Category: history

Thomas Jefferson: Lifehacker

On Saturday, on a whim, we drove down to Monticello to visit the home of Thomas Jefferson. One of the many things I like about living in this area is the rich history. We can drive north to battlefields at Gettysburg, or we can drive south and visit the unique home of Thomas Jefferson. So on Saturday, we gathered up the kids and hit the road at 9 am. Google Maps told us the trip would take 3 hours on Interstate 95. It suggested taking Route 29, which would take only a little over 2 hours. It failed to mention the beautiful farm country we would pass through.

None of us had been to Monticello before, and I was particularly excited about it. I love history, and have a special place for American history. Within that special place is a niche reserved for colonial history, which I adore above almost all else, perhaps because I was living in New England when introduced to that history in school.


Wandering the grounds of Monticello was a treat. The weather was perfect, the skies clear, and as we walked the grounds, I kept thinking to myself: Jefferson walked here. He walked here. I remembered a similar feeling I had once, a decade earlier. I was walking on the campus of William and Mary, and happened to be reading a biography of Jefferson at the time, when it occurred to me that I was walking past the very dorm that the biographer said Jefferson stayed in while at the school.

We had a tour of the house. Our guide took us through it and I was amazed my Jefferson’s attention to detail. Jefferson was, like Benjamin Franklin, a lifehacker. The clock he made that mounts the front door made it easy to tell the day of the week. While standing beneath the portico, you could look up and see the wind direction marked on the ceiling, by a clever mechanical connection to the weathervane on the roof.

Jefferson’s “book room” made me green with envy. The shelves were full of books (at the time he sold his collection to start the Library of Congress, he’d amassed 7,000 of them). The books in the room were all the same titles and editions that Jefferson had in his collection. In two glass cases were book that Jefferson was known to have handled himself.

Jefferson had even considered that books get moved, and made it easy to do so. Each shelf was an independent unit that could be removed. A board could be be nailed over the opening without removing the books, and the box could be placed in a wagon for transport.

There were other clever touches to the house. Pocket beds kept the rooms spacious. Jefferson had a pocket bed between his study and his sitting room, so that he could get out of bed and start working right away. He had a revolving door in the dining room with trays for food to make the transport of food to the table quick and efficient. He had wine dummy’s built into the sides of the fireplace. He used narrow staircases to conserve space.

At the end of the tour I asked the guide if she knew of anyone who had seen Monticello and decided to replicate it for their own home. In fact, she had. She told me about someone in Pennsylvania who had done just that. It makes sense. It is a house designed for a reader and a writer. It is a house designed by an early lifehacker.

Jefferson was a lifehacker in other ways. He wrote more than 19,000 letters, and used1 a device that allowed him to write one letter, and automatically make a second copy. It is for this reason, apparently, that we know as much as we do about his life. He also invented a revolving bookstand which could hold 5 open books at once. Try switching that quickly between 5 books on a Kindle!

The trip reminded me that I eventually want to get through Dumas Malone‘s 6-volume biography of Jefferson someday. Six books on Jefferson! That biography would not fit on Jefferson’s clever bookstand in its entirety.

For more pictures of our trip to Monticello, check out the pictures on Google Photos.


  1. But did not invent.

All of this has happened before…

While reading about the life of the people of ancient Rome in Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ this morning, I came across this brief, but rather remarkable passage concerning music in Roman life:

Old men mourned that recent composers were abandoning the restraint and dignity of the classic style, and were disordering the soul and nerves of youth with extravagant airs and noisy instruments.

In other words, grown-ups complaints of “that hideous rock-n-roll” (or disco, or rap, or fill-in-your-own-genre) are nothing new, and never have been. Indeed, I’d guess that some wise person living in ancient Rome shook her head ruefully at the thought that the reaction of the elders to the music of the younger generation was nothing new; that it happened in ancient Greece before, and Egypt before that, and so on, and so on, back to the dawn of music’s history.

Or, put another way, grown-ups have been telling kids to get off their lawns for as far back as recorded history can take us.

Scope Creep of Historical Proportions

The very first volume of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series was published by Simon & Schuster in 1935. In the the very first words of that very first volume, Durant writes,

I have tried in this book to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which I rashly laid upon myself some twenty years ago: to write a history of civilization.

This is both delightful and brash. Imagine being able to spend two decades at work on a “pleasant assignment,” whatever that may be. It is brash in its scope: “to write a history of civilization.”

In this 1935 edition, Durant outlines his plan for telling this story of civilization in five parts:

  1. Our Oriental Heritage: a history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, and in India, China, and Japan to the present day; with an introduction on the nature and elements of civilization.
  2. Our Classical Heritage: a history of civilization in Greece and Rome, and of civilization in the Near East under Greek and Roman domination.
  3. Our Medieval Heritage: Catholic and feudal Europe, Byzantine civilization, Mohammedan and Judaic culture in Asia, Africa, and Spain, and the Italian Renaissance.
  4. Our European Heritage: the cultural history of the European states from the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution.
  5. Our Modern Heritage: the history of European invention and statesmanship, science and philosophy, religion and morals, literature and art from the accession of Napoleon to our own times.

Durant concludes the outline of his plan for telling the story of civilization with this mild caution:

Since these ear-minded times are not propitious for the popularity of expensive books on remote subjects of interest only to citizens of the world, it may be that the continuation of this series will be delayed by the prosaic necessities of economic life. But if the reception of this adventure in synthesis makes possible an uninterrupted devotion to the undertaking, Part Two should be ready by the fall of 1940, and its successors should appear, by the grace of health, at five-year intervals thereafter.

