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Three Presidents and their books (édition 1955)
par Jonathan Daniels
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Three Presidents and their books par Arthur Eugene Bestor
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Three Presidents and Their Books is the published version of the 1953 Windsor Lectures at the University of Illinois.
Bestor's lecture was entitled "Thomas Jefferson and the Freedom of Books". I thought the most interesting part of this lecture was a discussion of the way Jefferson classified his books which began with the division of knowledge into history, philosophy and fine arts which he believed to be analgous to "three faculties of the mind: memory, reason and imagination". Mr. Bestor says, however, that this comparison tends to"conceal the real meaning of the division. The first category, History, included natural history, and comprised in essence the factual data of every field of knowledge. The second category, Philosophy, included mathematics, law and politics, as well as ethics, and comprised in essence the theoretical formulations in every field. That history should be linked with botany and disjoined from politics seems odd to us, accustomed as we are to such categories as natural sciences and social sciences....The third and last of Jefferson's major categories, the Fine Arts, dramatizes the disjunction he instinctively felt betwen the useful and the beautiful."
In "Mr. Lincoln and the Books he Read", Mr. Mearns primarily takes us through the historical record using original sources to determine what and how much Lincoln read. The record is not clear and will never be but in conclusion Mearns quotes William H. Herndon (who had interviewed many of Lincoln's friends, neighbors and family about his reading habits) who said "The truth about this whole matter is that Mr. Lincoln read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America...I repeat, that he read less and thought more than any man of his standing in America, if not in the world".
Finally Jonathan Daniels discusses the reading habits of FDR. He notes that FDR loved to collect rare books for the joy of the physical object (binding, paper, etc) itself but he read books in all forms including drug store paperbacks. Daniels concludes that "no reader or president is to be more distrusted than the one who reads only the great books. That in itself marks a docility and a humorlessness dangerous to leadership. That does not mean that we respect those who read only trash. It does mean that the good reader seeks and finds--through the institution of the presidency, the library or the drugstore-- the books which meet his need in every hour first and last. And that the essential book, whether bound in vellum or cardboard, produced by a pulp writer or a philosopher, is the book which meets the need of a man." I really like that thought.
Jefferson, Lincoln, and F D Roosevelt
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Classification décimale de Melvil (CDD)923.173 — History and Geography Biography, genealogy, insignia People in social sciences Heads Of State North America
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Jefferson was convinced that free access to books was a requirement of democracy. He championed free public libraries, albeit with little success in his lifetime, and opposed censorship. He was also against government secrecy; he recognized that total openness was not possible, yet maintained that most government simply served “to conceal the errors & rogueries of those who govern” (cited on p. 11).
This background made one highlight of the lecture Bestor’s discussion of one work that tempted Jefferson to compromise his ideals, David Hume’s six-volume History of England, which he was not alone in considering a dangerous work of historical revisionism that promoted ideals inimical to the fledgling American republican experiment. Jefferson’s proposed remedy, Bestor notes, was a combination of “plagiarism, expurgation and clandestine emendation” (p. 18). In the end, however, he returned to allegiance to his ideal: “Permit books to circulate freely, but encourage men to read so widely that they will not be intoxicated by the style or misled by the errors of any one book” (cited on p. 20).
Jefferson’s allegiance to academic freedom was limited by his belief that an educational institution (specifically his pet project, the University of Virginia) possessed the right to impose standards of political and constitutional loyalty on its faculty. Bestor, speaking at the height of McCarthyism, approves, but then, after a lengthy discussion, outlines what he means. He describes what he terms a negative approach to the problem: “scrutinizing textbooks for possible dubious passages, . . . questioning teachers to discern whether they harbor any unorthodox ideas, . . . closing off the discussion of controversial issues. Before long it engenders a universal dread of ideas themselves, lest certain ones prove perilous”(35). In place of this, he portrays a positive safeguard: thorough understanding of the basic principles of the American system and its great documents. “Let us look at our schools, not to purge them of ideas but to purge them of trivialities” (36). In a similar vein, he advocates scrutinizing libraries, not to find the occasional aberrant book, but to ascertain whether it holds the collected works of Lincoln or the full edition of the papers of Thomas Jefferson. Looked at 60 years later, it strikes me that Bestor’s concerns are more timely than ever.
David C. Mearns casts a critical eye on received wisdom of the extent of young Abe Lincoln’s reading. In doing so, he capitalized on his access to testimonies of Lincoln’s neighbors in Illinois, first gathered on behalf of William Dean Howells for his campaign biography in 1860 and by Lincoln’s former law partner, William Henry Herndon, in preparation for a life that appeared under his name in 1872.
The picture that emerges is of a self-made man who made the most of limited access to books by a superior ability to concentrate and to retain what he had read. He did not parade his reading, which led some who thought they were in a position to know to conclude that he read little. Yet even in the war years, with the press of official documents, correspondence and reports from the field, he found time to read for diversion.
Mearns outlines what can be known of his taste. Lincoln was not a general reader, interested in knowledge for its own sake. I am tempted to conclude that his reading can broadly be grouped into two categories: the utilitarian – first in his ambition to become a surveyor, then, to become an accomplished lawyer and politician, and recreational – the poetry and humorous sketches for “after hours.” But then I think of the way he would use a humorous story or lyric to defuse a tense political discussion; even his recreational reading found its uses. Even more so his immersion in the Bible, Shakespeare, Burns, and the hymns of Watts. While not strictly utilitarian reading, echoes from these sources made his speeches among the most stylistically assured and downright stirring of American political utterances.
Mearns concludes his study by concurring with Herndon’s judgment: “he read less and thought more than any man of his standing in America, if not in the world” (p. 88).
Jonathan Daniels, in his lecture on FDR and books, seems light-weight by comparison to the others. It certainly is light-hearted, perhaps intentionally in the interest of making a serious point. Books were part of the home into which he was born, as well as his education at Groton and Harvard. But, notes Daniel, “he escaped from that solemnity about books which is the first necessity of a book-loving man. Books were a part of his vernacular, not merely his erudition” (pp. 90–91). FDR was on the one hand a collector of fine editions, a hobby he began as an undergraduate; Daniel suspects that he valued a rare book more than one with rich content. On the other, he was an afficionado of mysteries. Daniel lauds FDR’s penchant for reading for fun. “The man who reads only for improvement is beyond the hope of much improvement before he begins. . . . No reader or president is to be more distrusted than the one who reads only the great books” (104–5).
All in all, a valuable set of lectures. Particular the first, by Bestor, deserves to continue to be read. ( )