I met George Daughan when we sat next to each other at the Books in Boothbay Book Fair last summer. I had read his latest book 1812: The Navy’s War, and was interested to hear how he developed his particular approach to history as well as to learn about his career as a teacher and historian. What follows is the transcript of a conversation we had several weeks later.
HG: What is your background? Did you study maritime history in graduate-school?
GD: I grew up in Boston, but my Dad moved to Kittery, Maine when I was in high school. I thought it was the end of the world at the time. I got my PhD at Harvard in government and economics where I was strongly influenced by my advisor, Henry Kissinger, who taught a memorable course in International Relations.
HG: How did you get interested in naval history?
GD: Kissinger would bring in these big wigs from Washington to talk with us. One was Admiral Arleigh Burke, who influenced me to think about naval history when I hadn’t decided on my field yet.
HG: What are you currently working on?
GD: My interest has always been in early American history. When I signed a contract with Basic Books for a trilogy on the early history of the United States, I decided to write a complete history of the period. If By Sea is a history of the country emphasizing the development of the navy from 1775 to 1812. My second book is about the War of 1812, focusing on the naval aspects. The third is different. It is an in depth story of USS Essex, its captain David Porter and an incredible voyage from the Delaware River to the Pacific.
HG: What did your research involve?
GD: The research was monumental and required years of effort. There is a huge secondary literature on the history of the country for that period. Even though there is a mountain of literature it boils down to only a few good books.
Then you have to get into the documents. You do what you can, knowing full well that there is much left to be done. You can’t ever say that a writer has told the definitive story. No matter what the blurb says on the book, the subject is not exhausted. And I did more research than most because I had the time.
HG: Why has naval history been ignored by historians?
GD: Naval historians are a small group of writers who tend to be ignored because mainstream historians are intimidated by the ships themselves. They need to learn a whole new language. So we have this scholarly division. They don’t communicate with each other.
HG: Did your books turn out the way you expected?
GD: Books never turn out the way you expect. You discover a lot in the secondary literature and in reading the documents. Putting things together in a book concentrates your mind in a way nothing else does. You don’t know what you think till you get into the writing of a book.
HG: Can you give any examples of surprises?
GD: One surprise was George Washington. Like a lot of people, I was skeptical of his eminence and all the praise that has been heaped on him. Nearly everybody comes away scratching their heads, “This guy is too good to be true”. To my surprise I found that he was indeed a unique character, one of the great men in world history. I can’t imagine the Revolution would have been won nor our nation formed without him. The fact that he left after two terms, when he could have stayed on, was a huge event in world history.
HG: You were a tenured professor at Connecticut College when you stopped teaching at age forty-one. Why did you quit?
GD: I was burned out. I had spent my whole life in academia and was bored with it. I was a popular professor who worked hard on his courses and wrote books, but something had to give. I felt like I had done all I could.
HG: What pertains to Maine in your recent book, 1812?
GD: The most famous incident that occurred in Maine was the sea battle between Boxer and Enterprise in 1813. After the battle the battered Enterprise towed the badly beaten Boxer into Portland. It was a huge event in Portland. Both captains were young men in their twenties who were killed. Both were honored and are buried side by side in Eastern Cemetery.
Lots of things about the battle were important. It came at a time in the war when the country’s morale needed a boost and got it from the navy. The celebration of the victory and the burial drew hundreds of people from all over the area.
HG: What writers have influenced you?
GD: The man who has influenced me the most is Samuel Eliot Morison. His books are a delight to read. He is my role model. He taught at Harvard and wrote extensively about the Navy when writing about the history of the country. He was a great advocate of historians paying attention to their writing, so readers wouldn’t be tasked with scholarly jargon. (George Daughan is too modest to mention that he received the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature for his 2008 book If by Sea).
Henry Adams is another great writer. His books are fun to read because he paid close attention to his writing. He was also someone who wrote about the navy in the context of general history. From his books you find out what was going on in Europe, which is also something I have tried to do with my books. One naval historian complained when I put Napoleon into my books, “What does Napoleon have to do with the American navy?”
George Daughan answers this question as well as presenting a comprehensive view of one of the United States’ lesser known wars in his marvelous new book, 1812: The Navy’s War.