My Locus Communis

The Original Everybody Letter

My wife Maggie is the last of ten children in her family. As you can imagine, when her siblings left home it became hard for her parents to keep in touch with the kids, and for the kids to keep track of each other. So to keep everybody posted, Maggie’s father Ted wrote letters to the whole family.

Of course, it wasn’t practical to write a personal letter to every one of the kids, so Ted wrote one longhand letter, photocopied it, personalized the salutation, and sent the same letter to everybody. He called it the Everybody Letter. He’s written more than a hundred Everybody Letters since Maggie was born.

A few weeks ago I asked Ted whether I could name my new project The Everybody Letter, because it was the best description of what I hoped to do – and because it might be a nice way to carry on the tradition, though for a slightly different purpose. Ted said he’d be happy to pass on the name, and I’m grateful for the chance to use it.

The Next Everybody Letter

A few years ago, when I was serving as a speechwriter for General Mattis at U.S. Central Command, he showed me a binder with hundreds of pages of his handwritten notes (he had dozens of similar binders in his office). He said that when he encountered a profound thought, he’d transfer it to his binder and label the thought by topic, such as ‘courage,’ or ‘sacrifice,’ or ‘sincerity.’ He called his binders Books of Wisdom.

General Mattis encouraged me to start my own Book of Wisdom, and he assured me that the act of creating it would fill me with ideas. He also passed along some experience; he said that because his Books of Wisdom were handwritten (and not computer-indexed), he couldn’t search his collected thoughts by topic. Even worse, he couldn’t easily copy them for safekeeping (a few decades ago, he lost all of his binders in a fire, and he’s been creating new ones ever since). He recommended that if I began a similar project, that I should index my thoughts by computer.

The basic concept of a book of wisdom has been around for hundreds of years. In the 16th century, John Milton kept a commonplace book, or locus communis, to keep proverbs, prayers, and other thoughts. Woodrow Wilson borrowed a shorthand note-taking method from Andrew Graham, and called his volume an “Index Rerum.”

So my goal for the Everybody Letter is to create my version of a commonplace book. The audience is self-evident from the name, as is the format – individual entries in the form of a note. The object is to gather ideas, write notes, and post them online…or in short, to share ideas with everybody. But the main purpose of The Everybody Letter is not just to share ideas; it’s to create a source of ideas, and to apply those ideas to a continuous cycle of learning.

The Long Delay…

I’ve wanted to start a project like this for years, but I’ve never done it. I can think of three reasons why I haven’t:

  • first, for more than I decade I served in the military, and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my opinions in public. I also felt that doing so would violate a basic principle of civil-military relations (this topic is open to some debate, but I believe that members of the military, and officers, in particular, have a basic duty to withhold political opinions in order to protect the chain-of-command);
  • second, in my last military assignment and as a defense department political appointee, I worked for senior government officials and had access to sensitive information; thus I had an obligation to safeguard that information and to do my part to maintain trust within the command (this topic can also be debated, but I believe that personal staff members have an obligation, except in matters of conscience, not to create public conflicts of interest with either the institution or its leader…because such conflicts undermine the trust necessary to serve as a useful member of the staff); and
  • third, now that I’ve left the government, the main reason for my silence has been far more trivial – I simply couldn’t decide what to name the overall project, mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted the project to be.

All of those reasons, or excuses, are gone now. I’m not in the military or the government, and I know how I’d like to organize the overall project. On the positive side, the main reason I want to write is because I enjoy it – and because I’d simply like to offer thoughts to the world.

Looking back, I realize I’ve always been involved in publications. In high school I contributed to the yearbook and school newsletters; at the Naval Academy I wrote and edited The Log Magazine, a satire on Academy life – and I wrote our class history in The Lucky Bag, the annual yearbook; at Princeton I founded The Postcept, a chronicle of life at the Woodrow Wilson School; as a submariner I wrote a series of essays titled “Bubbles from the Deep”; and as a Naval Academy instructor I helped bring back The Log Magazine after it was canceled. Over the years I also published a handful of academic articles on issues unrelated to my job at the time.

But in all this time, I never established a regular rhythm of thinking, writing, editing, and publishing my personal thoughts and opinions. I hope to change that with The Everybody Letter, and to learn a lot from the process. I know that it will take some time for me to build a worthy commonplace book, but I’m looking forward to the experience. Thank you very much for your support and ideas!




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