Reading Room Archives

Johnson's Dictionary: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

One of the real pleasures of working at Liberty Fund is having the chance to bring office visitors into our rare book room to explore its hidden treasures. One of the books I get particularly excited about is our beautiful two volume set of Johnson's Dictionary--the first real dictionary of the English language.

John Dickinson: The “Timid” Founder

Did John Adams described John Dickinson in 1774 as “very modest, delicate, and timid”? Adams, who previously met with Dickinson during the proceedings of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, was much more complimentary, saying, “Mr. Dickinson is a very modest Man, and very ingenious, as well as agreeable. He has an excellent Heart, and the Cause of his Country lies near it.”  It seems that Adams became miffed when Dickinson was tasked to rewrite Adams’ “Petition to the King” and found that Dickinson had moderated Adams’s more aggressive language. Hence, he was “timid.”

The Banning of the Bard

William Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in many ways. They’ve been translated into nearly every language on Earth and at least one “alien” language (Klingon). Sometimes they have undergone serious changes. Legal requirements forced cuts and alterations, and in some times and places they’ve been banned altogether. He wrote about all aspects of human life, and rulers and censors haven’t always appreciated his candor.

Why George Mason Matters

There is an unfortunate tendency among students of the American founding to focus on the accomplishments of a few “famous founders” while ignoring the salient contributions of an expansive fraternity of “forgotten founders.”  One almost forgotten figure is George Mason (1725-1792) of Virginia.

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American New Republic

In 1777, John Adams described Connecticut’s Roger Sherman as “that old Puritan, as honest as an angel, and as firm in the cause of American Independence as Mt. Atlas.” Late in life, Patrick Henry remarked that Sherman and George Mason were “the greatest statesmen he ever knew.” Thomas Jefferson, who was often at odds with both Adams and Henry, shared their admiration for Sherman. He once pointed Sherman out to a visitor and noted “[t]hat is Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.” 

From Hus to Luther: The Challenge to Orthodoxy

In 1415, Jan Hus was burned alive for challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1521, Martin Luther nearly met the same fate but lived to start a new church with new ways of thinking.

Deborah Sampson: American Warrior

Today, over 1.4 million women serve as active-duty members of the American military. While today’s acceptance of women in warfare is relatively new (women were allowed full participation in the Armed Forces with the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948), history is full of myths and stories about renegade female warriors who defied the odds to fight for justice. Consider the traditional Chinese folk tale, Ballad of Mulan, or the life of St. Joan of Arc. But today’s American women of action can trace the roots of their service to the American Revolution and a remarkable woman who took the call to arms personally. Her name was Deborah Sampson, and she is recognized as the only pensioned female veteran of the American Revolution. True to her name, which takes inspiration from the great female leader of Israel in the book of Judges, Deborah was a fearless military leader who accepted great personal risk to see the American mission succeed.

John Hancock: The First U.S. President

He is the answer to the trick question: Who was the first president of the United States? His role as the initial president of the Continental Congress makes John Hancock, not George Washington, the correct answer. Known perhaps more for his oversized signature on  the Declaration of Independence than anything else he did, Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant, played a pivotal role in procuring American independence and in Massachusetts politics for two decades in the late 1700s. Only Robert Morris did more to finance the American Revolution, and few other patriots would have lost as much if it had failed.

Ethan Allen, Individualism, and Deism

It is extraordinarily telling that Ethan Allen returned at the end of his life to the project of his teens, the manuscript he started with Thomas Young decades earlier. He completed it in 1785 and struggled to find a publisher to face the controversy inevitable when a Revolutionary War hero declared for deism and against Christianity.

John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice

There is only one judge in American history for whom the epithet “the Great” has been commonly used: John Marshall (1755–1835), the fourth chief justice of the United States. Yet in a strange way, his outsized reputation, built on the brilliant eloquence of his groundbreaking interpretations of the Constitution, has obscured as much as it has revealed about his true greatness. In the hands of scholars who attempt to account for Marshall’s achievements, he has become a shapeshifter, molded and remolded for others’ agendas, and the real Marshall has been largely lost to view. In what follows, I will try to explain this, but first the reader needs a character sketch.

Phillis Wheatley: A First

Being first holds a significant place in American culture, for Americans love being Number One, being winners, being the First. For African Americans, being a first has a somewhat different meaning – it signifies another barrier having fallen. It signifies that above all odds, another one has made it! But always accompanying the “first” were counter-pronouncements – that this is an exception; that this person received special privileges; that this only happened because of affirmative action; that this person cheated to get here. Still, the record, in the end, speaks for itself, and the first stands. 

Ethan Allen: Yankee Extraordinaire

In many ways, Ethan Allen is the quintessential Yankee. A farmer, he speculated in land and involved himself in colonial politics regarding land.  He plunged into the War of Independence and became its first hero. Captured by the British and enduring years of severe imprisonment, when released he rushed to join Washington at Valley Forge. And he later fought to make Vermont a state. 

Richard Henry Lee: Founding Revolutionary and Anti-Corruption Advocate

Richard Henry Lee was born at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland, Virginia, on January 20, 1732. At age 16, Lee moved to Yorkshire, England, for his formal education at Wakefield Academy. In 1750, when he was 18, both of Lee’s parents died; he returned to Virginia in 1752 to help his brothers divide the family’s estate.

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?”