Hello Middleshelfers, and welcome to a special book recommendation this weekend.
Hello Middleshelfers, and welcome to a special book recommendation this weekend.
Hello Middleshelfers, Happy International Peace Month and the last month of summer!
Throughout this summer, we have been bringing you recommendations and ideas about books to read that help to promote thinking about ways to reach common ground. One of the central points has been that in order to navigate the somewhat difficult road to common ground, we need to try to understand the so-called “other”. If we can find reasons through reading why people think or believe a certain way about an issue, perhaps the divide can be if not totally bridged then at least subject to reasonable discussion. As our mission states, bring light not heat to public discourse.
It turns out that we are not alone in believing that reading can help guide us to better understanding. Given that August is International Peace Month; we have been searching for books that have an international scope and in doing so we came upon a recent article in The Guardian from the United Kingdom which discusses the international trend that is occurring in the rise in reading non-fiction books. Titled “How the brainy book became a publishing phenomenon,” by Alex Preston, the article makes the point that the current times we live in are chaotic and people are seeking answers the old fashioned way-by reading books. One publisher said he:
“sees the return to serious works of nonfiction as a response to the spirit of the age. We’re living in a world that suddenly seems less certain than it did even two years ago, and the natural reaction is for people to try and find out as much about it as possible. People have a hunger both for information and facts and for a nuanced exploration of issues, of a sort that books are in a prime position to provide.”
One of the reasons we have been recommending mostly non-fiction this summer is because quality non-fiction that has been vetted and edited properly will most often include primary, secondary and even tertiary sources to support an author’s thesis. The inclusion of footnotes and liner notes and end notes allows the reader to do their own search beyond what the author writes. Consider reading a book that posits an idea that you do not agree with or sounds different than what you might have heard on the news vehicle of your choice, you have the luxury to go to these additional sources.
“At a time when politics is more furious and fragmented than ever when technology is colonizing our everyday existence when medicine is reshaping our lives, we still look to books to make sense of things, to feel ourselves part of a great communal effort to understand our age. These are serious times and they demand serious, intelligent and challenging books.”
Hello Middleshelfers, happy last week of July!
Our focus during the month of July has been on recommending books on the origins of our nation’s government and some of the people who influenced our most significant documents that we still reference for guidance and law. By looking back at the thoughts and ideas that our Founders espoused, theoretically, we should have some type of starting point to debate and find common ground on what our nation stands for today.
We often look back on the Founders with a degree of nostalgia as if they were this collective group who, unlike today, found unanimity of thought to achieve the Declaration of Independence and ultimately the U.S. Constitution. After all, they were not burdened by the internet and 24 hour a day news cycle or the extreme partisanship we face today that hinders civil discourse. Yet the truth is they were every bit as divided, subject to rancor, backroom deals, and political motivation that ended friendships (Jefferson and Adam) and alliances, and even lives (Burr and Hamilton). But what is striking is that with it all, they did achieve the ultimate compromise of ratification of the Constitution. They reached common ground and got something done.
How did they achieve compromise and are there lessons from their process that we can take away today? One way was through writing and reading. Once the constitution had been drafted it was left to many of the Founders to go back to their states and persuade voters to ratify. There we no TV pundits or televised debates; not blogs or posts or ads as we think of the methods of persuasion today. Rather, there were essays written explaining and exploring ideas.
The Founders took the time to dissect each other’s views and philosophies. No sound bites but rather thoughtful responses laying out their arguments for public consumption through newspapers and pamphlets. It is that deliberate process that we might do well to adopt. Our leaders should be required to take the time to explain their positions and what it would take for there to move towards common ground.
To that end, we are recommending a fresh look at both The Federalist Papers and the lesser known Anti-Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were are series of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay that laid out not just a variety of reasons why the Constitution should be ratified but a much bigger philosophical idea:
“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
The fact is that The Federalist Papers were in actuality not as influential in getting the Constitution ratified as many have been led to believe. While the work is often cited in court cases and judicial arguments as a way to search for Founder intention, it was not widely circulated beyond the State of New York where the writers were based and in fact, New York was not among the first states to ratify. Regardless of its place in persuasion, it is an example of compromise. Hamilton was not in favor of including a Bill of rights in the Constitution and one of his essays explores that concept. Yet despite his ardent argument in Paper 84, he and Madison compromised.
The Anti-Federalist Papers are somewhat less well known. They too were a series of essays but from a more widely scattered and less centralized group. These essays reflect the core belief that without a Bill of Rights for individuals, there should be no ratification. They were successful in getting James Madison to add the enumerated Bill of Rights to the Constitution. This group included well-known heroes of the American Revolution such as Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, though the actual writers are perhaps less well-known and it was not until the mid-20th Century that The Complete Anti-Federalist was compiled.
