Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wilson's "New Freedom" and Ricks' Book

One of the more entertaining aspects of buying used books is occasionally finding some interesting, abandoned thing inside. I find postcards, mostly. Disneyland and, for some reason, photos of Lyndon Baines Johnson are popular postcards used for the used books I buy. Most of the time they're blank, but occasionally they're stamped, addressed, with a note or two.

Then there are the writing I find in books. Sometimes they tell a story. One book -- I no longer have it, unfortunately -- had a letter tucked inside of it, addressed to the book's owner, who had inscribed his name and address on the inside cover. The letter was from a stewardess from Iceland Air, sending the book back to its owner, who had scrawled on the letter "Send a thank-you card?" Of course, I don't know what happened after. Some of the stories only begin.

I'm babbling about this now because I have on my desk a first edition copy of Woodrow Wilson's The New Freedom, signed by Joel E. Ricks, and dated Nov. 29, 1913. Now Ricks is a common name here in the Upper Valley -- the city of Rexburg was named for Thomas E. Ricks, as was Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. So it's no surprise to find a book with the Ricks name in it at the local thrift store. But there's a possibility this Ricks is Joel Edward Ricks, a notable Utah historian who was once president of Weber College in Ogden and past president of the Utah Historical Society. His biographical information is here. I have no proof other than the name and the inferences that since this Ricks was a history major and political junkie, it's quite possible this book was his. I spent $4 on the book and found it's actually worth about three times that at the used book stores. So it's a fun find.

But on to Wilson's The New Freedom. It is, like many political philosophies, a philosophy. It's culled from campaign speeches Wilson delivered prior to becoming president in 1912. If the language used in these excerpts is indicative of Wilson's speaking style, it's easy to imagine thuds and bonks peppering his audiences as some listeners succumbed to boredom and fell asleep or fainted. He's a very educated man, yes. But not one with a flair for common speech. An excerpt, discussing the discovery of the New World:
The race was to found a new order here on this delectable land, which no man approached without receiving, as the old voyagers relate, you remember, sweet airs out of woods aflame with flowers and murmurous with the sound of pellucid waters. The hemisphere lay waiting to be touched with life -- life form the old centres of living, surely, but cleansed of defilement, and cured of wariness, so as to be fit for the virgin purity of a new bride.
And so on.

I do not know much about Wilson, I have to confess. I can infer from his speeches, what I know about his behavior and thinking prior to the US entry into the First World War and his behavior afterward that he's an idealist. Idealists are fine in their own way, but idealism has to be balanced with realism. Which it seems is what he did, according to the wilted-flower experts at Wikipedia.

I do like what he said about the Declaration of Independence; one could certainly use this kind of attitude today, though Constitutionalists would be sure to point out he said this about the declaration, not the Constitution. Still, you'd like to think people would think this way as we talk about government and governing today:
The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no consequence to us unless we can translate its general terms into examples of the present day and substitute them in some vital way for the examples it itself gives, so concrete, so intimately involved in the circumstances of the day in which it was conceived and written. It is an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action. Unless we can translate it into the questions of our own day, we are not worthy of it, we are not the sons of the sires who acted in response to its challenge.
I'd go on to say the same thing about the Constitution, as those who oppose health care reform point out that "health care" is not a right as enshrined in these documents. These documents change according to the issues of the day, otherwise we would not have the direct election of senators, the right of women to vote, the succession of vice presidents to the presidency, and other rights and benefits as well.

I like that Wilson spoke as an idealist. Too often we let reality override our aspirations.

No comments: