For our Thanksgiving drive to L.A., I went to our local library and got several books on CD. Since our small family manages not to have any overlapping areas of interest, this is always a challenge. One wants teenage hero spy books, another wants high school romantic dramadies (half drama, half comedy), another wants books on computer technology, and I like history books. Fate favored me because , on the day I went to the library, the only available books on CD that would meet any of those parameters were the history books.
The kids were not amused. In a compromise, we ended up spending half of each drive listening to the videos they got to watch from the back seat (fyi, The Simpsons is fun to listen to), and half the drive listening to David McCulloch’s 1776. My husband was so delighted with this book that, upon our return, he put it in his own car so that he could listen to the rest of it while driving to work.
I, meanwhile, put Joseph Ellis’ American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic in the CD player in my car. Since I drove about 100 miles yesterday to go to my pistol class, I was able to listen to the first disk. It’s a delightful book, because Ellis shares my approach to American history: it’s not about plaster saints or blinkered, evil white guys. It’s about real people, in real time, dealing with real issues. And yes, the Founding Fathers were special.
The Founders’ unique abilities came about by virtue of the particular historic time they occupied (what one might call the culmination of the Enlightenment), the incredible bounty of the American continent, their one hundred plus years of freedom as the British government ignored them (right up until the French-Indian War), and the education and class freedom that distinguished them from their European peers and from modern man. Despite these benefits and virtues, they still made mistakes, their personalities interfered with their decision-making, and they punted on the hard decisions because they wanted their own nation more than they wanted to free the slaves. Those nuances are what make history interesting.
Ellis has a nice turn of phrase and a good eye for historic details, so the book is an effortless listen (or read). I also detect in his tone a decided disdain for the Howard Zinn school of history, one that throws away the baby with the bath water. Characterizing the Founders as racist, sexist hypocrites not only obscures their great accomplishments, it also diminishes Americans’ ability to understand their past, to control their present, and, in some small measure, to affect their future.
Listening to the book reminded me that one of the things that makes the Founders so fascinating is that they were men of truly catholic tastes. Everything interested them. No man from the Colonial era better exemplifies this quality than Benjamin Franklin. (Thomas Jefferson loses first place because he was a bit too Southern elitist.) Franklin was feted the world over for inventing the lightening rod, a device that drastically reduced a terrible scourge. He also invented the Franklin Stove, bifocals (bless his heart), and the public library.
Before Franklin came along, libraries were reserved for rich people. Even with the advent of the printing press, books were still expensive, and it was the fortunate man indeed who was both literate and capable of putting together a library of his own. Now of course, we take libraries completely for granted. In my community, we have ten public libraries, all of which are clean, well-stocked, well-maintained, and have wonderful on-line resources.
In a historical irony that Ben Franklin would fully have appreciated, modern Britain also has a splendid public library, one that includes a suburb on-line system. The aristocrats of old might be rolling in their graves, but Ben Franklin, who was also an entrepreneur extraordinaire would especially appreciate the fact that the British library has a department devoted to business planning. Yup. That former bastion of intellectual and class exclusivity now has a great resource for British residents who want to see if they can make it on their own.
As a confirmed bookworm, I feel blessed to live in era that not only has public libraries, but that also puts so many resources on-line, so that one doesn’t even have to go to the library to experience the library’s benefit. Is this the best of all possible worlds or what?
(BTW, if you’re interested in learning more about Benjamin Franklin, I highly recommend Benjamin Franklin’s own quite delightful autobiography, and Walter Isaacson’s slightly more honest look at Franklin’s life as a whole.)