We challenge the coldest heart to remain unwarmed by the above video.
In honor of Independence Day (and faithfully honoring the great American tradition of selling things by linking them to Independence Day) we are delighted to remind you of our marvelous voyage America’s Historic Atlantic Shores in September ’09, which sails to Portland, Newport, Annapolis, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah, and West Palm Beach.
But that, really, is incidental to two remarkable articles we’ve found, which will bring you reflective smiles during your barbeque tomorrow. The first is a book review of The Road to Monticello by Keven Hayes, which considers “Thomas Jefferson, gentleman scholar.” Hayes, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, reminds us that the Declaration of Independence didn’t appear spontaneously from Jefferson’s head like Athena from Zeus’s noggin. Our ginger-haired third President was a bibliomaniac, an astoundingly voracious reader and book collector — a vast, prodigious talent when the art of buying books meant more than a search on Amazon.com.
As a novice lawyer in Williamsburg, Virginia‘s capital, in the 1760s, Jefferson could only obtain books through the local newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, whose owner imported them from Europe. Even in this Colonial backwater, however, he was able to obtain the two-volume folio of Guiccardini’s history of Italy, a masterpiece of Renaissance historiography. It is a vivid demonstration of the international reach of the Republic of Letters. For an educated man with money and the right contacts, the Atlantic Ocean was no barrier to book-buying.
Still, for Jefferson to get the books he wanted, in the right format and at the right price, required work. Whenever he visited a new city, Mr. Hayes shows, Jefferson made a beeline for the bookshops. He knew all the booksellers in Philadelphia and New York, and made contacts with dealers in England, Germany, and France. During his time in Paris, Jefferson recalled, “I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.”
Now this, we attest, is what a real Presidential Library should look like.
…the sheer number and variety of titles that Jefferson devoured. As a law student, he read “Coke upon Littleton,” the classic treatise on English law; as a novice farmer, he studied Jethro Tull’s standard guide, “Horse-Hoeing Husbandry”; in his leisure hours, he read the melancholy poetry of Ossian, which enjoyed a vogue in the 1760s. As a legislator in Virginia, and later at the Continental Congress, Jefferson made use of treatises on natural law — Grotius’s “De Jure Belli ac Pacis,” Pufendorf’s “Law of Nature and Nations” — whose concepts are reflected in the Declaration of Independence. While drafting the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, which he considered one of his proudest accomplishments, Jefferson read Milton’s “Reason of Church-Government” and Shaftesbury’s “Letter Concerning Enthusiasm.”
And this doesn’t even scratch the surface: Jefferson read constantly, copiously, in many languages. (He even designed a rotating bookstand that allowed him to consult five books at a time.) Naturally, as an Enlightenment philosophe in good standing, he knew French long before he was posted to France as America’s ambassador. He also read Italian and Spanish, which he taught his daughters using “Don Quixote” as a textbook.
Like most Virginia planters, Jefferson studied Latin and Greek as a boy; unlike most, he actually learned them, and used them for the rest of his life. Studying the marginalia in Jefferson’s law books, Mr. Hayes discovered apposite quotations from Herodotus and Euripides, in the original. Much more unusually, however, Jefferson was also a student of Anglo-Saxon. At a time when the language of “Beowulf” had not yet entered the college curriculum, Mr. Hayes writes, Jefferson’s “sizable collection of Anglo-Saxon books included nearly all of the important studies of the language.” He studied the Bible in polyglot editions that included Hebrew and Aramaic; he read the first translations of Indian and Persian literature, just then appearing in English. To amuse himself in retirement, Jefferson even bought Robert Morison’s “Dialogues and Detached Sentences in the Chinese Language, With a Free and Verbal Translation in English.”
It’s an extraordinary read, and shows us the life of Thomas Jefferson’s mind — his biographia literaria — the vast range of knowledge which informed the mind that formed our country.
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, George F. Will does a fine job reminding us July 4, 1776 is something of an arbitrary date to define “The American Revolution.” On May 19, 1775, for example, the citizens of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina were up in outrage, if not yet in arms, about the Vestry and Marriage Acts of 1769. These acts levied fines upon Presbyterian ministers who were marrying colonials — because, of course, any deviance from the Anglican Church just wasn’t cricket. The county convention was just about to figure out what do do when the news (FINALLY!) arrived from Lexington and Concord. On May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg’s convention declared:
We the citizens of Mecklenburg County do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the mother country. . . . We do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people . . . to the maintenance of which independence, we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.
Sound familiar? Thomas Jefferson’s voracious reading apparently encompassed this this missive from Mecklenburg, too
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