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Lynne Cheney on American presidents of 'The Virginia Dynasty'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Four of America's first five presidents were born and raised within a 60-mile radius in the state of Virginia.

Those men, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, and their at times complicated relationships are the focus of Lynne Cheney's new book, "The Virginia Dynasty."

I spoke recently to the former second lady. And she started by explaining why she chose to profile these men.

Lynne Cheney: I wrote a book about Madison, and I was interested in how his interrelationships with the other three Virginians shaped his ideas. He helped shape theirs.

And in the course of the early republic revolution, these men did amazing things. They, of course, established a republic. They proclaimed independence. They doubled the size of the nation. They made America continental nation.

And so these are stories, I think, we're ignoring now. And I hope that I can help bring them back to the fore.

Judy Woodruff: And, as you point out, they grew up in a 60-mile radius of -- in the state of Virginia.

Lynne Cheney: Exactly. It's quite an astonishing thing to see that much greatness emerge from a small backwater, which is essentially what Virginia was in the eyes of the world.

Judy Woodruff: You make them come to life by writing about not only their great talent, what they accomplished, but also writing about their weaknesses and the disagreements that they had.

How, despite all that, did they get done what they got done?

Lynne Cheney: It's interesting that, by being together, of course, they sharpened one another's wits. They brought others -- they brought one another to higher -- higher ideas.

But their quarrels will also very productive. And I think that's a way of sharpening wits too. One of their quarrels, the quarrels of -- between three of them and Washington, led to a complete break with Washington, which I think people don't often realize. Washington died a pretty lonely man, admired by millions, but with few friends.

But out of that break came political parties, the idea that a loyal opposition was a good thing, that presidents shouldn't reign unhindered after they're elected.

Judy Woodruff: There's so much interesting here to explore.

Part of it, of course, is the contradictions. And you write about this. They own slaves, and yet they believed in equality, they believed in liberty.

And I was reading at one point, you said, Virginia, back in 1790, had a population of 516,000 freed people, but it had another 300,000 enslaved people.

How were they able to both justify what they believed in and then what they were doing in being slave owners?

Lynne Cheney: Well, they lived in contradiction, and they were fully aware of that.

They believed that slavery -- that holding slaves was immoral. Jefferson called it a sin against God. But they could never find a way to achieve the complete emancipation that justice required.

At the same time, they also lived in this place where a new nation was being created, and they lived in a time when the Enlightenment made clear that people could improve their lot and they could approve -- improve the lots of others.

Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Washington were all committed to the idea of building a nation the basis of Enlightenment ideas, liberty, justice, freedom. These were the ideas they used to build, even though, in their own lives, they contradicted that by holding people in bondage.

One point I want to make is that the ideals that they envisaged and the ideals on which the country was based have been praised by some pretty interesting people, who saw them as mighty weapons against slavery.

Abraham Lincoln, who really didn't have much truck with Jefferson, praised him for putting the idea of freedom at the center of the Declaration, because, he said, freedom will keep us from ever falling backward into a non-free state. These ideas were very powerful, the most powerful weapons against slavery one can imagine.

Judy Woodruff: Finally, Lynne Cheney, the growing number of questions out there on the part of many Americans about when we're going to know the results of the election, for a number of reasons, the presidential election this year.

You and your husband, Vice President Dick Cheney, lived through the 2000 election, the vote recount settled by the Supreme Court. What words do you have for Americans today who are wondering whether the results are going to be accepted, whether either side might challenge the result? What would you say?

Lynne Cheney: Well, it's not the first time that the electoral processes has frightened Americans, nor the first time that they fought about it.

I immediately think of the election of 1800, which was tied between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. And before it was settled, there was talk of people arming themselves in Maryland and Pennsylvania. We came through that.

I am sure will come through this. But we should always be vigilant to guard our liberty and our republic.

Judy Woodruff: And so, to Americans, you're saying, because of what you saw in 2000 and earlier?

Lynne Cheney: Well, the country has come through. That doesn't mean it will always come through.

But it does mean that we should be maybe a little less panic-stricken than we are, though I don't mean to suggest at all that we shouldn't be vigilant. It's kind of a mixed message, Judy, not a simple one.

Judy Woodruff: Not a simple one, for sure.

Lynne Cheney, thank you so much.

The book is "The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation."

Thank you. Thank you.

Lynne Cheney: Oh, Judy, thank you. A pleasure.

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