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Forrest McDonald is Professor of History at the University of Alabama and has written a number of introductions to Liberty Fund books.
Source: This essay first appeared in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought ,
vol. 1, no. 1 January/March 1978 published by the Cato Institute
(1978-1979) and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the
editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio. It is republished with thanks
to the original copyright holders.
Forrest McDonald, "A Founding Father's Library"
Table of Contents
Of the many generalizations customarily made about the Founding Fathers, one
of the most common but least defensible is that they all thought pretty much
of the same things about the nature of man, society, and government. On one
level of consciousness, we know better. Had there been such unanimity of opinion
the American public would scarcely have taken so long to work out an acceptable
governmental system. Our political union—begun in 1774 and crystallized
with the writing of the Constitution thirteen years later—was at first
only a paper union of states with widely divergent social customs, economic
interests, and ideological conceptions; and secession movements repeatedly threatened
to tear the Union asunder for nearly a century after independence, when the
telegraph and the railroad finally gave it sinews and substance.
On the other hand, despite their differences the Revolutionary generation did
achieve independence, they did write a number of strikingly similar
state constitutions, and they did draft and put into operation the federal Constitution.
What underlay and made possible these monumental accomplishments, however, was
not a universally accepted set of philosophical principles. Rather, I suggest,
most Americans shared a common matrix of ideas and assumptions about
government and society, about liberty and property, about politics and law.
These ideas and assumptions, together with the belief (however inaccurate) that
they shared a common historical heritage, made their achievements possible.
They derived those ideas and assumptions, as well as their perception of their
heritage, from a variety of sources, but the principal wellspring was the printed
Reading Habits of Early Americans
The Americans were a remarkably literate people, and they were even more remarkable
in the voracity of their appetites for things to read. Apart from the Bible,
of course, which was to be found in nearly every home, the most common reading
fare was the newspaper. Cities of consequence were few and far between, but
nearly every hamlet of any pretensions had a newspaper. It has been estimated
that newspapers went into roughly 40,000 homes on the eve of the Revolution,
and possibly twice that number by the end of the century. That figures out at
approximately one of every eight or ten families, and when we realize that private
copies circulated from neighbor to neighbor and that nearly every coffee house
and inn kept files that were open to the public, we may safely estimate that
half the adult male population read the newspaper with some frequency. For a
colonial population stretched thinly out over a thousand-mile frontier in a
raw land, that is an impressively high reading rate; indeed, one might wish
that Americans today could and would read so avidly.
Even more impressive is the eighteenth century American's reading of books.
As early as 1766 the New York Gazette and Mercury observed that "every
lover of his country hath long observed with sacred pleasure, the rapid progress
of knowledge in this once howling wilderness, occasioned by the vast importation
of books; the many public and private libraries in all parts of the
country; the great taste for reading which prevails among people of every rank."
The editorialist's enthusiasm was well founded. By the time of the Revolution,
nine sizable college libraries existed in British North America, and more than
sixty subscription libraries (several of which, like Franklin's Philadelphia
Library Company, boasted that tradesmen and mechanics considerably outnumbered
"gentlemen" among their users). In addition, a large number of individuals
had substantial private libraries that they made available to their neighbors—not
merely such well-known bibliophiles as Jefferson, Franklin, and John Adams,
but also such others as William Byrd of Westover (who had 3500 volumes) and
Robert Carter of Nomini Hall (1500 volumes).
Popularity of Histories
Thanks to the industry of bibliographers and intellectual historians, we now
know a great deal more than we once did about what the Founding Fathers read.
Contrary to what we used to believe, the Fathers were not especially attuned
to the French Enlightenment and not much given to reading theoretical philosophy,
political or otherwise. Rather, as an empirical, practical, essentially nonideological
people, they belittled speculative theorizing, preferred experience as a teacher,
and treasured history as experience writ large. Thus John Dickinson spoke a
common American attitude when, in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he
said that "Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us."
It has been tabulated that in the Convention, while references to philosophers
were relatively infrequent, the delegates made nearly 400 references to history
to justify their positions. Nor was history an abstract subject to them; rather,
it was to be studied with a practical civic purpose. Americans quoted with approval
Bolingbroke's aphorism, "history is philosophy teaching by example;"
they shared Locke's belief that history was "the great Mistress of Prudence,
and civil Knowledge." Jefferson and Adams insisted that history on
true principles was indispensable to the statesman, and Franklin said that
"Good History" could "fix in the Minds of Youth deep Impressions
of the Beauty and Usefulness of Virtue of all kinds."
