Reading Room Archives
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
ohn 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.
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.
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.
Abraham Lincoln was invited by Henry L. Pierce and a group of Boston-area Republicans to a festival honoring Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Unable to attend, on April 6, 1859, Lincoln wrote the group a letter celebrating Jefferson’s political principles as the “definitions and axioms of free society.” According to Lincoln, the crisis over the expansion of slavery required a spirited defense of the fundamental ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln wrote. All honor “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” According to Lincoln, that abstract truth was the principle that all human beings are created equal. In the realm of political philosophy, we often refer to this as “natural equality.” Lincoln understood that, by enshrining this idea in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson left to future generations a bedrock principle of American government.
Benjamin Franklin served as President of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention that produced the most radically democratic constitution of any of the colonies/states. Among the provisions of Pennsylvania’s constitution were a unicameral legislature elected annually directly by the citizens of the colony and a plural executive council consisting of twelve members which could act with a quorum of the president and five other members. Both house of representatives and executive council had strict term limits, with representatives being restricted to four years of service in any seven-year period, and members of the executive council restricted to three years in any seven-year period. Franklin was fond of arguing for a unicameral legislature by telling the story of a two headed snake which died of thirst because each head wanted to go in a different direction to find water and therefore it went nowhere.
Benjamin Franklin was the senior statesman at a convention of young men. He was three times the age of the Convention’s youngest delegate (Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, aged 26), and twice the average age for all delegates (41). Alexander Hamilton was 30, James Madison 35, and George Washington 55. Franklin was also the most renowned American of the age. Georgia delegate William Pierce kept a journal in which he wrote character sketches of the delegates in attendance, and his entry on Franklin captures his widespread fame.
Franklin’s The Pennsylvania Gazette printed an item based on dispatches from Major George Washington which detailed French advances and British losses along the Monongahela River. The item also noted that “the Indian Chiefs” from that region had requested British assistance because the French were moving their Indian allies from the north closer to British settlements so that they could join in attacks on settlers. This brief report closed with an editorial comment.
Petrarch. A scholar, poet, and churchman, he is regarded as one of the first humanists and is sometimes even called the “Father of the Renaissance.” Notably, his name appears on the wall of the Goodrich Seminar Room.
John Dickinson, he was a central figure of the Founding era. Writing more for the American cause than any other figure, he was America’s first celebrity, known around the Atlantic World as the spokesman for American rights and liberties. But because many of his ideas were not appreciated at the time and historians failed to understand him, he was written out of history.
John Jay (1745–1829) was one of the most significant members of the founding generation, but his reputation hasn’t kept pace with that reality. Most Americans, if they wrack their brains, might be able to come up with vague memories of the Jay Treaty, his contributions to the Federalist Papers, or his place on the Supreme Court.