10 Fascinating Facts About The Scarlet Letter

NYPL
NYPL

These days, we tend to think about The Scarlet Letter in relation to high school students struggling with their English papers, but we didn’t always see the book that way. When Nathaniel Hawthorne published the novel on March 16, 1850, it was a juicy bestseller about an adulterous woman forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest by a community steeped in religious hypocrisy. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the classic tome.

1. HAWTHORNE WAS SO ASHAMED OF HIS PURITAN ANCESTORS, HE CHANGED HIS NAME.

Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts, was aware of his messy Puritan heritage. His great-great-grandfather William Hathorne came to Salem in 1636. As the Massachusetts Bay delegate, he tried to rid the town of Quakers by having them whipped and dragged through the street half naked. His son, John Hathorne, was even worse. As a magistrate during the Salem witch trials of 1692, he examined more than one hundred accused witches, and found them all guilty. Hawthorne detested this legacy and distanced himself from his ancestors by adding the “W” to the spelling of his name.

2. HE STARTED THE SCARLET LETTER AFTER HE WAS FIRED FROM HIS JOB.

Unable to support his family by publishing short stories, Hawthorne took a politically appointed post at the Salem Custom House in 1846. Three years later, he was fired because of a political shakeup. The loss of his job, as well as the death of his mother, depressed Hawthorne, but he was also furious at Salem. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go out into the streets, or to have people see me,” he said.

It was in this mood that he started The Scarlet Letter.

3. HESTER AND DIMMESDALE’S AFFAIR MAY BE MODELED AFTER A PUBLIC SCANDAL.

In 1846, Hawthorne's sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody published the work of Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir. Two years later, it was discovered that Kraitsir’s wife had seduced several of his students at the University of Virginia. He left his wife and daughter in Philadelphia and fled to Peabody for help. Peabody responded by going to Philadelphia in an attempt to gain guardianship of the daughter. This didn’t go over so well with the wife. She followed Peabody back to Boston and confronted her husband. In response, Peabody and Kraitsir tried to get her committed to a lunatic asylum. The press got wind of the story and Kraitsir was skewered for looking weak and hiding behind Peabody’s skirts. Hawthorne watched as the scandal surrounding a woman’s affairs played out on the public stage, right as he was starting The Scarlet Letter.

4. THE PURITANS REALLY DID MAKE PEOPLE WEAR LETTERS FOR ADULTERY.

Hawthorne must have known there was historical precedence for The Scarlet Letter. According to a 1658 law in Plymouth, people caught in adultery were whipped and forced “to weare two Capitall letters namely A D cut out in cloth and sowed on theire vpermost Garments on theire arme or backe.” If they ever took the letters off, they would be publicly whipped again. A similar law was enacted in Salem.

In the town of York (now in Maine) in 1651, near where Hawthorne’s family owned property, a woman named Mary Batchellor was whipped 40 lashes for adultery and forced to wear an ‘A’ on her clothes. She was married to Stephen Batchellor, a minister over 80 years old. Sound familiar?

5. HAWTHORNE’S EDITOR TOOK CREDIT FOR TALKING HIM INTO WRITING THE NOVEL.

In an 1871 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, editor James T. Fields wrote about being Hawthorne’s champion. Not only did he try to get Hawthorne reinstated in his Custom House post, Fields said he convinced Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter as a novel. One day, while trying to encourage the despondent writer ("'Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?' 'I would,' said I"), Fields noticed Hawthorne’s bureau. He said he bet Hawthorne had already written something new and that it was in one of the drawers. Hawthorne, flabbergasted, pulled out a manuscript. “How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there?” he said. He gave Fields the “germ” of The Scarlet Letter. Fields then persuaded Hawthorne to alter “the plan of that story” and write a full-sized book. The rest is history.

Or is it? Hawthorne’s wife Sophia said of Fields’s claims: “He has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She added that Edwin Percy Whipple was the one who encouraged Hawthorne.