The Classical Tradition
Every educated American was exposed to the ancient world in the originals—Virgil,
Cicero, and Tacitus in Latin, Thucydides in Greek—but most preferred translations
and popularizations. For instance, Charles Rollin's two-volume The Ancient
History, an abridgement in translation of Greek and Latin authorities,
was widely read in America, as were David Langhorne's edition of Plutarch's
Lives and James Hampton's 1762 translation of The General History of
Polybius, which went through four editions. Equally popular were works
on ancient history by seventeenth and eighteenth century writers. Among these
were Walter Moyle's The Whole Works (1727), Edward Wortley Montagu's
Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Ancient Republics (1759), and Oliver
Goldsmith's The Roman History (1769). Jefferson owned copies of all
these, as did many public and private libraries.
In a class by itself, forming a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds
and laying the foundations for Americans' perception of their own heritage,
was Tacitus's Germania. In 1728 Thomas Gordon, coauthor with John Trenchard
of the celebrated Cato's Letters, published a translation of Tacitus's
works in two volumes. Jefferson regarded Tacitus as "the first writer in
the world without a single exception," and averred that his works were
"a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example."
It was English history, however, that most Americans studied, and especially
the history of the Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman Conquest. Probably the most
widely read author on the subject was, curiously enough, the Frenchman Paul
de Rapin-Thoyras, whose five-volume History of England (English translation
by Nicholas Tindal, 1732–1747, reissued in part in Boston, 1773) was commonly
found in American libraries. Rapin depicted the early Anglo-Saxons as the direct
descendants of Tacitus's noble Germans, and carried the English story down to
the early eighteenth century.
Other works popular in America that told the same story, with variations, included
Nathaniel Bacon's Historical Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government
of England (2 vols. 1647–1651); John Jacob Mascou's History of
the Ancient Germans (translated by Thomas Lediard, 1737, with the title
The History of Our Great Ancestors), Henry Care's English Liberties
(1680), and Henry Home, Lord Kames's British Antiquities (1763). Another
book, eagerly read in America on the eve of the Revolution, was Obadiah Hulme's
Historical Essay on the English Constitution (1771). John, Lord Somers'
The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms and Nations, first published in 1710
but reprinted in cheap editions in Philadelphia in 1773 and Newport in 1774,
was even more widely read.
Of the eighteenth century British historians who wrote about modern as well
as more remote times, the most popular in America, by far, were Henry St. John,
Viscount Bolingbroke, whose Remarks on the History of England was published
as part of his collected works in 1754; David Hume, author of a six volume History
of England (1754–1762); Catherine Macaulay, who published nine volumes
on the same subject (1763-1783); and James Burgh, whose most famous work was
his three volume Political Disquisitions (1774). So fashionable was
history, in both England and America, that works on other subjects were likely
to be couched in historical form; most of Burgh's works may be so described,
as can Sir William Blackstone's classic Commentaries on the Laws of England.
(The Philadelphia printer Robert Bell published a subscription edition of Blackstone's
Commentaries in 1771–1772; his list of subscribers, printed with
the fourth volume, ran twenty-two pages.)
As the British imperial crisis came to a climax in the 1770s, Americans suddenly
discovered an interest in another and especially relevant kind of history—that
of subject colonial peoples. For instance, William Molyneaux's The Cause
of Ireland, which had originally appeared in 1698, became so popular in
America that three new editions were published between 1770 and 1776. Similarly,
after the Revolution Americans looked to the past for instruction in the nature
of confederations, and thus such works as Sir William Temple's Observations
upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands found themselves newly in
History's First Lesson: Nations Fall by Moral Corruption
History was, to colonial Americans, something irrefutable, and occasionally
that proved embarrassing. For example, Blackstone's famous dictum, that for
practical purposes sovereignty resided exclusively in Parliament, was scarcely
palatable to Americans resisting what they regarded as Parliamentary encroachments
on their historical liberties. Soon we shall consider how Americans worked their
way around such obstructions. For now, let us consider the more positive implications
of their history.
