Book Discussion: Reading the Founding Fathers: A Four-Part Course with Dr. Richard Bell

Book Discussion: Reading the Founding Fathers: A Four-Part Course with Dr. Richard Bell


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The founding era produced some of the most important political texts and autobiographies in American history. This four-session book discussion series offers the chance to learn about, read, and informally discuss three classics of the revolutionary era and one too-often-overlooked masterpiece.

The first session opens with Ben Franklin’s famous Autobiography. The second session then tackles Tom Paine’s transformative political pamphlet, Common Sense. In the third session, participants read the memoir of Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut farmhand who joined the Continental Army when he was just fifteen. The series concludes with some selections from The Federalist Papers, the anthology of brief essays that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote to persuade ordinary Americans to ratify the new federal Constitution.

Join Richard Bell, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, for short and vivid 30-min lectures about each work followed by an inclusive 60-min discussion driven by your own comments and questions. Participants should read the week’s book before each session.

Lecture 1: Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Written as a long letter to his son, Franklin’s 1771 memoir hums with energy as it describes his early years in Boston, his decision to run away from home, and his extraordinary new life in Philadelphia. Recommended edition: Yale 2003 (ISBN: 0300101627)

Lecture 2: Thomas Paine, Common Sense

The call to arms that catalyzed the Revolution, Paine’s 1776 masterpiece of political argumentation made independence—something previously unthinkable and improbable—seem imminent, urgent, and necessary. Recommended edition: Modern Library 2003 (ISBN: 0375760113)

Lecture 3: Joseph Plumb Martin, Ordinary Courage

The best first-person account was written by an enlisted soldier in the Continental Army during the Revolution, Martin’s memoir brims with color and life and offers profound insight about the cost of war and the working people on whom that burden falls. Recommended edition: Signet 2010 (ISBN: 0451531582)

Lecture 4: Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, The Federalist Papers

Written by three different authors but published under a single pseudonym—‘Publius’—The Federalist Papers promoted the 1787 Constitution to a decidedly skeptical reading public, laying out its provisions and protections clearly and persuasively. Recommended edition: Penguin 2012 (ISBN: 0143121979)

Dr. Richard Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is the recipient of the National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar award. He has won more than a dozen teaching awards and has held major research fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress. He has published a number of books; his latest is "Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home".

How does it work?

This is a four-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in this history, each week participants will be expected to read the corresponding book ahead of the lecture. Please see the event description for recommended editions.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $140 for four lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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