So, we have 5 volumes, the first of which appeared in 1935, the second to appear in 1940. Doing the math, the fifth and final volume would make its debut in 1955. Except that the project seemed to take on scope creep of Homeric proportions. It is amusing to see this scope creep unfolds through the prefaces of each succeeding volume, where you can almost see Durant making embarrassed apologies and fretting, at the fact that he isn’t quite sure why things are growing as they are.

In the opening to the Preface of Caesar and Christ (1944), Durant writes,

This volume, while and independent unit by itself, is Part III in a history of civilization, of which Part I was Our Oriental Heritage, and Part II was The Life of Greece. War and health permitting, Part IV, The Age of Faith should be ready in 1950.

Already, we see that Part IV is behind Durant’s outline. In other words he split “Our Classic Heritage” into two volumes (The Life of Greece and Caesar and Christ). Durant conclude Caesar and Christ with,

Thank you, patient reader.

When we get to Part IV, The Age of Faith (1950), Durant seems to realize what is going on and modifies his outline somewhat.

This book continues the study of the white man’s life to the death of Dante in 1321. Part V, The Renaissance and the Reformation, covering the period from 1321 to 1648, should appear in 1955; and Part VI, The Age of Reason, carrying the story to our own time should be ready by 1960. This will bring the author so close to senility that he most forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.

Please note that Durant still thinks that he will be able to wrap things up in The Age of Reason, although he has given up on the history of North and South America.

The Age of Faith is the longest single volume in the series. My hardcover edition stands at 1,086 pages, not counting the bibliography and index, which ups the number to 1,200 pages. The unabridged audiobook is more than 60 hours long. Durant concludes this volume with,

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Isaac Asimov on Will Durant’s Story of Civilization

I mentioned on Twitter today that I have about half a dozen ideas for blog posts based on my reading of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series. If this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip. I won’t be offended.

I figured that before I had my say, I’d provide another perspective, that of Isaac Asimov, who as regular readers will know, is one of my favorite writers, particularly of nonfiction. I’ve read Asimov’s 3-volume autobiography countless times, and I recalled him mentioning Durant at one point. So I looked it up and here is what the Good Doctor had to say. I writing about the events of August 6, 1945, Asimov said,

We were getting ready to go, and I remember exactly what happened.

I was reading a copy of Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ, the third volume in his history of civilization and Gertrude was ironing some clothes.

The radio stopped its regular programming for an emergency bulletin: The United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima1.

More directly relevant to Durant’s series, however, was a footnote Asimov included on this passage:

I read each volume as it came out. After I had read the first one and heard he was planning a multivolume history–five volumes was the original plan–I felt worried. I knew he was in his forties and I carefully noted in my diary that I hoped he would live long enough to complete the set. He did.

I suspect that there are quite a few people out there who have similar worries over another popular writer of “alternate” history, the history of Westeros.

  1. From In Memory Yet Green by Isaac Asimov, Doubleday, 1979.

D-Day +68 years

It is almost impossible for a June 6th to pass without my remembering the fact that it is the anniversary of D-Day. Specifically, the 68th anniversary. I was kind of surprised to see no mention of D-Day when I browsed the headlines this morning (but then, I only browsed, I didn’t look carefully). Back in May 2001, I read, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen Ambrose. I don’t think you can read that book and not come away with a profound appreciation for what culminated on June 6, 1944 and everything that led up to it.  68 years is a lifetime ago, several generations depending on how you count them. I sometimes wonder if those people still around, who participated in the D-Day assault feel the same way. Does it feel like another lifetime? Something, perhaps, seen in a movie somewhere, as opposed to experiencing first hand?

History repeats itself: the financial crisis of Rome

From pp. 331-332 in Caesar and Christ:

The famous “panic” of A.D. 33 illustrates the development and complex interdependency of banks and commerce in the Empire.  Augustus had coined and spent money lavishly, on the theory that its increased circulation, low interest rates, and rising prices would stimulate business.  They did; but as the process could not go on forever, a reaction set in as early as 10 B.C., when this flush minting ceased.  Tiberius rebounded to the opposite theory–that the most economical economy is the best.  He severely limited the governmental expenditures, sharply restricted new issues of currency, and hoarded 2,700,000,000 sesterces in the Treasury.  The resulting dearth of circulating medium was made worse by the train of money eastward in exchange for luxuries.  Prices fell, interest rates rose, creditors foreclosed on debtors, debtors sued usurers, and moneylending almost ceased. The Senate tried to check the export of capital by requiring a high percentage of every senator’s fortune to be invested in Italian land; senators thereupon called in loans and foreclosed mortgages to raise cash and the crisis rose.  When the senator Publius Spinther notified the bank of Balbus and Ollius that he must withdraw 30,000,000 sesterces to comply… the firm announced its bankruptcy.  At the same time the failure of an Alexandrian firm… and the collapse of the great dyeing concern of Malchus at Tyre, led to rumors that the Roman banking house of Maximus and Vibo would be broken by their extensive loans to these firms.  When its depositors began a “run” on this bank it shut its doors, and later on that day, a larger bank… also suspended payment…. One after another the banks of Rome closed.  Money could be borrowed only at rates far above the legal limit.

Sound familiar?