Generally speaking, history taught them two lessons. Ancient history taught
that nations rose and fell. When they fell, it was not from external conquest
but from internal corruption. The process of corruption and decay was clearly
understood: it took place when a people lost its virtue—virtue, in the
original Latin sense, meaning manliness and being closely related to virility.
The opposite of virtue was effeminacy, a term that was used interchangeably
with vice, corruption, softness, and love of luxury. Once a nation started down
the road to a love of luxury, it was doomed; only sumptuary legislation might
save it, but sumptuary legislation usually came too late. A related danger was
the resort to standing armies—partly because a standing army was inherently
inimical to liberty, partly because it required a large and continuous public
expenditure, which increased debts and taxes and thereby contributed to luxury—but
mainly because it entailed a most unmanly shifting of responsibility for one's
own defense to the hands of others.
The lesson from British history was more involved. According to what is variously
known as the Anglo-Saxon myth and the Whig interpretation of history, England
had once been the scene of a free agrarian paradise. The Germanic peoples who
had dominated England between the Romans and the Normans had constituted a society
of landholders, large and small, who had enjoyed security in their liberty and
property through the operations of a perfect constitutional system. They had
an elective monarch who shared power with elected representatives; justice was
dispensed through the instrumentality of the common law by elective (and recallable)
judges. Men looked after their families and their lands, respected one another,
and worshiped God freely in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences.
When the nation was in peril, they defended it through their militias, to which
all men owed service. Their society was untainted by artificial privileges in
any form, and priestly castes and standing armies were unknown to them.
History's Second Lesson: Eternal Vigilance. . . .
Then the Normans gained power over them—not through conquest or the Anglo-Saxons'
loss of virtue, but through treachery, which taught the lesson that eternal
vigilance was the price of freedom. Having relaxed their vigilance, the Anglo-Saxons
found themselves saddled with the tyranny of an alien king and landlords. The
Normans imposed a system of religion by force, and replaced the Saxons' militia
and their allodial (or fee simple) landholding system with a feudal system of
holding land from the king in exchange for military service. In 1215 the Saxons
won back their Eden, at least in part, through the Magna Carta, but it continued
to be imperiled. In fact, the history of England ever since had been a history
of struggle between virtuous Englishmen, striving to cast off the Norman yoke,
and dark and sinister forces which were engaged in a never-ending conspiracy
to deprive them of their liberties by undermining the ancient constitution.
Fanciful though it was, British-Americans like their counterparts in the mother
country embraced this version of the past with an almost racist pride. Indeed,
when John Adams referred to Alexander Hamilton as the "bastard brat of
a Scotch peddler," the most contemptuous of his epithets was "Scotch,"
for Adams never tired of boasting about the purity of his own Saxon ancestry.
(Ironically, though most Americans from Pennsylvania southward—including
James Wilson, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington—had
far more Celtic or Celtic-Scandinavian blood in their veins than Saxon, they
too subscribed proudly to the Anglo-Saxon myth.)
Revisionist "True Principles" in the Pre-1066
As indicated, history sometimes failed to square with what Americans preferred
to believe about themselves or to legitimatize certain advantages that Americans
enjoyed. Most importantly, Americans had a fee simple system of landholding,
against which such feudal remnants as primogeniture and entail and quitrents
were only nominal impediments. Seven centuries of British history, with its
accompanying evolution of the law, had witnessed a considerable departure from
feudalism in its original and pure form, but also justified the continuation
of a complex system of encumbrances on real property. To get around that embarrassing
fact, the Americans simply ignored it. More properly, they looked back into
history until they found constitutions and laws on "true principles,"
namely to the pre-1066 years, and treated everything subsequent as tyrannous
usurpation or false precedent. They disposed of impediments upon freedom of
the press and of questions of the divisibility of sovereignty by reinterpreting
history in other ways.
When such methods failed, some of the Founding Fathers—most notoriously,
Jefferson—proved to be not above tampering with the record. Jefferson
encouraged and facilitated the dissemination of a "republicanized"
version of Blackstone, bowdlerized by St. George Tucker, and he spent many years
in an unsuccessful effort to have a purified version of Hume's History
published in America. The "seductive Tory," Hume, had written quite
the best and most readable history of Britain but, according to Jefferson, was
not only an "apologist" for the Stuarts in "all their enormities,"
but also described the Saxon and Norman periods "with the same perverted
view." (By contrast, Alexander Hamilton considered Hume to be "judicious"
and described his work as "cautious and accurate.") An Englishman
named John Baxter, sharing Jefferson's view, had put together a version of Hume
in which, "without warning you of your rescue from misguidance," Baxter
silently republicanized Hume's Toryism. Jefferson sought diligently, though
vainly, to substitute Baxter's version of Hume for the original in America.