6. THE NOVEL IS ONE OF THE FIRST TO FEATURE A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER.

Hester Prynne is a tall, dignified character who endures her outcast status with grace and strength. Although she has fallen to a low place as an adulteress with an illegitimate child, she becomes a successful seamstress and raises her daughter even though the authorities want to take the child away. As such, she’s a complex character who embodies what happens when a woman breaks societal rules. Hawthorne not only knew accomplished women such as Peabody and Margaret Fuller, he was writing The Scarlet Letter directly after the first women's rights convention in New York in 1848. He was one of the first American writers to depict “women’s rights, women’s work, women in relation to men, and social change,” according to biographer Brenda Wineapple.

7. THE SCARLET LETTER IS FULL OF SYMBOLS.

As you probably know, Hawthorne hits you in the head with symbolism throughout The Scarlet Letter, starting with the characters’ names—Pearl for an unwanted child, Roger Chillingworth for a twisted, cold man, Arthur Dimmesdale for a man whose education cannot lead him to truth. From the wild woods to the rosebush by the jail to the embroidered ‘A’ itself, it’s easy to see why The Scarlet Letter is the book that launched a thousand literary essays.

8. HAWTHORNE LOVED THE WORD "IGNOMINY."

In the 87,000-plus words that make up The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne used “ignominy” 16 times, “ignominious” seven times, and “ignominiously” once. He apparently had affection for the word, which means dishonor, infamy, disgrace, or shame. Either that, or he needed a thesaurus.

9. PEOPLE THOUGHT THE NOVEL WAS SCANDALOUS.

While the reviews were generally positive, others condemned The Scarlet Letter as smut. For example, this 1851 review by Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe: “Why has our author selected such a theme? … Is it, in short, because a running underside of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy? Is the French era actually begun in our literature? … we honestly believe that "the Scarlet Letter" has already done not a little to degrade our literature, and to encourage social licentiousness.” This kind of rhetoric didn’t hurt sales. In fact, The Scarlet Letter’s initial print run of 2500 books sold out in 10 days.

10. HAWTHORNE DIDN’T MAKE MUCH MONEY FROM THE NOVEL.

The Scarlet Letter made Hawthorne a well-known writer, allowed him to purchase a home in Concord, and insured an audience for books like The House of Seven Gables. However, The Scarlet Letter didn’t make Hawthorne rich. Despite its success in the U.S. and abroad, royalties weren’t that great—overseas editions paid less than a penny per copy. Hawthorne only made $1500 from the book over the remaining 14 years of his life. He was never able to escape the money troubles that plagued him.

25 Famous Authors' Favorite Books

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David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images

One key to being a good writer is to always keep reading—and that doesn't stop after you've been published. Here are 25 authors' favorite reads. Who knows, one of these books might become your new favorite.

1. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

American writer Ernest Hemingway
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Papa Hemingway once said "there is no friend as loyal as a book," and in a 1935 piece published in Esquire, he laid out a list of a few friends he said he would "rather read again for the first time ... than have an assured income of a million dollars a year." They included, he wrote, "Anna Karenina, Far Away and Long Ago, Buddenbrooks, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, A Sportsman's Sketches, The Brothers Karamazov, Hail and Farewell, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Winesburg, Ohio, La Reine Margot, The Maison Tellier, Le Rouge et le Noir, La Chartreuse de Parme, Dubliners, Yeats's Autobiographies, and a few others."

It wasn't the first reading list he'd made; just a year earlier, Hemingway had dashed off a list of 14 books for an aspiring writer who had hitchhiked to Florida to meet him. It included a few of the same books above, plus two short stories by Stephen Crane.

2. JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion
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In an interview with The Paris Review in 2006, novelist and creative nonfiction scribe Joan Didion called Joseph Conrad's Victory "maybe my favorite book in the world ... I have never started a novel ... without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing."

