E very time I ask questions like "Thomas Jefferson, who's that?" or "What? Since when could women vote?" my peers seem to look upon me as though I were part of a great national shame. If you feel similarly inept when it comes to comprehending US history, the slim volumes in Akashic Books' new U.S. Presidents Series are here to help. They spotlight writings from our first presidents, and make their thoughts accessible and relevant through critical introductions by some of America's premier novelists. It's a fresh and compelling juxtaposition of early American thinking and the current political zeitgeist.
George Washington's Rules of Civility is a hilarious and edifying etiquette guide written by our first president during his adolescence. Some of the Rules are simply amusing ("Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin"), while others speak to a timeless quest for self-control and social humility ("Think before you Speak; pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily, but orderly & distinctly"). Adam Haslett, author of You Are Not a Stranger Here, adds his own comments, noting that parts of the guide are still very relevant to American society and the bad behavior of the current administration.
John Adams' A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America is a grand example of the influence of Enlightenment thought on the formation of early U.S. government, including the arguments for separation of power and a bicameral legislature. Neal Pollack contributes an astute essay on what he sees as a "De-Enlightenment" in American society today; his observations are astute, disciplined efforts to point out the failure of public education to separate itself from religion, and include a startling look at the reaction to the theory of evolution in our country.
In 1819, Thomas Jefferson decided to revise the Bible's four Gospels, which he literally cut-and-pasted together to reflect his personal ideology. The result is The Jefferson Bible. Percival Everett offers a stunning and thought-provoking introduction, including a fictionalized, transhistorical dialogue with Jefferson in which Everett questions our third president about the hypocrisy of his thought when it came to slavery and independence.