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Shelf life: Read like a Founder

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 4:46 p.m.

Come July 4, Americans will celebrate the Declaration of Independence almost as much as they celebrate independence itself. Attributed mainly to Thomas Jefferson, it's a remarkable synthesis of original ideas and other great minds' great ideas that the Founders knew through reading.

The Trib asked Karen Rossi and her staff at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Downtown & Business branch to help answer the question "What were the Founders reading?" for A Page of Books. What follows is based on their research and others'.

As 'mass' as it got

Print was the mass medium of the Founders' era. Pamphlets such as Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" were analogous to blogs; newspapers -- often rabidly partisan -- to websites. Almanacs -- such as those that Benjamin Franklin, who made his personal fortune largely as a printer, published as "Poor Richard" -- were the equivalent of the reading material we find at supermarket checkouts. Books were the great repository of knowledge and thought -- but available only to the few who were wealthy or well-positioned (think clergy).

All had to be transported by foot, horse, wagon or boat, so information spread slowly. The Continental Congress, for example, voted for independence on July 2, 1776, in Philadelphia. But word of that vote didn't reach New York City until July 6, according to historian David McCullough. And it would be weeks, even months, before the Declaration's text -- dated July 4 -- spread across the fledgling nation and the Atlantic to King George III.

Classical education

Literacy was common -- so the Bible could be read. Formal education was not, but it gave many Founders a solid grounding in classical thought.

Writing for the spring 2007 edition of The Classical Teacher, Martin Cothran says students, beginning at about age 8, learned Latin and Greek, reading and translating such authors as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Livy, Virgil and Horace in the classical curriculum of the "trivium" (Latin, logic, rhetoric) and "quadrivium" (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music).

Collegiate studies -- at such institutions as William & Mary and Harvard -- were heavy on the classics, too, and were conducted largely in Greek and Latin.

Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 30 were college graduates. And many Founders and Framers continued to read, quote and translate the ancients long after their school days ended.

George Washington, by contrast, lacked a degree and "had little formal education," according to Cothran, but "admired classical thinkers greatly," kept busts of Cicero and other ancients in his Mt. Vernon home and even had a play about Roman statesman Cato the Younger performed for troops at Valley Forge.

All this, says Cothran, gave the Founders "a respect for the lessons of history, lessons that were readily apparent in their writings and debates about how to construct the American Republic. ... They combed the annals of the ancients for examples of governments that worked well -- and for those that did not."

Keeping abreast

The Founders didn't just internalize and repeat the ancients' received wisdom, though. They also were aware of newer thinkers who advocated methodical, empirical inquiry to better understand society, government, politics and the natural world -- and influenced both the American and French revolutions.

Surely the Founders knew of such great minds as Jean-Jacques Rousseau ("The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality"), Thomas Hobbes ("Leviathan"), David Hume ("A Treatise of Human Nature"), John Locke ("Two Treatises of Government"), Montesquieu ("The Spirit of the Laws") and Adam Smith ("An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations"). It's a good bet that they were well-versed in Machiavelli and Shakespeare, too.

And Franklin, at least, actively advanced and studied scientific inquiry and discourse. Great Britain's Royal Society, the pre-eminent "think tank" of the age, awarded him a medal in absentia for his discovery linking lightning and electricity and invention of the lightning rod, and when he went to England in 1757 to represent the Pennsylvania Assembly, he took part in Royal Society activities -- the cutting-edge R&D of his day, documented in its publications.

Legacy of libraries

The Founders so valued books that at least two of them helped make them available to many more Americans.

Franklin helped found America's first library, in Philadelphia in 1731. Membership required a 40-shilling fee upfront and 10 shillings annually, but nonmembers could borrow books -- by putting up collateral as security against borrowed titles' destruction or theft. This early widening of access to books prefigured the proliferation of public libraries nationwide.

When British troops burned the still-unfinished U.S. Capitol in Washington in August 1814, it housed the Library of Congress. Established in 1800 as a reference library for congressional use only, its collection went up in flames. But within a month, Jefferson, retired from the presidency, offered to replace it with his personal library, widely considered one of the finest in the United States -- almost 6,500 books he'd accumulated over a half-century. And he insisted that volumes on subjects not directly related to governing or legislating -- philosophy, science, literature -- be included, making his library the foundation for the universal approach to collecting that the Library of Congress pursues to this day.


The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition
by F.A. Hayek
edited by Ronald Hamowy (University of Chicago Press)

Part of "The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek" series, this new edition of a work originally published in 1960 includes copious endnotes that Francis Fukuyama, reviewing the book for The New York Times, says "make clear the extraordinary breadth and depth of Hayek's erudition, and his ability to wander far beyond economics into history, philosophy, biology and other fields." It arrives at a time when ObamaCare and taxpayer-funded bailouts of banks and automakers have made Americans increasingly worried about socialism and receptive to calls for limited government. That's why the late Austrian economist's "The Road to Serfdom" made best-seller lists last year, after Glenn Beck featured that book on his TV show. In "The Constitution of Liberty," says the publisher, "Hayek defends the principles of a free society, casting a skeptical eye on the growth of the welfare state and examining the challenges to freedom posed by an ever expanding government ... ." With Hayek-style rhetoric sure to be frequent among incumbents and challengers for offices at all levels of government as the campaign trail to 2012 unfolds, this "Definitive Edition" can acquaint (or re-acquaint) voters with Hayek's own thoughts, helping them choose candidates who are genuinely committed to smaller government, freer markets and greater liberty.

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation
by Andrea Wulf (Knopf)

America's urban transformation would present a fascinating puzzle for George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin -- farming Founders whose social and political outlooks were deeply rooted (OK, pun intended) in agriculture, which they considered the noblest of all occupations and democracy's foundation. The author notes that Washington took time out from Revolutionary War duties to send gardening instructions back to his Mt. Vernon home in Virginia, Adams and Jefferson toured gardens overseas while in the fledgling United States' diplomatic service, and Madison was the "forgotten father of American environmentalism," according to the publisher. So botanically passionate was Franklin that, even while representing Pennsylvania in London at the time of England's hated Stamp Act, he was sending seeds home for his own garden and those planted by like-minded Philadelphians. One such Philadelphian, John Bartram, planted a garden that included trees and shrubs from all 13 colonies -- and those plantings' symbolism later helped break Constitutional Convention delegates' deadlock over proportional representation in Congress. And to its credit, "Founding Gardeners" doesn't shirk from dealing with the agricultural role played in the Founders' time by slavery, a practice at odds with their professed ideals.

Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business
by Bob Lutz (Portfolio)

In this book -- excerpted in The Wall Street Journal not once, but twice -- brash, outspoken, egotistical "Maximum Bob" Lutz applies car-business lessons to business in general, urging that "the final word" go to "those who live and breathe the customer experience," whatever business a business is in. General Motors' vice chairman from 2001-10, with a mandate to make GM vehicles great again -- a job he came out of retirement to take -- Lutz also held senior leadership posts at Ford, Chrysler and BMW during his 47-year career. He helped bring to market such significant models as the 3-series BMWs of the 1970s, the 1992 Dodge Viper sports car, the 2011 Cadillac SRX crossover and -- less thrilling to some "car guys" -- the 2011 Chevy Volt hybrid. Small-government types won't care much for his take on Washington bailing out automakers, but his emphasis on creativity, design and customer satisfaction is something that automakers -- and all businesses, for that matter -- forget at their peril. After all, if GM and Chrysler had operated more like Lutz says they should, they might never have needed bailouts -- and the "car guys" of the world would be happier, too.

A Page of Books, written and compiled by Alan Wallace, appears on the last Sunday of each month.

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