3. RAY BRADBURY

US science fiction writer Ray Bradbury
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Sci-fi author Ray Bradbury's favorite books, which he discussed during a 2003 interview with Barnes & Noble when he was 83, are somewhat unexpected. Among them, Bradbury said, were "The collected essays of George Bernard Shaw, which contain all of the intelligence of humanity during the last hundred years and perhaps more," books written by Loren Eisley, "who is our greatest poet/essayist of the last 40 years," and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: "Quite obviously its impact on my life has lasted for more than 50 years."

The books that most influenced his career—and are presumably favorites as well—were those in Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter: Warlord of Mars series. "[They] entered my life when I was 10 and caused me to go out on the lawns of summer, put up my hands, and ask for Mars to take me home," Bradbury said. "Within a short time I began to write and have continued that process ever since, all because of Mr. Burroughs."

4. GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

George R.R. Martin
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It's probably not surprising that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has said that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which he first read in junior high, is "still a book I admire vastly." But he recently found inspiration in a newer book, which he recommended in a Live Journal entry: "I won't soon forget Station Eleven," he wrote. Emily St. John Mandel's book about a group of actors in a recently post-apocalyptic society, he said, is "a deeply melancholy novel, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac … a book that I will long remember, and return to."

5. AYN RAND

The Atlas statue in New York City seen from below
Sean P. Anderson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

"The very best I've ever read, my favorite thing in all world literature (and that includes all the heavy classics) is a novelette called Calumet K by Merwin-Webster," Rand wrote in 1945. The book was famous then, but if you haven't heard of it, allow Chicago magazine to outline the plot: "Calumet K is a quaint, endearingly Midwestern novel about the building of a grain elevator ... It's a procedural about large-scale agricultural production." If that sounds like something you'd want to check out, you can read it for free here.

6. GILLIAN FLYNN

Author Gillian Flynn
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When Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn was asked about her favorite books in a 2014 Reddit AMA, she called out her "comfort food" books—the kind "you grab when you're feeling cranky and nothing sounds good to read"—which included Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

7. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov
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During an interview with a French television station in the 1950s, the Lolita author—who wrote all of his own books on note cards, which were "gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they [became his novels]," according to The Paris Review—shared a list of what he considered to be great literature: James Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Andrei Bely's Petersburg, and "the first half of Proust's fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time."

8. JANE AUSTEN

English novelist Jane Austen
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The author of classics like Pride and Prejudice and Emma was herself a voracious reader of books, poetry, and plays, including The Corsair by Lord Byron, Madame de Genlis's Olimpe and Theophile, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. A clear favorite, though, was Samuel Richardson's book Sir Charles Grandison.

9. MARK TWAIN

Mark Twain
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In 1887, Twain responded to a letter from Reverend Charles D. Crane, a pastor in Maine, which likely asked for Twain's recommendations for both young boys and girls as well as the authors' favorite books (Crane's letter, unfortunately, is lost). Among his favorites, Twain said, were Thomas Carlyle "(The French Revolution only)," Sir Thomas Malory's King Arthur, and Arabian Nights, among others. He also included his own B.B., which he said was "a book which I wrote some years ago, not for publication but just for my own private reading."

10. MEG WOLITZER

Meg Wolitzer
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The Interestings author loves the novel Old Filth by Jane Gardam. "It's a thrilling, bold and witty book by a British writer whom I discovered rather late," she told Elle in 2014. "I can't say I've read anything else like Old Filth, which stands out for me as a singular, opalescent novel, a thing of beauty that gives immense gratification to its lucky readers."

11. ERIK LARSON

Author Erik Larson
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The acclaimed author of The Devil in the White City calls The Maltese Falcon his "all-time personal favorite":

"I love this book, all of it: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, much of which was lifted verbatim by John Huston for his screenplay for the beloved movie of the same name. The single best monologue in fiction appears toward the end, when Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy why he's giving her to the police."

12. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

A studio portrait of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (
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In 1936—four years before his death—Fitzgerald was living at the Grove Park Inn in North Carolina. After he fired a gun as a suicide threat, the inn insisted that he be supervised by a nurse. While under Dorothy Richardson's care, he provided her with a list of 22 books that he deemed "essential reading." It included Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

13. EDWIDGE DANTICAT

Award winning writer Edwidge Danticat visits Capitol Hill, October 21, 2015.
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This MacArthur Fellow and award-winning author of Claire of the Sea Light, The Dew Breaker, and Brother, I'm Dying told Time.com that her favorite summer read is Love, Anger, Madness, by the Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet. "I have read and reread that book, both in French and in its English translation, for many years now," she said. "And each time I stumble into something new and eye-opening that makes me want to keep reading it over and over again."

14. SAMUEL BECKETT

Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett
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Winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Waiting for Godot, Beckett was always a private individual, even after garnering acclaim for his writing. In 2011, a volume of the author's letters from 1941 to 1956 was published, giving the world a glimpse into his friendships and reading habits. Beckett wrote about many books in his correspondence: He described Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne as "lively stuff," wrote that his fourth reading of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane caused "the same old tears in the same old places," and that he liked The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger "more than anything for a long time."

15. R.L. STINE

R.L. Stine
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In a 2012 piece for The Washington Post, Goosebumps and Fear Street author R.L. Stine praised Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, calling it "one of the most underrated books ever. Bradbury's lyrical depiction of growing up in the Midwest in a long-ago time, a time that probably never even existed, is the kind of beautiful nostalgia few authors have achieved."

16. AMY TAN

Author Amy Tan
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The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan's favorite piece of classic Chinese literature is Jing Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), penned by an anonymous scribe. "I would describe it as a book of manners for the debauched," she said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. "Its readers in the late Ming period likely hid it under their bedcovers, because it was banned as pornographic. It has a fairly modern, naturalistic style—'Show, don't tell'—and there are a lot of sex scenes shown. For years, I didn't know I had the expurgated edition that provided only elliptical hints of what went on between falling into bed and waking up refreshed. The unexpurgated edition is instructional."

17. J.K. ROWLING

Author J.K. Rowling
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For her favorite book, Harry Potter and The Silkworm author J.K. Rowling (she wrote the latter under a pseudonym) went with a classic: Jane Austen's Emma. "Virginia Woolf said of Austen, 'For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,' which is a fantastic line," Rowling said, according to Oprah.com. "You're drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you've seen something great in action. But you can't see the pyrotechnics; there's nothing flashy."

One of her favorite books as a child was The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, whom Rowling called "the children's writer with whom I most identify … The Story of the Treasure Seekers was a breakthrough children's book. Oswald is such a very real narrator, at a time when most people were writing morality plays for children."

18. MAYA ANGELOU

Maya Angelou
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The poet and author had a number of favorite books, including Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, the Bible, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. "When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white," Angelou told The Week in 2013. "But they were nice girls and I understood them. I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen."

19. LYDIA DAVIS

US author Lydia Davis
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Reading John Dos Passos's Orient Express was "a turning point for me," award winning novelist Lydia Davis said in 1997. "That was one of the first 'grown up' books that made me excited about the language."

20. HENRY MILLER

HENRY MILLER
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The Tropic of Cancer author wrote an entire book that, he explained in the preface, "[dealt] with books as a vital experience." The Books in My Life included an appendix titled "100 Books Which Influenced Me Most." Classics like Wuthering Heights, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Les Miserables, and Leaves of Grass all made the cut.

21. JOHN STEINBECK

US novelist John Steinbeck
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One of the Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden author's favorite books later in life was Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but his first favorite book was Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of Arthurian tales by Sir Thomas Malory, which Steinbeck received as a gift when he was 9. It was a major influence on the author's writing, and ultimately led to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which Steinbeck hoped would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." He had completed just seven chapters of the book when he died in 1968; it was published posthumously eight years later.

22. CHERYL STRAYED

Wild author Cheryl Strayed
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When the author of the bestselling memoir Wild set off on her journey up the Pacific Coast Trail, she only had room to take two books. One was a book of Adrienne Rich's poetry, The Dream of a Common Language. She had already read it enough times to almost memorize it in its entirety. Explaining in Wild the choice to bring along the extra weight in her pack, she writes:

"In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I'd chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn't regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion."

