Today 2000 of Thomas Jefferson’s original library of books, plus some replacement copies are an integral part of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
It is part of the collection that gave birth to the emboldening words that he wrote in his draft of the American Declaration of Independence, the document he devised, with the help of his colleagues and founding fathers, the one that guided early American diplomacy.
They gave him access to a far wider knowledge base than many of his contemporaries, one of whom was Benjamin Franklin.
Born in Boston polymath Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) has often been called the ‘First American’ because of his being an author and spokesman in London helping to establish the ‘American identity’. He first visited England in 1724-6 and 1757-62 before settling in London as a colonial agent.
A practical man, as well as a theorist and writer his portrait from the time offers us an image of solidity and seemingly shrewd good sense. It was capturing the essence of a man who was both a successful diplomatic negotiator and inventor of the Franklin stove, bifocal spectacles and the lightning rod.
While he was in London Franklin became the self appointed interpreter of American life to Britain, one that was increasingly unsympathetic in the crucial years before the outbreak of war. Attached to his adopted home by conviction and friendships he was moderate in his counsel but prophetic in his warnings; ‘We must all hang together’ he once said, ‘or assuredly we will all hang separately’.
In 1756 he became a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA London), which had been founded in 1754 by William Shipley, a painter and social activist, on a manifesto “to embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine arts, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce”.
The societies first meetings were held in coffee houses so Shipley was a man for his time, empowering people in a contemporary setting where they gathered in safety and in a social atmosphere.
Today it is all about enriching society through ideas and action.
Franklin read widely while he was in London, especially the classical authors and when he returned to Pennsylvania from England in 1763 for the first time, just as the western frontier was engulfed in a bitter war, he was all fired up with his ‘passion for virtue’.
His belief that all men were ‘created equal’ and that truth lay in nature and reason had been honed by all the books he had read including The Holy bible.
The 13 virtues, which he had developed in 1726, were those he practiced all of his life.
His unfinished record of his own life written between 1771 – 1790 was very influential for those who came after, presenting to posterity a man whose greatness did not keep him from being both down-to-earth and approachable, one who faced up to his mistakes and blunders.
“Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
“Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
“Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
“Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
“Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
“Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
“Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
“Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
“Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
“Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
“Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
“Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
“Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
In 1768 the outspoken English radical journalist and politician John Wilkes (1725 – 1797) returned from France to England where he had sought refuge. He had been fiercely opposed and critical of a former Prime Minister Lord Bute, and had used his weekly newspaper The New Briton to express his views. Wilkes had said the King’s ministers were putting lies into the King’s mouth.
He was charged with libel, but acquitted on the ground of parliamentary privilege. The government also obtained a copy of his privately distributed, not for publication, Essay on Women, which they claimed was obscene.
Readings from it in the House of Lords meant that he was expelled from England on the orders of George III as ‘the blasphemer of his God and libeler of his King’, and led to a duel, after which Wilkes had fled to France. He came to be regarded as a victim of persecution and as a champion of liberty because he was repeatedly expelled from Parliament.
Now ready to lead the charge again his enthusiastic supporters made him top of the poll for re-election to Parliament.
All of London was enveloped in a wild bout of celebration, which lasted for two days when he was successful, and the King was forced to call out the army to restore order. He was appalled to hear that some of the regimental drummers were actually ‘beating for Wilkes’. So great was the clamor that Benjamin Franklin noted the possibility that Wilkes could be nominated as King.
British subjects in the American colonies all closely followed Wilkes’s career. His struggles convinced many colonists that the British constitution was being subverted by a corrupt ministry, an idea that contributed to the coming of the American Revolution.
John Wilkes appealed against his earlier sentence of outlawry, and Lord Mansfield, unwilling to face mob action declared he had not been properly arrested and told him to go away. When he wasn’t he arranged for his own arrest and knocked at the Prison door in St. George’s Fields and asked to be admitted.
For over a fortnight the London crowds surged around the prison serenading their hero within. The Kings Bench hearing Wilkes’s appeal against outlawry declared it void on a technical error, again discovered by Mansfield and this time all over England their was uncontrolled mass celebration.
However ten days later he appeared for sentence on original libel charges, fined 1000 pounds, which his supporters paid, and sentenced to 22 months in prison.
He served his confinement in the utmost available luxury, inundated with gifts of food and wine, money and women and he had the utmost freedom, in receiving both friends and lovers.
It was while he was confined that he was elected an Alderman of the city. All over England countless petitions meant an involvement of voters and non-voters stimulated the responsibility of parliamentarians to the constituents they represented. These events began the shaping of the modern political party.
In 1770 Lord North and his Tory party were elected to parliament and in this new Prime Minister George III at last found someone whose views were after his own heart. It was North who was, by and large, responsible for the measures that eventually brought about the loss of America, being too ready it seems to surrender his own judgment to that of the King’s.
When Wilkes was released from prison in April 1770 he dedicated his activities to the City of London and a historic campaign for freedom of the press to report parliamentary proceedings.
In America revolutionary politician and all around firebrand Samuel Adams (1722-1803) began a rolling campaign of provocation by printing a series of stories against the British, daily accusing them of brutality and rape while his Liberty Boys brawled discreetly with individual soldiers.
Adams ultimate aim was to bring more people over to the cause even if it meant that people must die …the means justifying the end…, which happened on the 5th March 1770 in Boston when five people died in the name of ‘patriotism’.
