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posted: 10/21/2013 1:40 PM

Books offer political lessons from the 19th century

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We have a new trail in our neighborhood that runs around the retention pond at May Watts Park. Already the winding path is proving to be a pretty peaceful retreat set in a natural habitat of autumn colors.

More and more, I'm finding the new attraction helps get the old cobwebs out of my mind while I'm trying to sort through all that's happening in the much bigger world around me, a world that demands reading, reading and more reading to keep up.

Whenever somebody asks what books I'm reading, I hesitate to answer. I love books, but my taste is eclectic. Plus, these days I'm more likely to read blogs and news releases than something from the best-seller list.

What's more, my preferences are "how-to-do-it" guides, short stories, cookbooks, almanacs, atlases and resource books about Naperville more than novels.

When I take time to read a current best-seller, it's likely about politics, economics or history. I can't remember the last time I read truly fiction.

Plus, in addition to books about history, I treasure books that come with a history of their own.

For instance, I have several books written and published in the 19th century by J.L. Nichols, the benefactor who gave our downtown public library its name.

James Lawrence Nichols' bequest of $10,000 upon his death at age 44 in 1895 began the Naperville Public Library system. Some residents consider that his gift -- dependent on an agreement with the city to maintain the library, provide resources and staff employees -- set the example as the city's first private/public partnership.

One of his works that most recently fell in my hands is titled "Safe Citizenship or 500 Lessons in American Politics" and also "The Rise and Rage of Political Issues, The Rise and Fall of Political Parties and A Complete Dictionary of Civil Government." The long title speaks volumes.

According to Nichols, the duties of an American citizen are many, but first and foremost he began his book with "Political Rights" in boldfaced letters.

With an image of Gen. George Washington's fireplace on the now-yellowed page, Nichols wrote, "Every American or foreign-born citizen of the United States has certain political privileges and inalienable rights. In order to sustain a good government, every man should exercise his political rights to the best of his knowledge. As every citizen is protected by the government, he should not shrink from his duty in giving to the state certain protection whenever he may be called on to do so. We need better citizenship, more education, and a better knowledge of our system of government. Every man should be able to vote intelligently."

(I'll insert here that Nichols obviously was a man of his times. The 19th Amendment, aka the Susan B. Anthony Amendment giving women the right to vote, became law on Aug. 26, 1920, 25 years after he died.)

The opening page includes a second subhead, "Your Duty."

Nichols continued, "It is your duty as an American citizen to obey the laws, even if they are, in your belief, unjust or unwise. General Grant once shrewdly said that the best way to procure the repeal of an unjust or unwise law was to rigorously enforce it. It is your right to expose the folly or injustice of the law, to demand its repeal, and to try to get a majority to repeal it. But while it remains the law, you are to obey it."

I've yet to read all 596 pages of the illustrated volume, complete with charts, graphs and detailed coverage of the first 27 administrations, beginning with George Washington in 1789 and running through Grover Cleveland's second term that began in 1893.

Trivia buffs will remember that Cleveland is the only U.S. President who served two nonconsecutive terms.

In the chapter about taxes, the last paragraph comes under a boldfaced "Lower Taxation," where Nichols wrote, "It is the principle of lower taxation and freer and more unrestricted trade relations that is on trial before the American people of today rather than the tenets of any political party. It is a time when the independent voter rather than the blind partisan is in the saddle."

I'm thinking. It's time for another walk.

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