Gather Ye Knowledge While Ye May

UPDATED!!!- added information, changed title, rearranged a paragraph or two…
You’ll want to read this:

You will want to click on the link to read the rest of a speech David McCullough (author of the wonderful book John Adams) delivered recently at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar on the topic, “American History and America’s Future.” To whet your appetite, taste these juicy extracts:

Harry Truman once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. Lord Bolingbroke, who was an 18th century political philosopher, said that history is philosophy taught with examples. An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them, and that’s much of what I want to talk about tonight.


…The Greeks said that character is destiny, and the more I read and understand of history, the more convinced I am that they were right. You look at the great paintings by John Trumbull or Charles Willson Peale or Copley or Gilbert Stuart of those remarkable people who were present at the creation of our nation, the Founders as we call them. Those aren’t just likenesses. They are delineations of character and were intended to be. And we need to understand them, and we need to understand that they knew that what they had created was no more perfect than they were.


“…We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate. And it’s not their fault. There have been innumerable studies, and there’s no denying it. I’ve experienced it myself again and again. I had a young woman come up to me after a talk one morning at the University of Missouri to tell me that she was glad she came to hear me speak, and I said I was pleased she had shown up. She said, “Yes, I’m very pleased, because until now I never understood that all of the 13 colonies – the original 13 colonies – were on the east coast.”


…I don’t know when the last time you picked up a textbook in American history might have been. And there are, to be sure, some very good ones still in print. But most of them, it appears to me, have been published in order to kill any interest that anyone might have in history. I think that students would be better served by cutting out all the pages, clipping up all the page numbers, mixing them all up and then asking students to put the pages back together in the right order.


“…there’s no secret to teaching history or to making history interesting. Barbara Tuchman said it in two words, “Tell stories.” That’s what history is: a story. And what’s a story? E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human.”


“…Samuel Eliot Morison said we ought to read history because it will help us to behave better. “

McCullough goes on to tell about one of the delightful little treasure hunts so dear to my heart- a hunt for knowledge. He says he read this line in one of John Adam’s letters to his wife Abigail,

” “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.”

That line in the Adams letter is saying that how the war turns out is in the hands of God. We can’t control that, but we can control how we behave. We can deserve success. When I read that line when I was doing the research on the book, it practically lifted me out of my chair.

Later Mr. McCullough came across the same phrase, this time in some letters of George Washington’s. Mr. McCullough reacted in a fashion that warms the cockles of this Deputy Headmistress’ heart- he noticed a connection, and he asked himself a question about why these two men would use the exact same phraseology.

He realized that they must both be quoting something else, so got out Bartlet’s Quotations. He discovered it was a quotation from the play Cato. That’s this play by Joseph Addison.

John J. Miller of National Review calls that play “America’s Greatest Play.”

GEorge Washington, says Mr. Miller,

“loved the play so much he had it performed for the troops at Valley Forge in that brutal winter of 1777-78. Washington was hardly the only figure stirred by Addison’s work. Benjamin Franklin pored over its passages. John Adams quoted it in letters. And two of America’s most famous patriot statements come directly from its lines.

Here’s Patrick Henry in 1775: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Nathan Hale’s “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country” speech must have come from Cato, Act 4, Scene 4:

What pity is it

That we can die but once to serve our country!

You’ll want to read all of Miller’s article as well as all of McCullough’s speech.

I think it’s fascinating to note that Cato was a Roman statesman who lived in the century prior to Christ’s birth.

Joseph Addison was an influential and still delightful to read 17th century British author.

Cato’s Letters is the title of a series of

essays by John Trenchard (1662–1723) and Thomas Gordon (d. 1750) that condemned tyranny and corruption in government while advancing the principles of liberty.

According to the Liberty Fund website,

“John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were two indefatigable English Whig journalists who defended the idea of liberty against political corruption, imperialism and militarism in the early 18th century. They were also much read in the American colonies.”

Ancient Rome, 17th century England, America’s REvolutionary War- did you follow that chain of connection? Think upon that the next time you hear somebody ask some variation of the questions ‘why do we have to know this stuff? What does he need to know this for?’

You don’t know what use you may have for some jewel of knowlege until you have it. You gather the jewels along the way because individually they are delightsome and lovely- to know is a delight. As you collect your little gems here and there, the more you attain, the more you can discern the pattern that they make and see how they fit together upon the string of history. You do not ask for the pattern to be proven first before you will bow your head before the seat of knowlege. You accept the beads, polish them, keep them, and think about them, look them over, asking the right questions (and plenty of the wrong questions, and that’s okay, too), and some day you pick up just the right bead and ask just the right question to allow you complete some lovely pattern. YOu don’t know yet which bead that will be. You do not need to know ahead of time. You just have to be the jewel collector. Those who discard or ignore jewels along the way because they think they do not need to know this are those whose strings of knowledge will have more skimpy string than glowing jewels.

Gather ye knowledge while ye may.

Here are some of the places where I gathered little gems to add to my own little string of knowledge for this article:

Bonnet tip No Left Turns (love their coffee mugs) for the McCullough speech.

B.T. also to Gene Edward Veith at World Magazine’s blog, where I found the pointer to the NRO article.

And Just Found!! The full text of Mr. McCullough’s speech!

Rightwing Nuthouse blogged about this, too, gaining special points for talking about ‘acquiring knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing.’

No longer needed: The DeputyHeadmistress is wracking her meager brains trying to recall where else she recently read a reference to Cato and Addison’s play and the American Revolution. She thinks it had something to do with homeschooling, too. If any of our gentle readers know, please put her out of her misery and post the answer to the comments section below. Thanks!

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