One of the seminal works of American history is the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Franklin is the quintessential first American of a great founding generation. He was a self-made man of humble origins who rose to represent America in foreign courts, to be one of the country’s foremost scientists and inventors and its first homespun philosopher.

One of the best known parts of his autobiography is the list of 13 virtues he chose to develop in himself.

I will not list all 13, but they represent those virtues by which we Americans have always thought to distinguish ourselves (though not always successfully), such as temperance, resolution, industry, justice, moderation and, of course, humility – by which Franklin suggests imitating Jesus and Socrates, a formidable duo.

By and large, Franklin set a good example on these virtues. His widely admired common sense and relentlessly positive outlook helped mightily in the struggle to establish our country.

The influence of his autobiography is widespread. It is even said that Davy Crockett kept it beside him in the siege of the Alamo.

I confess that I did not learn all this from re-reading Franklin’s autobiography. Rather, this was a part of a remarkable volume I have recently completed called “The Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America” by Jay Parini.

As a history buff, I delighted in most of Parini’s selections. As he put it, these 13 are not meant to be America’s greatest books but rather books that “played a role in shaping the nation’s idea of itself.”

These 13 are just that, although a few of the choices are rather whimsical, such as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare.”

Most of his selections are more predictable. “The Federalist Papers” figure prominently, of course.

These 85 essays in defense of the U.S. Constitution, written in white heat, mostly by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were a major reason why the Constitution was ratified by each of the original 13 states.

Recently, some conservative pundits have referenced “The Federalist Papers” in making the case that our current government is overstepping its bounds.

Here I did go to the original source, and my readings of several of the prominent Federalists caused me to wonder if these conservative commentators really did their homework. The papers are dense, not easily readable and full of references to political philosophers of the day, such as Rousseau and John Stuart Mill.

For example, one of the most quoted papers is Federalist 51, in which Madison argues for the now-famous “checks and balances” as key to the effectiveness of the Constitution.

He never uses that particular term, and it is not obvious what he is driving at without at least two readings.

I was left with a new appreciation for the erudition of the “common man” of that era. Moreover, at least on the critical issue of checks and balances, it was difficult for me to find any overstepping of the bounds in my reading.

As difficult to read as they may be, Parini suggests we all can benefit from reviewing aspects of these papers periodically “as it calls to us what Lincoln famously in his first inaugural referred to as ‘the better angels of our nature.’ “

Indeed, in our current era of increasingly bitter partisanship, calls to the better angels of our nature are much needed.

Others of Parini’s selections are less weighty. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” makes the list, largely as a novel about our American idea of freedom.

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” also makes the list, depicting a very different 20th century version of American freedom.

Of course, “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” make the list as a most wonderful depiction of the American quest for our western destiny, our restlessness and our willingness to brave the unknown.

There are more books here to be discovered. Parini has given us a baker’s dozen of memorable books that, each in its own way, has changed, shaped and embodied a quintessential American experience.

“Promised Land” reminded me of what it was like to be an American, what values we all signed up for, and how different books embody the quintessential American character.

I finished “Promised Land” in better spirits and more optimistic that we Americans may again be able to find common ground. Parini’s book does indeed remind us of “the better angels of our nature.”

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]

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