Reading Room Archives

Thinking About Government with John Adams

In philosophy classes, students sometimes wonder why we continue to read long-dead thinkers like Plato or Descartes, and there are two sorts of answers I usually give. One is that, for better or worse, their ideas set the stage for debates that are still engaging, or raised questions that defy easy answers. The other is that, unlike in physics or chemistry, it’s not the case that the newer stuff is the truer stuff. It’s certainly possible that some 19th-century thinker was trying to refute an argument made by an 18th-century thinker, but failed. Aristotle isn’t necessarily wrong about ethics just because he is writing earlier than Jeremy Bentham. Maybe there are valuable insights in the thinkers of the past.

OLL's September Birthday: The Marquis de Condorcet

September’s featured birthday anniversary belongs to Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, The Marquis de Condorcet, usually referred to simply by his title, or sometimes as Nicolas Condorcet.  Sometimes called “the Last Witness of the Enlightenment” or “the Last Philosophe,” he was also a pioneer of the emerging social sciences.  

John Leland: Theologian of the First Amendment

Evangelicals today are often accused of supporting political figures who seem to contradict their values and beliefs. But why do such coalitions exist in American politics? To answer that question, Americans should look back not to 2020 or 2016 but to 1801, when a 1,235-lb. wheel of cheese made its triumphal entry into the nation’s capital. Pulled by six horses, the “Mammoth Cheese” was a gift to the newly elected President, Thomas Jefferson. Inscribed on the red crust was a favorite mantra of Jefferson’s: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” 

James Monroe: The Anti-Imperialist President and Founding Father

Although James Monroe didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, he is remembered as a crucial part of American History: the last of the “Founding Father” presidents. Beyond the doctrine named after him, Monroe is also known for presiding over the Era of Good Feelings, and increasing the geographic boundaries of the United States, while remaining ambivalent of the government’s power to do so. 

Shelley's “Ode to Liberty” Infuriated Reviewers—but Made J. S. Mill Weep

It was dangerous age to publish poetry. Imagine a poem, today, attacked as subversive and “as wicked as anything that ever reached the world”—a poem by a poet who today is in the pantheon of English Romantic poetry. Any poet of our time would be astounded if his free verse were taken so seriously. 

A Friend to the Revolution: Mercy Otis Warren and the Ordinary Virtues of Republicanism

If, as the saying goes, you can judge a man by the company he keeps, then Mercy Otis Warren ought to be more highly regarded. 

The Paranoia of Patrick Henry

“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel.” Those are the words of Patrick Henry to the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788. 

Inception in Ilion: Agamemnon's Dream

Long before Christopher Nolan was wowing audiences with expensive CGI and notions of thoughts being placed into minds via dreams, epic Greek literature was doing much the same. For those who need a brief refresher on the concept behind Inception: it is an action-adventure movie that centers around the notion that men, in the near future, can dive into dreams and interact with the dreamers in their dream, or in the case of the theoretical "inception", they could plant an idea which the thinker thinks is his own. The scene where two characters are talking about breaking into the dream of the wealthy heir of a corporate super-power in order to plant the idea to "break up his father's empire" follows:

Patrick Henry: America’s Founding Orator

Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. He tried his hand at running a store at 15 but was unsuccessful. In 1754, at age 18, he married Sara Shelton and was given 6 slaves and 300 acres of land as a dowry. Although he tried hard to build a successful plantation, he struggled to grow tobacco at a profit, and in 1757, his farmhouse burned down. But Henry did not give up on trying to make something out of himself. Following the loss of his farmhouse, he managed a tavern for his father-in-law while studying to become a lawyer.

Brought to the Scaffold": Pepys, Smith, and Voltaire on Public Executions

In early October of 1660, the diarist Samuel Pepys got up in the morning and headed out to Charing Cross to spend a pleasant day with friends andto see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; 

Judith Sargent Murray: A Woman Between Worlds

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published her famous work The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. To this day, this work is considered one of the origin points of western feminism. While Wollstonecraft enjoys great continuing fame, few people know of the American woman who wrote a trailblazing treatise on sexual equality over a decade earlier in 1779 and published it 1790. Her name was Judith Sargent Murray, and she is a political thinker worthy of reconsideration within the context of the Founding era. While scholars of the Founding era often turn to the likes of Abigail Adams as an early American feminist, there is perhaps no better example than Murray, who herself asked, “Is the needle and the kitchen sufficient to employ the operations of a soul thus organized?”

Mavericks: Soaring to New Heights with Pete Mitchell and David Hume

This summer's Top Gun: Maverick blasted past other films in U.S. theaters and continues its path around the globe.  There are many reasons for its financial success—it's now the ninth-highest grossing film in domestic box office history—but the most critical is signaled by the title: audiences love a maverick.  We like to watch an individual who thinks independently, refusing to conform for the sake of conformity.  We like to cheer for someone who sees a new path, new possibilities, new heights to which humans can aspire.  That is true for anyone from pilots to philosophers.