At one point during her arduous hike, she considers burning the book to save weight in her pack, as she did with other books she read along the trail. "There was no reason not to burn this book too," she writes. "Instead, I only hugged it to my chest."

23. JOYCE CAROL OATES

Author Joyce Carol Oates speaks onstage
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

In a 2013 interview with The Boston Globe, the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates revealed Dostoevsky as one of her favorite authors. When asked for her all-time favorite book, she said:

"I would say Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which had an enormous effect on me. I think young people today might not realize how readable that novel is. The other book that I worry no one reads anymore is James Joyce's Ulysses. It's not easy, but every page is wonderful and repays the effort."

In honor of the publication of her latest book, Dis Mem Ber in June 2017, Oates also shared her current reading list with The Week. It included Anthony Marra's books A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno, Atticus Lish's award-winning Preparation for the Next Life, Whitney Terrell's Iraq War novel The Good Lieutenant, T. Geronimo Johnson's satirical Welcome to Braggsville, and the time-travel sci-fi novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer.

24. GEORGE SAUNDERS

George Saunders speaks at The 2009 New Yorker Festival
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The New Yorker

In 2014, Saunders—one of the most famous short story writers of our time—detailed some of his favorite books for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. On the favorites list for the author of bestsellers like Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Tobias Wolff's In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (a book that convinced Saunders to study with Wolff at Syracuse University, where Saunders still works today), Michael Herr's Vietnam memoir Dispatches, Stuart Dybek's short story collection The Coast of Chicago, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and several classics of Russian literature—Isaac Babel's The Red Calvary, The Portable Chekhov, and Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

25. JUDY BLUME

Author/activist Judy Blume
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

In 2016, beloved author Judy Bloom shared some of her favorite books with The Strand, a bookstore in New York City. Madeline, the classic children's book by Ludwig Bemelmans, she explained, was "the first book I fell in love with at the Elizabeth [New Jersey] public library." She wrote:

"I loved it so much I hid it so my mother would not be able to return it to the library. I thought it was the only copy in the world. To this day I feel guilty. It was the first book I bought for my daughter's library when she was born."

For professional inspiration, she turns to Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. "It never fails to amaze me," she writes.

This article first ran in 2015.

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Library of Congress Has Digitized 100 Rare and Classic Children’s Books

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iStock.com/ra2studio

One hundred rare and vintage children’s books can now be read online for free via the Library of Congress’s website, according to The New York Times. The titles, all of which were published at least a century ago, were digitized in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first national Children’s Book Week.

“Some of these books are hundreds of years old and no child will ever see them except through a glass case, so it is a way to get these books into the hands of children,” Jacqueline Coleburn, the library’s rare book cataloger, told the newspaper.

There are plenty of recognizable titles, including early versions of Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose in Prose, Grimm’s Animal Stories, Red Riding Hood, The Secret Garden, Stories from Hans Andersen, The Story of the Three Little Pigs, and more. All of the books can be viewed as downloadable PDFs or in a text-only format.

The oldest one in the digital collection is A Little Pretty Pocket Book, which was imported from Britain and printed in the U.S. in 1787. According to the British Library, the book is “generally considered to be the first book specifically directed at children.” Of course, it was a product of its time, and the gender roles represented therein will likely seem outdated by today’s standards. The book came with a free ball for boys and a pin cushion for girls to demonstrate that these objects would help make the characters—Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly—a “good boy” and a “good girl.”

Other books in the collection are exceedingly rare. One book from 1824, titled The Juvenile National Calendar, or, A Familiar Description of the U.S. Government, is one of just three copies in the world. In poem format, the book describes the different roles of state leaders. Of the president, the book states:

"He, Ambassadors sends to the Nations afar;
He is chief of the soldiers who fight in the war;
He may pardon the convict, of hanging in fear;
And he gets Twenty five thousand dollars a year."

[h/t The New York Times]

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