Science and International Law
History and historicized legal works were, of course, by no means all that
the Founding Fathers read. Throughout the century, for instance, there continued
to be a considerable American interest in science. Sir Isaac Newton's Principia
Mathematica was to be found in most good American libraries, and two popularized
versions of Newtonian science circulated even more widely: Oliver Goldsmith's
History of the Earth and Animated Nature, of which a thousand copies
were sold in Virginia alone in one year, and W.B. Martin's Philosophica
Britannica, or a New and Comprehensive System of the Newtonian Philosophy
(1747). George-Louis Leclerc Buffon's Natural History (1749–1783)
also had a considerable American circulation, if only because Buffon's denigration
of all things American so outraged his readers. Moreover, quite a number of
eminent Americans were enthusiastic students of science or at least followers
of its progress—especially the American Philosophical Society's "circle,"
which included Jefferson, Franklin, Benjamin Rush, David Rittenhouse, Charles
Willson Peale, and later the celebrated English-American scientist Joseph Priestley.
By and large, however, science was a matter that Americans were willing to give
lip service to but not seriously pursue.
There was considerably more interest in international law, which might be regarded
as a bit surprising in view of the fact that the subject was of little practical
concern to Americans prior to nationhood. In any event, a large number of colonial
Americans became astonishingly well versed in international law, as is attested
by the depth of learning they displayed after independence, when the subject
suddenly became quite relevant.
Judging from the citations and comments made by Alexander Hamilton—who
became the nation's most learned expert on international law—the crucial
works on the matter were those of four authors, each of them a pioneer in the
field of "natural law." The earliest was Hugo Grotius, professor of
law at Groningen, whose three volume The Rights of War and Peace was
originally published in Paris in 1625–1626, the first English edition
appearing in 1654. The best edition, in Hamilton's view, was that of 1738 (reissued
1749) with notes by Barbeyrac. Hamilton observed that though "this celebrated
work contains many excellent precepts," it was "neither methodical
The second major author was Samuel F. Pufendorf, whose The Law of Nature
and Nations appeared first in Latin and was published in English in 1703
(the 1712 edition had notes by Barbeyrac). Hamilton dismissed Pufendorf rather
contemptuously with the dry remark that "this work is not free from error."
(Hamilton's political enemies, including Jefferson, Madison, and John Adams,
revered both Grotius and Pufendorf, much as they preferred the soft Whig Edward
Coke over the tough, systematic, and vastly superior Blackstone.)
Third, Hamilton cited Jean Jacques Burlamaqui's The Principles of Natural
and Political Law (2 volumes 1747, first English edition 1748, 1752). Burlamaqui's
work, according to Hamilton, was one of "Perspicuity and elegance,"
but was unfortunately "rather an introduction than a system."
Hamilton reserved his highest praise for Emmerich Vattel's Law of Nations
(1758, English edition 1759), which comprehended, compressed, and perfected
the massive work of "the great Saxon philosopher," Wolfius.
But the bulk of the Fathers' reading, apart from history, was concerned with
political and legal tracts whose main focus was directed toward two subjects—liberty
and property—and toward the social, constitutional, and legal institutions
best adapted to the preservation of man's "sacred" rights in regard
to those subjects. Curiously, and most significantly, what Americans read and
believed about both matters were ambiguous; and their ambiguity affects us to
Before analyzing that proposition, let us survey briefly the works most frequently
read, cited, and praised by eighteenth century Americans. All gentlemen were
supposed to be able to cite Plato and Aristotle, but when they did so, it was
usually by way of oratorical flourish rather than out of genuine appreciation,
approval, or even knowledge. Rush and Rittenhouse thought Aristotle a "tyrant"
and his works utterly useless—an opinion shared by Jefferson and Adams.
