Euclid as Founding Father

Despite the man’s awkward gestures, unkempt hair, and ill-fitting suit, it was one of the most extraordinary speeches that Reverend John Gulliver had ever heard. It was March 1860, and the venue was Norwich, Connecticut. The following morning Gulliver struck up conversation with the speaker, a politician by the name of Abraham Lincoln, as he caught a train down to Bridgeport.

As the pair took their seats in the carriage, Gulliver asked Lincoln about his remarkable oratory skill: “I want very much to know how you got this unusual power of ‘putting things.’ ” According to Gulliver, Lincoln said it wasn’t a matter of formal education. “I never went to school more than six months in my life.” But he did find training elsewhere. “In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate,” Lincoln said. “I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not.” Resolving to understand it better, he went to his father’s house and “staid there till I could give any propositions in the six books of Euclid at sight.”1

He was referring to the first six of books of Euclid’s Elements, an Ancient Greek mathematical text. On the face of it, Euclid’s Elements was nothing but a dry textbook: There were no illustrative examples, no mention of people, and no motivation for the analyses it presented. But it was also a landmark, a way of constructing universal truths, a wonder that would outlast even the great lighthouse in

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