George Mason: Father of Inalienable Rights

George Mason was born on December 11, 1725, in Fairfax County, Virginia. His parents died in a boating accident when he was 10, and he was taken in by John Mercer, an uncle, who was both a lawyer and a voracious reader. In 1736, George Mason began his education under the tutelage of Mr. Williams. He continued his education under Dr. Bridges in 1740, a progenitor of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. After Mason returned to his estate, he continued to access Mercer’s library as a way of informally continuing his education. This proved successful, with contemporaries, including Philip Mazzei, declaring him a genius comparable to Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, or Newton.

OLL's August Birthday: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749 – March 22, 1832)

August’s featured birthday is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  A true polymath, he was a playwright, poet, novelist, scientist, and statesman who had an impact in all of those fields and emerged as probably the most influential writer in the German-speaking world.

Benjamin Rush: Founding Father of America & Psychiatry

Franklin isn’t the only Founding Father named Benjamin. Benjamin Rush, an American physician, politician, and educator also played an important role in America’s founding. Benjamin Rush was both a historical luminary and a brilliant doctor, responsible for influencing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and organizing the first anti-slavery society in America, while also being the “father of psychiatry.”

Verdi’s Don Carlo: The Beginnings of Religious Liberty

The Protestant Reformation threw 16th-century Europe into turmoil. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also the king of Spain, tried to maintain Catholic power in the face of religious schisms. Suffering from poor health and worn down by the conflicts, he abdicated from both thrones in 1556 and died soon afterward. His son Philip II of Spain took a firm line against Protestantism, which had taken root in the Spanish-held Low Countries

James Wilson and the New Nation

In 2007, Gary L. Gregg and I asked more than one hundred history, politics, and law professors who was the most important but forgotten of all American founders. There was widespread agreement that this honor, if it can be called an honor to be a forgotten founder, belongs to James Wilson

Two Reasons to Read Jefferson

We live in a world where attention spans are short and partisan posturing is expected, so why should students bother with reading works by the American Founders, a group of men that did not include philosophers but did include slaveholders? For example, why should anyone read Thomas Jefferson, whose only book appears to be a loose collection of naturalistic observations and who owned several hundred enslaved men, women, and children?  There are two reasons.  One has to do with slavery and one has to do with living under a constitution.  

Review: Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama (Basic Books, 2022)

If you tell people you’re working on some project involving free speech, odds are good they will reply with something about how timely that is, since, regardless of whether they identify as liberal or conservative, they likely think that free speech is under attack. And either way, they’re correct. Your project is timely. But one thing we learn from Jacob Mchangama’s new book is that it is always timely. In this majestic work, Mchangama demonstrates that free speech has always, even in the best of times, been hanging by a thread.

John Witherspoon: A Presbyterian's Impact on America's Founding

John Witherspoon was born in Scotland and educated in Edinburgh. He was a leading Presbyterian, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of the Continental Congress. He came to America in 1768 to become president of Princeton College, which was founded in 1746 and was originally named the College of New Jersey. He was well-respected as an educator and taught many students who would go on to become influential judges and legislators, including James Madison

Dolley Madison: Queen of America

One of the animating questions of the women’s movement in America has long been how much or even whether women should use the qualities and skills traditionally associated with their sex or whether they should try to overcome those qualities in order to achieve equality in public and private life. Dolley Madison is clearly an early advocate for judiciously using all those qualities and skills traditionally associated with femininity and in the early republic she became known, ironically, as the Queen of America. 

John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle: An Unlikely Bond

John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle might seem to be unlikely friends. Mill was a politician, philosopher and economist and Carlyle an essayist and novelist. Mill was a radical, a liberal and a utilitarian and Carlyle  was anti-democratic, anti-economics and a supporter of slavery.What drew them together was their admiration of German culture and romanticism.

Martha Washington: First in the Heart of the President

At George Washington’s funeral, General Henry Lee said of the great man that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” These are some of the most famous words spoken regarding Washington, America’s first president, sometimes called the father of his country. Less famous is the second half of this sentence in which Lee says that Washington “was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.” On equal footing with his victories in war and politics, Lee placed Washington’s attentiveness to his family.

Exploring Sandman at the OLL

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, transformed from a comic book into a Netflix series, premieres today. Comic fans have long been aware of the complex narrative and the genre bending mix of horror, fantasy, myth, and family drama that comprise Sandman, and have valued it as one of the comics--like Alan Moore’s Watchmen--that exploded ideas about the limits of the comic book genre.