Every schoolchild in America reads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s pesky (from the British point of view) but spunky ride on the night of 18-19 April 1775, when he wanted to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington that the British were marching towards them.
A great American patriot Paul Revere (1734-1818) was also a silversmith and copperplate engraver who put his special skills to good use in the service of the Revolution, engraving and printing currency for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and in a series of striking prints that told the story of the events surrounding the patriot cause, very helpful for all those who were unable to read or write.
In England John Wilkes returned from France and in America Samuel Adams, turning to higher levels of persuasion, wrote a powerful, emotive and informative letter to him welcoming him to freedom after 22 months in gaol.
King George III had to face rioting on his own doorstep – for Adams and Wilkes it was a matter of seizing the moment.
He was not allowed to resume his seat in parliament, although he remained active in politics. He was elected Sheriff of Middlesex in 1771 and Lord Mayor of London in 1774 and was also returned to the House of Commons, along with a dozen colleagues.
They were called The Wilkites, with a platform of redressing ‘grievances and to secure the popular rights in Great Britain Ireland and America’.
Lawyer and an ordained priest in England, John Horne organised a meeting at the London Tavern on 20th February 1769 to discuss the refusal of the House of Commons to accept the election of John Wilkes.
Horne came to the attention of William Tooke, a wealthy landowner from Purley and the two men became such close friends in 1782 and Horne adopted Tooke’s surname.
John Horne Tooke was strongly influenced by the ideas of Tom Paine, especially after the publication of his very powerful essay on The Rights of Man in 1791.
He helped form an organisation, the Bill of Rights Society, that would help support the campaign to reinstate Wilkes. One of its high profile members was lawyer and MP John Glynn, who was named by Wilkes as the candidate in Wilkes and Liberty’s interest.
Meetings took place fortnightly and the main objective of the society was to “maintain and defend the liberty of the subject, and to support the laws and constitution of the country.”
Over in America the fine details about the King’s campaign against Wilkes was being greeted with great sympathy and a letter in response to Adam’s was sent by Wilkes addressed to the Gentlemen of the Committee of the Sons of Liberty in the Town of Boston in which he said,
…’ if I may use the expression of Milton …Liberty I consider as the birthright of every subject of the British Empire and I hold Magna Charta to be in as full force in America as in Europe. I hope these truths will become generally known…the only ambition I feel is to distinguish myself as a friend of the rights of mankind, both religious and civil, as a man zealous for the preservation of this constitution and our Sovereign, with all our laws and native liberties that ask not his leave’
The part of ‘personal resentment’ played by George III against America was evident, but he was up against a far more skillful an even more bitterly resentful opponent, whose actions culminated in the contrivance of the provocation of the Boston Tea Party, the point in their battle of wills from which there was no return.
The stage was set, its outcome inevitable.
So there they were- King George III, John Wilkes and Samuel Adams all verging on a collision course that would keep them locked in battle for twenty years.
George overreacted and developed an obsessional personal vendetta against Wilkes, which gave him more popular support than he would have probably otherwise received. He alone made Wilkes a martyr for his cause.
What happened changed Wilkes’s political attitude and he became a sincere and an able advocate of popular liberty.
King George III, obsessively inflexible, repeated his mistake by overreacting.
He saw the whole Wilkite movement in Great Britain, and the resistance movement in America, in exactly the same light – the work of rebels to whom no concession could, or should be granted. Wilkes, despite his apparently outrageous private behaviour, became a symbol of free speech earning the epitaph, which he composed himself, as ‘a friend of liberty’.
His was the first modern political party with a platform agreed with the electors.
Adams on the other hand had undermined the King’s authority in America and in England, where he reduced the aura surrounding the monarchy by his masterly management of the Boston Tea Party.
This ensured that all the future monarchs in England would have their powers further circumscribed. Lord North called the revolutionists ‘Sam Adam’s crew”. Subsequently a twelve year autocracy followed, which ultimately allowed the War of Independence to take place.
King George III of England’s failure in his struggle against Samuel Adams and America is inextricably bound up with his failure against former journalist, newspaper owner and political activist John Wilkes (1725 – 1797) and the whole idea of popular liberty.
In the end the three men, a trio of stubborn unforgiving minds all locked in conflict together became the catalyst that inspired the creation of modern America, where everyone could go forward hoping to live the American dream.
Benjamin Franklin’s amazing legacy of scientific and political achievement, and his status as one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers is supported by vast arrays of documentation and books on the subject.
When he had been sent to France in 1776 he had helped to wage a public relations campaign, that helped secure secret aid and played a role in privateering expeditions, churning out effective and inflammatory propaganda to aid the cause.
When he returned home again in 1785, Franklin occupied a position only second to that of George Washington as the champion of American independence.
21st-century readers can today immerse themselves in Thomas Jefferson’s mind and his eighteenth century world in his library, where surrounded by some of Jefferson’s old books they will also be aided by new technologies.
Thomas Jefferson’s notion of universal knowledge, was to serve as the source of inspiration and ideas for the new republic and help him to produce “a new experiment in self-governance, an experiment he understood could succeed only if enlightenment prevailed over ignorance”.
The future for all great books lies in the preservation of libraries, such as the Library of Congress at Washington DC, where it is all about conserving and preserving the written word.
After all words are still how the world works.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013
*Actress Whoopi Goldberg
** Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776
This is the passage that came to represent a moral standard for which the people of the United States should strive. President Abraham Lincoln argued that the Declaration of Independence was a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.
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