As we wrap up our look at the Founders, we point to these essays as an example of how compromise can be achieved through thoughtful discourse. Next month we will be looking to step away from American history, and given that it is International Peace Month, we will be looking at common ground on a more international historic basis.
Hello Middleshelfers, sorry for the change in scheduled posting
As we have been pointing out, the book selections for July were intended to look back at our nation’s founding in an effort to help us better understand our history. Understanding where we came from in terms of our country’s past struggles is one element that might help us achieve common ground. Knowing the trials and tribulations of where we have been could help guide us through to where we want to be.
In searching for books to highlight, we found many that were written about the well-known founders like Washington and Jefferson and last week we recommended reading about the often forgotten founder John Jay. It would have been easy to recommend something about Alexander Hamilton as the hot pick, and choosing David McCullough’s 1776 or epic biography of John Adams would have been easy selections (which we do recommend people read).
However, after much thought, we decided that some of the necessary lessons on how to achieve common ground could be found in a book about a later president who while not present at the creation, had a profound impact on our nation that was every bit as crucial as the Founders. This week’s book dramatically explores how a president not only overcame his rivals but managed to bring them together to help him forge a nation. His determination to find common ground on issues in a way that his rivals could not only live with but come to agree with him on is a story worth understanding.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has been hailed as one of the most acclaimed historians writing about the presidency during the last 50 years. Though her career has not been without some controversy over primary sources, she has spent her career focusing on those presidents that she felt had made seismic shifts in the country’s history.
Her best-known work is Team of Rivals: The Political Genus of Abraham Lincoln. What makes this book a model for common ground is the story she tells of how President Lincoln managed to bring the three men who had run against him in 1860 into his cabinet ( Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of State William H. Seward) and obtained not just their loyalty but a reconciliation of their differences as he moved toward abolition.
Lincoln’s position on why he recruited his rivals was:
“We need the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”
While Seward not only became an ally but a trusted friend, Chase sought to undermine Lincoln. Nevertheless Lincoln kept him in the cabinet because he respected his knowledge of finance. His willingness to overlook Chase’s animosity even resulted in him appointing Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court since he felt that he was the one best able to carry forth the newly adopted Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
While the book focuses primarily on the three political rivals Lincoln beat in 1860, there are also other rivals that are featured, especially Democrat Edwin Stanton. Stanton was a brilliant attorney who had regarded Lincoln as a “country bumpkin.” However, when Lincoln decided to change his Secretary of War, he tapped Stanton for the job despite Stanton’s low opinion of him. Like Seward, Stanton became a Lincoln loyalist. It was Stanton who said upon Lincoln’s assassination, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
So what was Lincoln’s secret to bringing common ground to a disparate group of one time rivals? According to one review:
“Part of the answer lay in Lincoln’s steadfastness of purpose, which inspired subordinates to overcome their petty rivalries. Part of it lay in his superb sense of timing and his sensitivity to the pulse of public opinion as he moved to bring along a divided people to the support of “a new birth of freedom.” And part of it lay in Lincoln’s ability to rise above personal slights, his talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other.”
Kearns’ book helps us to understand that among the many talents that Lincoln possessed was the unique ability not just to make friends of enemies but to overlook the animus in order to mine the talents of those who had opposed him throughout his presidency.
The path to common ground can sometimes be guided by looking back to where we have been in order to find the path to where we can be going. If you have been following our book recommendations during the month of July, you know that we have been focusing on aspects of the beginnings of our nation, how we celebrate and the people who were influential to America’s beginnings.
Most of us probably can name at least a few of the “Founding Fathers,” such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. However, one of the Founders who often gets lost and might well be the most relevant to issues taking place today is John Jay who was the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, most scholars agree that Jay has been sorely overlooked and considering that John Adams said of Jay, “he was “of more importance than any of the rest of us,” historians now seem to be attempting to rectify the neglect.
There is much about Jay that is worth highlighting such as his writings in The Federalist Papers, his tenure as Governor of New York where he sought penal reform, fought for the abolition of slavery, and “in 1799 succeeded in passing a gradual emancipation act, whereby children of slaves became free on their 25th birthday for girls and 28th for boys, thus bringing about the emancipation of all slaves in New York.” Interestingly, he is also known as the Father of Counterintelligence.
However, it was his appointment by George Washington as the first Chief Justice that is particularly germane to our current national scene. Washington had offered Jay any spot in his cabinet that Jay wanted, but he chose the Supreme Court instead. While he only presided over four cases during his tenure, those cases included Chisolm vs. Georgia. Jay ruled in favor of the right of people to sue the states. The decision, in that case, was later overturned by the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution, and subsequently modified to some extent to allow for appeals in the federal courts. However, Jay’s philosophy was on display in the original ruling when he wrote:
“[T]he people are the sovereign of this country, and consequently … fellow citizens and joint sovereigns cannot be degraded by appearing with each other in their own courts to have their controversies determined. The people have reason to prize and rejoice in such valuable privileges, and they ought not to forget that nothing but the free course of constitutional law and government can ensure the continuance and enjoyment of them.”
