Monday, July 4, 2011

Born in the USA

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

Although I have been known to have fun playing trivia games, I’m hardly an expert. Oh, I can hold my own in Arts and Literature categories and can guess and reason well in the areas of Geography and History. Science is mainly hit or miss and I’ve been known to perform dismally in entertainment. No, I can’t sing all the words to “Gilligan’s Island” because I barely remember all the characters.

Don’t get me started on my inadequacy in remembering the names of those Seven Dwarfs. Bashful and Doc don’t end in “y” and I always get stuck.

Sports. Well, sports trivia is simply not my area of expertise.

I do love books about trivia, though, especially history and politics. Luckily my career path has allowed me to work in a place where I am surrounded by books that contain facts. (I’ll admit that any of the twenty-four hours of my day will find me lost in Wikipedia or on the web while I follow a lead to a reference question or a column idea.)

And so this brings me to the 4th of July and this week’s column. Everyone knows that all United States presidents were born in this country. It is dictated by the Natural Born Citizen Clause in our Constitution.

But did you know that a United States president was born on the Fourth of July? If you did, then you’ll know that was Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States.

I actually learned that Coolidge was born on Independence Day in 1872 because for over several decades of summers my family has camped near the president’s birthplace in Coolidge State Park in Plymouth Junction, Vermont. This tiny town was the presidential “Summer White House” for several years and where he spent his birthday at that time. This was before the days when the Secret Service tightly buttoned-up the area around the president and before it became necessary for hundreds of agents to accompany the presidential family on its vacation. Believe me, Plymouth Junction couldn’t possibly hold that many agents and the press that accompany the current presidents on vacation.

The Coolidge Homestead itself is a very unassuming farmhouse built the year that Calvin was born in 1872. (Until 1992 President Coolidge’s surviving son, John, lived in Plymouth Junction and ran Plymouth Cheese -started by Calvin’s father in 1880 - before his death in 1998.)

I’ve known for years that two presidents died on the Fourth of July but did you know there was a third? John Adams, Thomas Jefferson breathed their last breaths on Independence Day in 1826. James Monroe died on July 4 only five years later in 1831.

You can read all these facts and more in “The Presidential Book of Lists, From Most to Least, Elected to Rejected, Worst to Cursed: Fascinating Facts about Our Chief Executives” by Ian Randal Strock.

Another tome over two inches thick is rich with trivia. It is the eighth edition of “Facts about the Presidents” and we learn in it that that President Coolidge’s son, Calvin Jr. was 16 when he died of blood poisoning he developed after not wearing socks while playing tennis. (A blister became infected and he died during his father’s campaign for reelection.)

If you get tired of reading about the men behind the highest office in the country, you might peruse the “Biographical Dictionary of First Ladies” where you will learn that James Monroe’s wife Elizabeth Monroe was very little known because before her death she ordered all of her papers burned. Monroe himself rarely mentioned Elizabeth in his official papers but protected her privacy.

Or that Thomas Jefferson’s first wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson died September 6, 1782. Jefferson mourned her throughout his life and never remarried.

Six of our presidents were widowers in office and others were actually bachelors for part of their time in office and presided with no official first lady. More presidential facts can be found in “The Big Book of American Trivia” by J. Stephen Lang. Great books for kids include “First Kids: The True Stories of All the Presidents’ Children” by Noah McCullough and “The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents” by Wyatt Blassingame.

My favorite all-time book about the presidents is “The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House” by James David Barber. From 1977 to 1995 Barber was a professor of political science at Duke University and became very well-known for his classifications of the presidents based on their family history and actions while in office. My own copy, the 2nd edition published in 1977, is held together with rubber bands.

When I first discovered this book during readings in a political science class, I poured over it and reread it many times. It is a highly readable and intriguing book in which Barber sorts all presidential performance into four types. The four personality types are dependent on five concepts – character, world view, style, power situation and climate of expectations.

Interestingly, the book includes Barber’s predictions on “presidential performance before Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush ever served.” The analysis ends with George H. Bush. The fourth and last edition of Barber’s book was published after his death in 2004 as one of the Longman Classics in Political Science.

For these and more titles about American presidents, political science, or simply facts and trivia please visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website,