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Founding Father’s Library

A list of the most read books in the libraries of key figures in the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic.

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The Most Commonly Read Books of the Founding Generation

The Founding Fathers of the American Constitution made it clear what authors and texts had influenced their own thinking on the idea of liberty. Goodrich Seminar Room list and a few more besides. Lutz's "top 40" texts (actually 37) by frequency of citation by the founding generation are listed below.

Another source of information about what books influenced the thinking of the American founding generation are the lists of recommended books they themselves drew up. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson drew up a list of key texts in letters they wrote and, in the case of Jefferson, he actually donated his personal library (twice) to Congress to create the beginnings of what is now the Library of Congress and also drew up a catalog for the University of Virginia library.

The "Top 40" Authors cited by the Founding Generation (with links to material in the Online Library of Liberty)

  1. St. Paul
  2. Montesquieu
  3. Sir William Blackstone
  4. John Locke
  5. David Hume
  6. Plutarch
  7. Cesare Beccaria
  8. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
  9. Delolme
  10. Samuel Pufendorf
  11. Sir Edward Coke
  12. Cicero
  13. Thomas Hobbes
  14. William Robertson
  15. Hugo Grotius
  16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  17. Lord Bolingbroke
  18. Francis Bacon
  19. Richard Price
  20. William Shakespeare
  21. Livy
  22. Alexander Pope
  23. John Milton
  24. Tacitus
  25. Plato
  26. Abbe Guillaume Raynal
  27. Abbe Gabriel Mably
  28. Niccolo Machiavelli
  29. Emmerich de Vattel
  30. William Petyt
  31. Voltaire
  32. John Robinson
  33. Algernon Sidney
  34. John Somers
  35. James Harrington
  36. Paul de Rapin-Thoyras

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Texts They Read

St. Paul

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755)

  • Persian Letters (1734)
  • Reflections on the Causes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1734)
  • The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)

  • Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69)

John Locke (1632-1704)

  • An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690)
  • The Two Treatises of Civil Government (1689)
  • A Letter on Toleration An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690s)
  • Some Consideraations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money (1691)
  • On the Reasonableness of Christianity (1696)

David Hume (1711-1776)

  • A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740)
  • An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1751)
  • Treatise: An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)
  • Political Discourses (1752)
  • History of England(1754-1762)
  • The Natural History of Religion (1755)
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Plutarch (c. 46-125)

  • Roman Lives

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)

  • An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1764)

John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (?-1750)

  • Cato's Letters (1724)
  • Trenchard and Walter Moyle (1672-1721), A Short History of Standing Armies iin England (1698)

Jean Louis Delolme (1740-1805)

  • The Consitution of England (1771)

Samuel, Baron von Pufendorf (1632-1694)

  • Elementa Jurisprudentiae universalis (1661)
  • De jure naturae et gentium (1672)

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634)

  • Institutes of the Laws of England (1628-1644)

Cicero (106-43 BC)

  • De Legibus
  • De Officiis
  • De Oratione
  • De Republica

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

  • Leviathan (1651)

William Robertson (1721-1793)

  • History of Scotland (1759)
  • History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769)
  • History of America (1777)

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)

  • On the Law of War and Peace (1625)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

  • Discourse on the Origin of the Inequality of Men (1754)
  • The Social Contract (1762)
  • Emile (1762)

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751)

  • The Freeholder's Political Catechism (1733)
  • A Dissertation Upon Parties (1735)
  • Remarks on the history of England (1743)
  • The Idea of a Patriot King (1749)
  • A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism (1749)
  • Letters on the Study and Use of History (1752)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

  • The Advancement of Learning (1605)
  • Novum organum (1620)
  • De argumentis scientarum (1623)
  • Essays (1625)
  • The New Atlantis (1627)

Richard Price (1723-1791)

  • Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776)
  • Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1784)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Titus Livius (Livy) (59BC - AD17)

  • History of Rome

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

  • The Dunciad (1728)
  • Of False Taste (1731)
  • Of the Uses of Riches (1732)
  • An Essay on Man (1733-34)

John Milton (1608-1674)

  • The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660)

Tacitus (c. 56-120)

  • History of Germany
  • The Histories

Coxe

Plato (c. 427-347 BC)

Abbe Guillaume Raynal (1713-1796)

  • Philosophical and Political History of ... the East and West Indies (1770)

Abbe Gabriel Mably (1709-1785)

  • Observations on the Romans (1740)
  • Observations on the Government and Laws of the U.S. (1784)

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

  • Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy (1531)
  • The Prince (1532)

Emerich de Vattel (1714-1767)

  • The Law of Nations (1759-1760)

William Petyt (1636-1707)

  • The Antient Right of the Commons of England Asserted (1680)

Francois Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778)

  • Letters on the English Nation (1733)
  • Works (1751)
  • General History and State of Europe (1756)

John Robinson (1575-1625)

Algernon Sidney (1622-1683)

  • Discourses Concerning Government (1698)

John Somers (1651-1716)

  • Vox populi, vox dei: Judgement of Kingdooms and Nations Concerning the Rights, Privileges, and Properties of the People (1709)

James Harrington (1611-1677)

  • Oceana (1656)

Paul de Rapiin-Thoyras (1661-1725)

  • History of England (1726-31)

Secondary Sources

Donald S. Lutz, "The Relative Importance of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought," American Political Science Review 1984, no. 189, pp. 189-97.

Donald S. Lutz, "Appendix: European Works Read and Cited by the American Founding Generation," in A Preface to American Political Theory (University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 159-164.

Douglas L. Wilson, Jefferson's Books (Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1996). Originally published in Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1986).

Thomas Jefferson's Library: A Catalog with the Entries in his own Order, ed. James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989).

Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). Colbourn has compiled a useful Appendix of "History in the Colonial Library", pp. 245-86, including a section on the history books owned by Thomas Jefferson, pp. 267-73.

Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Peter Carr. Paris, Aug. 10, 1787," pp. 900-906 and "Letter to Robert Skipworth with a List of Books. Monticello, Aug. 3, 1771," pp. 740-45 in Thomas Jefferson, Writings (The Library of America).

The Library of Congress online exhibition of Jefferson's Library, August 9, 2001 at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefflib.html

Rick Gardiner's The American Colonist's Library: A Treasury of Primary Documents at http://personal/pitnet.net/primarysources/ Visited: August 14, 2001.

Last modified April 10, 2014