As to Plato, Jefferson raged against the "whimsies, the puerilities and
unintelligible jargon" of The Republic as being the "sophisms,
futilities, and incomprehensibilities of a foggy mind." Adams said he learned
only two things from reading Plato: one was where Franklin had plagiarized some
of his ideas, and the other was "how to cure the hiccups." By contrast,
a goodly number of Americans read Machiavelli, though few found it expedient
to cite him.
Overwhelmingly, the political works the Fathers really read, absorbed, and
incorporated into their own thinking included those of no more than a dozen
or so authors, almost all of them seventeenth and eighteenth century British
writers. Several leading Americans made lists of authors they regarded as indispensable,
and between them the field is fairly well covered.
On everyone's list was John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government,
for that work said simply and persuasively something that Americans devoutly
wanted to hear on the eve of Independence. As Madison said, in justifying England's
Glorious Revolution, Locke had written a work "admirably calculated to
impress on young minds the right of nations to establish their own governments
and to inspire a love of free ones."
Madison's own preference for a guide to the establishment of free ones was
clearly James Harrington's Oceana, as his Tenth Federalist essay abundantly
illustrates. Adams would have added to that pair of seventeenth century authors
Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government, Henry Neville's
Plato Redivivus, Nathaniel Bacon's Historical and Political Discourses,
Marchament Hedham's Excellencie of a Free State, and the several works
of Sir Robert Melesworth and John Milton—a compilation that few American
Whigs on the eve of independence would have amended.
There was likewise little disagreement as to the indispensable eighteenth century
writers: they were Charles Davenant, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, Henry St.
John Viscount Bolingbroke, and James Burgh. (There were two exceptions of consequence.
First, Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws was widely quoted—far more
than the works of Rousseau and Voltaire—but there was disagreement over
its value. Adams thought it extremely valuable, but Madison disagreed with much
of it and Jefferson wrote that it "has done mischief everywhere."
Second, Hamilton seems to have been much influenced by Malachy Postlethwayt's
Universal Dictionary (1751), though few others were.)
Ambiguities About Liberty and Property
And now to the ambiguities. The first is that the Americans developed a deep-seated
reverence toward the sanctity of private property and simultaneously developed
a strong anticapitalistic bias. The explanation of this adroit, if most unfortunate,
intellectual feat lies in what the Americans read to confirm and systematize
the love of liberty that was born of their heritage and environment. The seventeenth
century writers they so respected—Sidney, Harrington, Locke, and the others—had
been concerned with the political threat to the constitution imposed by the
Stuarts' attempts to establish executive tyranny in England. The eighteenth
century writers who appropriated and carried on that body of thought, however,
were concerned with what they saw as a new and different danger to liberty and
the constitution, that imposed by what historians now refer to as the Financial
In the half-century after the Glorious Revolution, the social, political, and
economic order in England was thoroughly disrupted by the development of central
banking (the Bank of England) and by the creation and monetization of the Public
Debt. Those financial developments were nourished and incorporated into the
English political system under Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole's economic policies
modernized England, greatly increased its material standard of living, and made
possible its emergence as the most powerful nation on earth. But they also brought
to power and influence a new class, the "money men," and correspondingly
undermined the influence and status of the old landed gentry.
Without exception, the major British political writers who carried the English
libertarian tradition through the eighteenth century were gentrymen who were
writing in fierce opposition to the new financial order. Davenant's Political
and Commercial Works were penned early in the century, when the Financial
Revolution was just getting under way, and warned of the evils to come. Trenchard
and Gordon's most notable work, Cato's Letters—which modern scholars
affirm was the most quoted book in all the Americans' prerevolutionary writings—was
published in 1721, in the wake of the financial corruption of the South Sea
Bubble, and prophesied that doom was at hand. Bolingbroke's works, first published
in a weekly Oppositionist journal called The Craftsman (1727–1737)
and later condensed into five volumes which John Adams said he read at least
five times, treated the prediction of Davenant and "the divine Cato"
as a fait accompli, codified the thinking of the Opposition, and set
forth a revolutionary plan for a return to "first principles." Burgh,
in a series of works of which the most influential was his Political Disquisitions
(published on the eve of the American Revolution and sent directly to John Adams
and possibly other American leaders), penned and published a popularized version
of the Cato cum Bolingbroke gospel.
