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Rare Books, Podcast Spur Reflections on Revolutions

By R. Mark Zeitzmann

In his 1951 Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

This summer, while working in the University Archives and Special Collections, I have had the opportunity to learn what Faulkner meant. I was assigned to inventory the rare books collection, which meant that I was able to encounter every book in this collection. While doing this, I also happened to start listening to the Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan.

In doing so, I discovered that it is one thing to hear a narration of historical events; it’s quite another to encounter the texts of historical events; it is yet an entirely different thing when both are brought together at the same time. To help set the stage, I listened to narrations of three revolutions:

  • The British Civil Wars/Revolution, from 1625, when Charles I became king, up to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
  • The American Revolution, from the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 up to the first U.S. Congress in 1789.
  • The French Revolutions, starting with attempts at reforming the Ancien Régime from about 1768 up to the Coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799.

On the one hand, I encountered all sorts of fascinating rare books. Initially, my experience was one of considering one book at a time, without considering how they contribute to a larger narrative. On the other hand, as I listened to Duncan’s narrations, I had to rewind quite a bit to be able to follow all of the names, dates and events being discussed. What was it that he said about George Washington’s military ability? What were the “Three Estates,” and why did they matter for the French Revolutions? Who was this Oliver Cromwell guy, and did he become king of the British Isles or something else?

Then, as I continued to listen to the historical narrations, I also began to discover books that were concerned with the histories and peoples of the very same revolutions. I encountered such texts as The Trial of Charles I, which culminated in Charles’ execution; The Writings of George Washington in 12 volumes* and The Works of Benjamin Franklin in 10 volumes, both compiled by Jared Sparks; The French Revolution: A History  by Thomas Carlyle; and The American’s Guide: Comprising the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitutions of the Several States Composing the Union.

A particular text that I would like to highlight is The Humble Petition of the Lords and Commons Assembled in Parliament and His Majesties Speech and Protestation, created on Sept. 27, 1642. This fascinating little document captures a sense of the tensions that drove King Charles I and the “Long Parliament” to civil war in 1642. In this document, the Parliament — “Wee Your Majesties most loyall Subjects” — petitioned Charles to forgo “the practices of a party prevailing with Your Majesty, who by many wicked plots and conspiracies, have attempted the alteration of the true religion and the ancient government of this Kingdome, and the introducing of popish Idolatry and superstition in the Church, and Tyranny, and Confusion in the State.” In essence, the Parliament was pressing Charles to sack some of his counselors, and if he did so, there need not be civil war.

Charles’ stubbornness got the better of him though. He addressed his army, “Your Conscience and your Loyalty hath brought you hither to fight for your Religion, your King, and the Lawes of the Land: you shall meet with no Enemies, but Traitors, most of them Brownists, Anabaptists, and Atheists.” Parliament, Charles and the people of the British Isles could have avoided the better part of a decade of civil war if Parliament and Charles had been willing and able to compromise.

My multimedia experience brought these historical events to life for me. Many times, I felt as if I were present as historical events unfolded and as people entered and exited the stage. These experiences have taught me the importance of not only keeping rare texts in our archives, but also taking time to peruse them. After all, it is only by studying our histories that we can understand our present and look to our future.

You can find out more about the texts mentioned here and others by visiting the University Archives and Special Collections on the second floor of Albert Emanuel Hall; for more information about the Revolutions podcast, see its website.

* Author's note: Unfortunately, the fourth volume of The Writings of George Washington is not in the rare books collection.

— R. Mark Zeitzmann is in his second year of UD's master's program in theology. He's now plotting his own quiet, little revolution of changing people's perspective of God, how they relate to God, and what it means to sacramentally participate in God's life.

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