It has often been remarked that in the journey of life, the young rely on energy to counteract the experience of the old. And vice versa. What makes this Constitutional Convention remarkable is that the delegates were both young and experienced. The average age of the delegates was 42 and four of the most influential delegates—Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, Gouverneur Morris and James Madison—were in their thirties. Over half of the delegates graduated from College with nine from Princeton and six from British Universities. Even more significant was the continental political experience of the Framers: 8 signed the Declaration of Independence, 25 served in the Continental Congress, 15 helped draft the new State Constitutions between 1776 and 1780, and 40 served in the Confederation Congress between 1783 and 1787.
George H. Nash has recently written a fascinating little book that fits in wonderfully with the purpose of this link concerning getting to know the Framers biographically. It is called Books and the Founding Fathers and was published in 2007 by the McConnell Center, University of Louisville, and Butler Books. ISI distributes the book.
According to Nash, part of the experience that guided the Framers was their experience with books from early on in their lives. So they weren’t only politically experienced from a young age, they were also informed by the books of ancient Greece and Rome as well as modern Britain from a young age.
To summarize Nash’s point: the Framers 1) read, 2) owned, 3) used, 4) created, and 5) donated books without being simply bookish or “denizens of an ivory tower.”
- John Dickinson, the person whose legacy is his August observation at the Constitutional Convention that “we should let experience be our guide” because reason may mislead us, would, at university, “read for nearly eight hours a day, dine at four o’clock, and then retire early in the evening all the while mingling his scrutiny of legal texts with such authors as Tacictus and Bacon.” William Paterson, who introduced the New Jersey Plan in June at the Constitutional Convention, in large part because it was a practical alternative to the Virginia Plan, took his college entrance examinations in Latin and Greek, and entered Princeton “at the age of fourteen. For the next four years he immersed himself in ancient history and literature, as well as such English authors as Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and Pope.”
- Benjamin Franklin’s personal library “contained 4,276 volumes at the time of his death in 1790.” George Washington’s library at his death in 1798 contained 900 volumes, “a figure all the more remarkable since he was much less a reader than many.”
- Washington, in turn, “used” Joseph Addison’s Cato in drafting his Farewell Address. Jefferson “sent back books by the score” from Paris to Madison that, after three years of intense reading, the latter used to draft the Virginia Plan as a response to the history of failed confederacies.
- The Papers of Madison constitute “29 volumes so far and 23 more in the pipeline.” When the Jefferson Papers are completed “it will comprise 75 hefty volumes.”
- Finally, Franklin, Dickinson, Madison, and Jefferson were each “a faithful patron of libraries.” For example, Dickinson “donated more than 1,500 volumes to Dickinson College.”
We thank George Nash for consenting to the inclusion of the above quotations from his book.