A Prejudice Favoring Real Property over Paper Money
The crucial point is this. Americans had evolved a set of advanced ideas and
institutions regarding the rights of individuals to hold unfettered title to
real property; indeed, they had developed the quite radical practice of treating
land as an actual commodity, to be bought and sold at will. They also,
and less radically, treasured personal liberty. But the major writers of the
eighteenth century who confirmed them in their prejudice for liberty also entertained
a prejudice in favor of the value of real property as opposed to personal property—by
which the eighteenth century English Oppositionists meant "mere" money
or "mere" paper. To the Oppositionists, dealers in government paper—"money
men," "stock-jobbers," "speculators," and "paper
shufflers," along with placemen (beneficiaries of government salaries)
and other toadies of the ministerial system erected on this "corrupt"
monetary system—were the new enemies of the constitution, replacing the
traditional "tyrants" and "usurpers." To the Americans,
that spurious roster of devils came prepackaged with paeans of praise to liberty,
and was hammered into their consciousness for a half century and more. Thus
the Americans absorbed the poison of antifinance capitalism with their mother's
milk of liberty. This is a principal thesis of The Gospel of Opposition:
A Study in Anglo-American Ideology, a forthcoming book by Professor Rodger
D. Parker of Clark University. Parker's work traverses some of the same ground
covered by the most important students of eighteenth century English and American
ideology—Caroline Robbins, Isaac Kramnick, Bernard Bailyn, and Trevor
Colbourn—but he has been more thorough than any of them. Moreover, he
has perceived the deep significance for America of the Oppositionists' shift
in targets, as no previous scholar has.
Who Will Define Virtue?
The second ambiguity concerned the Americans' conception of liberty itself.
To them as to the English authorities they read, liberty meant the absence of
governmental restraint or favor. In the words of the cliche, that government
was best which governed least. Such a notion was based on the assumption that
society would function better and men would behave themselves better in proportion
as the power of government was reduced—or, more simply, that the fewer
the external restraints, the better people behaved.
Underlying that assumption was still another, namely that people were basically
or "naturally" good. Questionable as the underlying assumption was,
some found it believable by accepting Locke's idea that man was born tabula
rasa, neither good nor evil but with limitless possibilities in either
direction, and by the romantic conception of primitive man as a creature of
boundless virtue. But if people were good and government were evil, it followed
that the greater the share the people had in their government, the better government
would be. Yet history and theory alike taught just the opposite: that democratic
governments had an insatiable appetite for power and inevitably degenerated
into tyranny. Liberty and pure democracy, in other words, were antithetical.
One way around this contradiction was to posit an eighteenth century version
of Lord Acton's celebrated dictum about the corrupting influence of power. Most
of the Fathers did in fact embrace that idea, only to find themselves impaled
on the horns of another dilemma. The experience of the 1780s and 1790s taught
many Americans that too little government was as dangerous as too much—that
in the absence of energetic government neither liberty nor property was safe.
And there was one more contradiction inherent in their thinking about liberty,
possibly the most vexing of all. Eighteenth century Americans, like many twentieth
century conservatives, sometimes found themselves advocating a minimum of government
but at the same time advocating a regime of "law and order" that would
impose suffocating restraints on personal liberty. Thus, for instance, George
Mason could rise near the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and object
to the proposed new Constitution on the grounds (a) that it had no bill of rights
to protect the citizens from government, and (b) that it did not empower Congress
to pass sumptuary legislation, laws regulating the morality and private behavior
The British writers and their American readers justified this dual stance by
distinguishing between liberty and licentiousness, the one resting upon virtue,
and the other upon depravity. But the distinction was scarcely one to satisfy
any true libertarian, for what it implied was that people were to be free only
as they comported themselves virtuously, as virtuousness was defined by
The Lessons of Books
The literature provided no answers to these problems. What it did do, as indicated,
was provide the Founding Fathers with a broad intellectual matrix,
a set of related frames of reference, through which certain of the obstacles
to the erection of viable free institutions became visible. What they read,
when tempered by hard experience, enabled the Fathers to understand that the
road to freedom is not toll-free, and to point out some of the pitfalls along
the path. One could hardly ask for a more precious lesson.
This bibliography was not part of the original essay
but has been added by the editors. It includes the books mentioned in the Essay
along with some additional material which appeared in print after this essay
was first published.
