Category: Biographies

Jenkinson: Jefferson, Books, and Reading

jefferson“A Jeffersonian believes that books are at the center of any full and mature life. Thomas Jefferson approached life essentially through books…Reading was one of his favorite activities. He prepared himself for adult life with the severest possible course of reading. For a significant period of his life, from about the age of fifteen to twenty-five, Jefferson essentially read every waking minute of every day. With the possible exceptions of Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson was intellectually the best-prepared president in American history.

“…Jefferson’s reading habits were eclectic, but he clearly preferred non-fiction, and his immense library was essentially a reference collection. What Jefferson wanted most were information, facts, data points, and statistics. He saw books primarily as information delivery systems. He would be pleased at the size, scope, and accessibility of the public library system in the United States, and thrilled at the world wide web and the internet.”

—Clay Jenkinson, Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century (Bismarck, ND: Marmarth Press, 2004), 29-30.

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Athletics and Character in the Bush Family

meacham“Competition was essential to Dorothy Walker [Bush’s mother]—not mindless competition, but competition in order to pursue, test, and exhibit excellence.”

“For families such as the Bushes, athletics were a maker and a measure of character. Sports were to be taken as seriously as one’s studies, or one’s manners, for they were perennial pursuits, permanent features of life.”

—Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York, NY: Random House, 2015), 24-25.

The Character of Young George H.W. Bush

meacham“Markedly a gentleman.”

“Nice boy, popular, friendly, gets on well with adults, very very polite. Slow but a hard worker… Ambitious and self-confident but perhaps not self-assertive enough. Real interests are athletics…Always a gentleman, responsible, courteous, generous.”

“Other students were drawn to him; they felt protected and secure in his orbit.”

“Serene on the outside, reaching out to smooth others’ paths through life…”

–Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York, NY: Random House, 2015), 35. The first two quotes are by Bush’s evaluating teacher at Andover Academy, where he began attending when he was 13. The second two are by the author.

Abigail Adams on Personal Appearance

JQAAs a member of the United States Senate, John Quincy Adams, son of the second president and founder John Adams and himself a future president, received a letter from his mother Abigail Adams saying:

“Seriously, I think a man’s usefulness in society depends much upon his personal appearance. I do not wish a senator to dress like a beau, but I want him to conform so far to the fashion as not to incur the character of singularity nor give the occasion to the world to ask what kind of mother he had.”

– Harlow Giles Unger, John Quincy Adams (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2012), 135.

Abraham Lincoln: Telling Jokes, Collapsing in Laughter

lincoln.jpgDon’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:

“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).

– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.

The (Moral) Education of John Quincy Adams

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Young John Quincy

What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?

I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.

Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:

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“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.

“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).

Martin and Katie Luther: A Good Marriage

 

In Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), theologian and church history professor Carl Trueman (who is Presbyterian, not Lutheran) provides an excellent treatment of the great 16th-century Reforming Augustinian monk – more than biography, it’s a careful and critical consideration of Luther’s teachings on the Christian life, from salvation by childlike faith to obedience to civil government to doing marriage and parenthood.

Trueman on Luther is excellent all around; he’s devoted decades of study to the man who launched the Reformation. But my favorite part of the book was the few pages on Luther’s marriage and on Luther and Katie (Katharina von Bora) as dedicated parents (he would read his catechism with his children every day, saying that he, though he was a brilliant Reformer and minister of the gospel, was as much a learner of doctrine as they were). The bit below is a delightful and exemplary snapshot not just of the marriage of Martin and Katie Luther, but of the blessing that she was to him. You have to admire the practicality and thoughtfulness she brought to their marriage! (Indeed, much like that brought by my own wonderfully practical wife, Laura.)

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“His unexpected [because he was a monk] marriage to his Katie proved to be delightful, loving, and fruitful. Today, visitors to the Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg…will see that the door frame has a little stool built into it on each side. The door frame was a present from Katie to her husband, made at a time when she felt they were not spending enough time talking to each other. Thus, at the end of a busy day, Martin and Katie could sit on either side of the door and talk to each other. Inside and upstairs, there is a similar arrangement, presumably for when the Saxon weather made an outdoor tryst somewhat wet and cold. This in itself speaks eloquently of the love and the happiness that marriage brought to the life of the Reformer” (Kindle, chapter 8).