Reading Room Archives

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. 

Common Sense with Thomas Paine

What does it mean to be an American? I don’t mean, “What are the legal requirements to be an American citizen?” but something more like, “What are the characteristics that make someone a part of the American people?” After all, American citizens could reject their American-ness, and people who are not yet citizens may nevertheless consider themselves to be American.

Internal Improvements

Whenever I drive through parts of my hometown of Indianapolis, I cross a small waterway with a trail running alongside - the Central Canal. Today, it’s a recreational area, with people walking and biking along its towpath and enjoying the serenity of the water nearby. But that canal represents a fundamental lesson in Indiana’s past and one that has altered the state’s constitution for more than 170 years. That lesson remains a warning and instruction to policymakers today who pursue big projects coupled with long-term costs. 

Jefferson and the Principle of Natural Equality

Not long after his debates with Stephen Douglas, 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 at the Constitutional Convention, Part 2

In 1776, 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 at the Constitutional Convention

At 81, 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.

Benjamin Franklin and American Union

Under the dateline Philadelphia, May 9 [1754], 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.

OLL's July Birthday: Francesco Petrarch (July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374)

July’s featured birthday is Francesco Petrarca, usually rendered into English as 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. 

“A perpetual jealousy, respecting liberty”: John Dickinson on Fundamental Rights

Although few Americans today have heard of 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. 

In The Reading Room with Aristotle

In several previous columns, I have talked about why we might continue to find value in Plato.  But all the reasons why it’s worth taking seriously some of Plato’s insights apply as well to his pupil Aristotle.  Aristotle came to Plato’s Academy when he was 18, and studied there for 20 years.  Obviously over that long a time period, their relationship evolved from master and pupil to something more like colleagues.   They agreed on some matters, but sharply disagreed on others, and there are methodological differences as well, so after Plato’s death the Academy was run by more orthodox Platonists, while Aristotle would later found his own school, the Lyceum.

John Jay: Legal and Constitutional Framer

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.

Unpersuaded; or, Ten Ways to Lose an Austen Reader

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a Jane Austen novel must be in want of a film adaptation.  In fact, such readers want many film adaptations, if not to revisit Austen's world then to have the pleasure of explaining how the filmmakers are more clueless than Cher Horowitz.Such is the case with Netflix's recent adaptation of Persuasion, which illustrates ten ways to lose your Austen audience's admiration.