At a time when we continue to discuss some of the same issues and try to reach common ground over what roles do “the people” play versus the government, John Jay seems to be a worthy person to read about. While there is actually a dearth of books about him compared to the other Founders, two of the most recent is John Jay: A Life From Beginning to End by Hourly History and John Jay: Founding Father by Walter Stahr. Both books seek to explore the crucial roles and ideas of Jay and bring him to the forefront of the Founders. So if you want to learn a little bit more about the Supreme Court through the eyes of its first Chief Justice at a time when we are gearing up to debate the role of the Court, Jay’s biographies are an excellent place to start.
It’s Thursday again CGC MiddleShelfers and we hope everyone had a great 4th of July!
In last week’s book entry, we took a look back at how previous generations celebrated the Fourth of July. We thought that we would stay with the patriotic theme albeit through a historical lens for the month. Much is made of and written about the Founding Fathers and we will spotlight them next week. However, we decided because of the many issues currently being hotly debated in our nation impact women in particular. It seems germane that as the nation examines and continues to discuss the origins of the guiding documents and institutions as they relate to the rights of women, we look back at the roles and extraordinary contributions that women played in creating our country.
Additionally, it is particularly relevant since:
“according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, a total of 455 women have filed as candidates for Congress, easily topping the old record of 298 in 2012. Fifty-one women have entered Senate races, compared to 40 who set the previous standard in 2016. Gubernatorial candidates are even more striking: 60 this year, far exceeding the 34 women who ran in 1994. This influx of women in public roles is matched by a rising tide of females behind the scenes who are running campaigns themselves, not just serving male bosses”
Cokie Roberts, an award-winning journalist, and author has written two books about women who influenced the shaping of our country. In Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, Roberts introduces the reader not just to the more prominent women most have heard of such as Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, and Mollie Pitcher, but she includes the stories of some lesser-known women who had a substantial and transformative impact of the men who framed our nation’s principles.
Her companion volume, Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, continues to highlight these and other women such as Rebecca Gratz, Louise Livingston and Sacagawea, using private journals, correspondence and some previously unpublished sources to explore their accomplishments.
If you also happen to have an elementary school-aged child you read to or buy books for, Independent Dames: What You Never Knew about the Women and Girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Halse Anderson, is worth checking out as well.
As is my family’s custom, on the morning of July 4 we attended a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the original Bill of Rights to a packed house at the iconic Unitarian Church on Nantucket. The reading was preceded by audience participation in the singing of patriotic American songs including “America The Beautiful”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “It’s a Grand Old Flag,”, and others. It was a rousing event, one that amid the celebration reminded me of how hard it was to get where we are today as a country.
But for the first time, I can remember, it wasn’t all rah-rah. Two passages from the Declaration generated specific applause from many in the audience who saw them in the light of our current political situation:
“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
“He (the King) has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the reasons for it, there was great significance in that applause. The fact that Americans can freely and openly express their grievances with not just our government but the person leading it and not fear repercussion is a freedom that enables our country to continue to not just survive but thrive.
I happened to sit next to a young woman from Chile who is doing a summer internship involving historic preservation here on the island. We had a great conversation. It was exciting for me to see her thoroughly engaged and enjoying the experience of witnessing how Americans feel about their country, even when they express their displeasure.
As inspired as I was by the festivities I, too, felt emotions this year I had not previously experienced at these Declaration readings. Recalling my visit to Charlottesville earlier this year I found myself wondering how the Black Americans in the Nantucket audience were feeling during the reading. They were there and fully participating in the celebration. But do they feel differently about the country than I do? What was in their thoughts when they heard these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?
America has its challenges, but July 4th reminds me that living Americans have more fundamental things in common than they have differences. My hope is that we can increasingly work outward from those common elements and shared culture. If we can each harness the spirit and deep resolve behind the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in our civic engagement we can find common ground, make progress on the issues that divide us and make this already great nation even better.
It’s Thursday again CGC MiddleShelfers and we hope everyone had a great 4th of July!
How will you be celebrating the Fourth of July if at all? Will you attend a town or city-wide parade? Watch some fireworks and put out the flag? Or will you simply enjoy a mid-week day off or start a longer vacation? Do you think that of all the holidays that we observe in the U.S. this should be the one that unites us all under one common ground view? As we reflect on what the Fourth of July means to our nation, it might be worthwhile to look back at how previous generations celebrated the holiday and this week’s book recommendation does just that.
“We shall become a people when each fraction of the total population, so much of which is foreign in our big cities, has something so definite in common with the rest that it feels that it belongs not merely to the voting population but to the social community. We shall become a people when in our times of rejoicing we come together and express those feelings which are given to us, in ways that are mutually intelligible and happy.”
