
PL: (sighs) It’s a very good and a very fair
RB: Actually, I would ask you the same question
about the HBO project.
PL: As arrogant as I can be, I will tell
you what other people have said of me as a way of answering that
question. Other people
have said that somehow I have a knack for giving them just enough
of what they want and telling a different kind of a story that
still is exciting and enough of a page-turner that ultimately will
suit commercial parameters while suiting a more progressive point
of view. With a respect to my being a bridge, I am mostly a bridge
in that particular area. I am first and foremost a story-teller.
Before I was a historian, I was a writer. I went to Yale intending
to be a historian; I took personally the gap between what was and
what I was seeing and I left history for Hollywood and have a successful
career in Hollywood, never forgetting this vocation that was nagging
at me. Now having been schooled and been successful in push-the-envelope
kinds of stories I feel I have some kind of instinct for being
able to tell a story in a way that makes it a ripping yarn, while
also is protective of ideas that I am absolutely committed to getting
out into the world. Who knows if I will be [continue to] be successful
at it. The other answer to your question is — which is much more
cynical — I don’t know whether the movie is going to
get made or not. I do have a certain influence, a certain swagger,
that ultimately if this movie doesn’t get made, it would
be a decision taken or made lightly. If for no other reason than
that I represent
a certain power in the marketplace and people don’t want
to piss me off.
RB: And regarding the People’s
History Project — you’re a hired hand on that one —
your sense of whether that will
PL: I am a hired hand there and I’m
not normally. Normally, I executive produce what I write. Which
means I pitch
In this case I will have a credit as an executive producer but
it’s just because of a career precedent. But I’ll have
no power whatsoever. It is my intention to write such a passionate,
sensual, sexy, vivacious, alive rendition of Shay’s Rebellion,
which is the first movie that I am doing, that ultimately people
see that in Howard Zinn’s perspective, in his point of view,
as dramatic material. Not simply an intellectual exercise, not
simply the voice
of a forlorn rebel. This is my intention. If I succeed then my
script could set an example for others.
RB: Is John Sayles doing
The Ludlow Massacre script?
PL: I think that is not working out.
I guess the Columbus episode by Perry Lavarty, which I haven’t
read yet, Howard Zinn certainly
likes. We don’t know yet whether HBO likes it. I think Howard is
on pins and needles waiting to see what they think about it. Frankly,
I’m under a little personal pressure because, assuming I succeed
in this script, it could go along way to regenerating the project.
How far down the line are you looking with your “novelistic” approach
PL: Past Paine? Oh, I think I’m in it for the
RB: As the poor man’s Gore Vidal …
a label I don’t mind taking on …
RB: I understand.
PL: I think there is some truth
that Gore Vidal, brilliant as he is — and I couldn’t
have done what I did if never did what he did — has confined
his focus to the upper classes. He did the Ode to Daniel Shays
that’s as close as he ever came.
He is very interested in poking holes and perforating the upper
classes. He’s not interested or committed to or cares about
beginning to reconstruct a world view that actually includes other
The “poor man’s Gore Vidal,” I like to think
PL: … that some of what I am doing is what
he did but from the point of view of the common man. Not from the
of view of
the fellow patrician.
RB: His Civilization series was eight
books? How far will your novels go? Into the 2oth Century?
PL: You’ve asked
me a question I haven’t thought about. I am so committed
to opening and altering … making my contribution to altering
the cultural mythology of the American Revolution because I think
it is so absolutely pivotal to our culture that I would be happy
spending the rest of my writing life confining myself to 18th Century
America. There is so much to mine. In researching for the Zinn
project on Daniel Shays I was made so angry that this information
isn’t out. That traditional histories have deal with the
Shaysite framers as anarchists. I say to myself, “Of course
if the Shaysite farmers are anarchists, then of course the World
Organization protesters are anarchists.” Of course they are.
How were the WWI veterans that protested in Washington in ’33
and were forcefully dispersed by MacArthur referred to?
PL: I don’t know.