For additional material see Donald S. Lutz, "Appendix: European Works
Read and Cited by the Amerian Founding Generation," in A Preface to American
Political Theory (University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 159-164.
Colonial State Constitutions
Constitutional Convention of 1787
The Federal Constitution
Virgil, Cicero, and Tacitus in Latin.
Thucydides in Greek.
Charles Rollin, The Ancient History, 2 vols. (London, 1739-1750).
David Langhorne's edition of Plutarch's Lives.
James Hampton's 1762 translation of The General History of Polybius
2 vols. (London, 1762-1763).
Walter Moyle, The Whole Works (1727).
Edward Wortley Montagu, Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Ancient RepublicsAdapted
to the Present State of Great Britain (1759).
Oliver Goldsmith, The Roman History 2 vols. (1769).
Tacitus's Germania. In 1728 Thomas Gordon published a translation
of Tacitus's works in two volumes.
Paul de Rapin-Thoyras, five-volume History of England (English translation
by Nicholas Tindal, 1732–1747, reissued in part in Boston, 1773).
Nathaniel Bacon, An Historical Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government
of England (2 vols. 1647–1651)
John Jacob Mascou, History of the Ancient Germans (translated by Thomas
Lediard, 1737, with the title The History of Our Great Ancestors).
Henry Care, English Liberties (1680).
Henry Home, Lord Kames, British Antiquities (1763).
Obadiah Hulme, Historical Essay on the English Constitution (1771)
John, Lord Somers, Vox populi, Vox dei: Judgment of Whole Kingdoms and
Nations concenring the Rights, Privileges, and Properties of the People,
first published in 1710 but reprinted in cheap editions in Philadelphia in 1773
and Newport in 1774.
Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Remarks on the History of England
was published as part of his collected works in 1754.
David Hume, History of England (1754–1762), 6 vols.
Catherine Macaulay, History of England, 8 vols. (1763-1783)
James Burgh, Political Disquisitions (1774).
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England. (The
Philadelphia printer Robert Bell published a subscription edition of Blackstone's
Commentaries in 1771–1772).
William Molyneaux, The Cause of Ireland, originally appeared in 1698,
three new editions were published between 1770 and 1776.
Sir William Temple, Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands
Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae natuiralis Principia Mathematica (London,
Oliver Goldsmith, History of the Earth and Animated Nature.
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George-Louis Leclerc Buffon, Natural History (1749–1783)
Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace (Paris, 1625), the first
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that of 1738 (reissued 1749) with notes by Barbeyrac.
Samuel F. Pufendorf, The Law of Nature and Nations appeared first
in Latin and was published in English in 1703 (the 1712 edition had notes by
Jean Jacques Burlamaqui,The Principles of Natural and Political Law
(2 volumes 1747, first English edition 1748, 1752).
Emmerich Vattel, Law of Nations (1758, English edition 1759).
Plato, The Republic.
John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690).
James Harrington, Oceana (London, 1656).
Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London, 1698).
Henry Neville, Plato Redivivus; or a Dialogue concerning Government
Nathaniel Bacon, Historical and Political Discourses.
Marchament Hedham, Excellencie of a Free State.
Sir Robert Melesworth.
Charles Davenant, Political and Commercial Works.
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters (London, 1724).
Henry St. John Viscount Bolingbroke.
James Burgh, Political Disquisitions (London, 1774-75).
Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (Paris, 1748).
Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual
Origins of the American Revolution (1965) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
Rodger D. Parker, The Gospel of Opposition: A Study in Anglo-American Ideology.
Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the
Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the
Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (New
York: Atheneum, 1968).
Caroline Robbins, Absolute liberty: a selection from the articles and papers
of Caroline Robbins, with a foreword by J.H. Plumb; edited by Barbara Taft,
(Hamden, Conn.: Published for the Conference on British Studies and Wittenberg
University by Archon Books, 1982).
Isaac Kramnick (and Frederick M. Watkins), The age of ideology: political
thought, 1750 to the present. 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall,
Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and his circle; the politics of nostalgia in
the age of Walpole. (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1968).
Isaac Kramnick, Republicanism and bourgeois radicalism : political ideology
in late eighteenth-century England and America (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University
Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
(Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967).
Bernard Bailyn, Faces of revolution : personalities and themes in the struggle
for American independence (New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House,