If the above quote sounds like something you might have heard or read this week on the news, it is in fact taken from a book dated from the late 1800’s early 1900’s that included a compilation of articles on how our nation should be spending Independence Day. Available as a free download from the Russell Sage Foundation, in Independence Day Celebrations, Five Articles by Luther H. Gulick, William Orr, Inez Gardner, and Lee Hanmer, the authors detail the why and how of celebrating our nation’s July Fourth festivities. However, the book is more than a blueprint for how to hold a parade or set off fireworks. Rather it is more a series of commentaries on why we should celebrate and how to do so as a community.
While the book certainly includes some descriptions and terms that today might not be considered politically correct, the theme throughout the book is centered on the fact that towns and cities alike were best served when all of the residents participated in the celebrations by bringing their unique and individual heritages to the forefront. For example in detailing the celebration held in Springfield, Massachusetts, the article explains:
“Most impressive and significant was the contribution of the various races and nationalities that help make up the citizenship of Springfield. In a population of 80,000, representatives of thirteen peoples were found who by their interest, enthusiasm, and public spirit furnished the climax of the parade. Three great divisions of the human family appeared in this pageant of the nations; in the ranks were the offspring of four continents, Europe, Asia, Africa, America. Chinamen, Ethiopians, English, Scotch, Irish, French, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Swedes, Poles, Armenians, and Syrians strove, in cordial emulation, to show the characteristic qualities of each people, and the contribution each was made to American life.
“Surely no citizen of Springfield, young or old, could see such a historic pageant of races and nationalities without gaining some appreciation of the nature of the modem contribution to our national life, or could escape having his outlook broadened by some glimpse of the America of the future that is to come out of this mingling of races and race-ideals, or could fail to see the great possibilities for improvement in the amalgamation of many of these people bringing traditions of such beauty and nobility.”
While the book is somewhat dated and anachronistic in places such as its discussion of the perils and frivolity of fireworks, often making the use of pyrotechnics sound like something out of the Music Man’s mantra of “we’ve got Trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for pool!”, the book offers a look back on the times when people were migrating to cities and small communities were seeking to maintain their unique traditions while also absorbing a less homogeneous population. The book is a short read but worth checking out to see that over 100 years ago communities were trying to come to grips with who we are and a proper means to celebrate who we could become.
“As a people, we are in the making, plastic, responsive, receptive. Such a spirit will take the best among all the influences that bear upon it. Our civilization is in a “nascent state”, with its power of affinity at its strongest, and its capacity for assimilation most vigorous. Such occasions as the popular festival of Independence Day constitute a rare opportunity to minister to the multitude, and rightly to shape and fashion our characteristics as a people. No more inspiring or ennobling call ever came to mankind.”
It’s Thursday again CGC MiddleShelfers,
As you know by now, each Thursday we have been bringing you suggestions for reading books that in some way may move the needle towards common ground. We typically look for new releases with a few of the classics thrown in for good measure. Our criteria have been non-fiction and to try and present both sides and/or a centrist point of view. However, this week we thought we would try something a little different and throw it back to you for suggestions as well as some insight on what is on the reading table of you and your friends.
Also, given that this is the first official week of summer and you might be focused on kids getting out of school, graduations and other family events, we wanted to keep things a little lighter. So with that as the mindset, we started to look at the mid-year 100 books we should all read type lists. Lo and behold, even for these lists there really is no unanimity. Of course, there are some crossovers that appear on all the lists but it appears reading is individual in taste even for scholars and book editors.
What we did find interesting is that on most of the general lists as opposed to a specific genre (mystery, science, etc.), novels seem to dominate rather than non-fiction. The thought perhaps is that novels are more timeless and deal with human emotions while non-fiction is often more influenced by the shifting currents. Not so surprising is the fact that some of the lists include books about food and culture as people have realized that common ground is often found around a good meal. However, we tend to agree with the author of the Esquire list that:
“While a great novel can be engaging, there’s nothing quite like a true story—whether that story comes in the form of deep reporting, memoir, or personal essays. Nonfiction gives us the chance to look at the world around us and learn something about how we fit within it. And nonfiction also tells us a lot about ourselves.”
Below are links to the book lists we found from the U.S. and Great Britain. The one from PBS is actually a poll for the Great American Read (novels only) which you can still vote on. Do any of these books in your opinion offer some ways to achieve common ground? Do town-wide reading challenges often held by libraries help bring a community together as everyone reads and hopefully discusses the same thing? If you were making a list of must reads for people looking for common ground and how to really talk to one another which books would be on your list?
Among the ways that we hope to achieve common ground is through seeing if we can at least get people on the same page as to what issues and facts are being debated. Once that is achieved, debates and discourse should be somewhat easier. You have the same starting basis and then layer in the […]