Even when we speak of the Shay’s farmers, honoring them always
confine their honor to their cause as being about them
not being properly paid or the government breaking their promise
to them. Of their hundred concerns those would have been numbers
98 and 99. The real concern was coming home from having fought
and as a result of having fought their farms lay fallow … if
their wives were still around and hadn’t become camp followers,
they were near destitute. And they would find red flags on their
stoops because their landlord as a result of the soldier having
fought and not being paid was about to lose his house. And soldier
after soldier was losing his house as a result of not being paid.
Whole families were thrown into debtor’s prison. One prison
in Boston was 20 feet by 30 feet and there were 99 imprisoned in
At one point one out of three people in Massachusetts were imprisoned
as a result of their fighting in the American Revolution. What’s
amazing is that farmers didn’t protest their debts
and taxes. What they said was, we want more time or if you take
let that be payment for our debts. But that wasn’t enough.
They [landlords] wanted to set an example. So not only were their
taken but they were also thrown into prison. There was this tremendous
sense of them not only having been robbed of this accomplishment
but rather this sense of complete disaffection. Which was, “What
was I fighting for?”
RB: In the face of the new government
spending money on celebrations and arguably frivolous things.
Absolutely! There’s no question about that. There were all
kinds of taxes levied in Massachusetts to help pay for the war
effort. Rum, which is what the farmers drank, was taxed five times
more than the madeira— here in Boston — that the gentleman
drank. That says it all. I am not a conspiracy theorist but this
was a massive conspiracy against the poor. And they were left with
no alternative but to pick up guns. In a text book in South Carolina
it all about how these men were anarchists who were trying to destroy
the legacy for which the Founding Fathers had worked so hard and
held so dear. This is what’s being taught. As long as that’s
taught people protesting at the World Trade Organization are going
to be anarchists. There really isn’t a way to talk about
these things. The mirrors for your experiences, those events in
that could have validated the ’60s struggles.
RB: When was there
ever a time when people protested the conditions of their lives
and were found to be justified or those protest
were validated by those to whom they were protesting? Ever?
No probably never. But it’s time for a change.
RB: When will your
Paine book be done?
PL: Two years.
RB: You continue to work on publicizing
PL: I am not content for the book simply
to be successful, I believe that I am on to something that is important
and as a
that I push on. This has been a long lonely road and it really
took — without exaggeration — 12-13 years to compile
this information. Now People’s History of the American
Revolution by Ray Raphael — I want to cry. He
would have saved me six years. But who’s reading it? Not
the people at buying at Barnes and Noble or Borders. But this book
[Last Refuge] was in the window
and Noble. The other day somebody said, “Would be all right
for me to describe your characterization of John Hancock and John
Adams as caricature?” I said. “I have no problem accepting
that if you’ll also agree that the portraits of the Founding
Fathers as they have come down are also equal as caricature.”
was the response?
PL: She didn’t say anything. Certainly,
I pick and choose and I have great fun. Is the scene where George
his uniform on, hoping to impress his fellow delegates with his
military prowess in order to secure him the position of commander-in-chief — did
that scene occur? Of course it didn’t occur as depicted.
But are the facts true? Is George Washington at 43 and overweight
himself into a moth-eaten uniform that he last wore when he was
17? And did the other Founding Fathers make fun of what
he looked like in this uniform? Yes! And that’s all important
information. All of the catty little comments about how ridiculous
he looked. As you know one Founding Father I have no enmity for
is George Washington. I do believe that George Washington does
deserve the moniker “the Father of Our Country” for
reasons entirely different than what he is normally celebrated.
George Washington learned a thing or two about how the other half
lives. He understood there was a gap.
RB: You had him right in
there with his men, learning how to row.
PL: In his own diary when he writes of
crossing the Delaware he writes of hunkering down, his arms around
his men and relying upon the New England Marbleheads to negotiate
the floes of ice to get himself across the Delaware. That’s
what he writes. And guess what? Many don’t still believe the
image of Washington with his hand on his heart, nose in the air
standing in a boat, crossing the Delaware. What if we had an artist
who knew enough to paint George Washington hugging his men, head
down and Marbleheaders including women negotiating the ice floes.
What a different culture we would be if that was the archetypal
portrait that we grew up with.
This article originally appeared in Identity