WHAT THE FOUNDERS WERE READING
(The University officially calls the course "THE INTELLECTUAL WORLD OF THEAMERICAN FOUNDERS")
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. The historical documents which you mention in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.”
-- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, 8 May 8 1825, Collected Works, Ford edition, Volume 10, p. 343.
“These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.”
-- John Adams, Novanglus, No. 1.
We often read what the Founders of the country wrote. But what were they reading themselves? What were the intellectual influences on thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, James Wilson, Robert Yates, and Alexander Hamilton? The answers shed an unusual light on what they were trying to do when they initiated the American experiment in self-government.
The fifteen brief readings for this course are selected mostly from James Madison's famous reading suggestions to the Continental Congress (the "Report on Books.") I have also drawn from the favorites of John Witherspoon, "the schoolmaster of the republic," who was a university mentor to several of the Founders, as well as from political sermons which the Founders were known to admire. These controversial readings about politics, history, ethics, religion, and law provide an intriguing way to enter into the minds of the men who began the new nation.
For background, if you have never read the Founders, I recommend The Federalist, essays 1, 2, 6. 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 23, 37, 39, 47, 48, 49, 51, 62, 63, 70, 78, 84, and 85. Perhaps the best of the Anti-Federalist writers is Brutus (probably Robert Yates), whose letters are contained in Herbert Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist.
Readings, by Unit
Classical Influences: Readings by Aristotle, Sallust, Tacitus, and Cicero.
Early Modern Influences: Readings by Machiavelli, Hooker, Harrington, and Locke.
Nearly Contemporary Secular Influences: Readings by Hume, Burlamaqui, Montesquieu, and Price.
Nearly Contemporary Religious Influences: Readings by Langdon, Witherspoon, and Edwards.