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What Were the Founders Reading?

By J. Budziszewski on Wednesday, Apr 7 2010
"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in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.  The historical documents which you mention in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that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, in 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.


Washington_Portrait_ReadingWe often assign our students writings by the American Founders, men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, James Wilson, and Alexander Hamilton.  Curiously, though, we rarely assign most of the works that shaped and influenced their own minds.  This is a pity, because these works shed so much light on what they were trying to do when they initiated the American experiment in self-government.  How much ink has been spilled on the meaning of Jefferson's famous line in the Declaration of Independence concerning "the pursuit of happiness"?  Yet how many of our students look into thinkers whose works Jefferson was reading, such as those of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, to investigate the significance that "happiness" may have had to him?

No less interesting is what we find when we compare what the authors of these works were probably trying to teach with what the Founders actually learned from them—which is not necessarily the same thing, although it can be.  Did Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, Sidney, Harrington, and Locke really teach the same principles, as Jefferson and Adams seemed to think?  Surely that is an overstatement; or could it be we who misread them?  Inevitably the question also arises, who really influenced the Founders?  Were they more strongly influenced by the authors themselves, or by their commentators?  We know, for instance, that the Founders read and recommended Livy's history of Rome.  But to what degree were they influenced by what Livy actually wrote, and by what degree by Machiavelli's commentaries on what he wrote—which some of them, at least, were also reading?

I think that by reintroducing our students to these works, some of them sorely neglected, we can illuminate for them not only the meaning of what the Founders were trying to do, but also the sometimes circuitous paths that the thoughts of the past follow on their way to the present.  This can serve as an initiation into the conversation across the centuries.

As part of my participation as a lecturer in one of the Lehrman Center's Summer Institutes, I've been asked to provide two syllabi for courses pertaining to America's history and institutions.  Both are for courses I actually teach at the University of Texas at Austin; one concerns the subject matter that I have just been discussing.  The University's title is "The Intellectual World of the American Founders."  I prefer to call it "What the Founders Were Reading."

Since I began teaching the course, it has gone through several iterations.  Because of the decay of the core curriculum, most students who take a course like this have no previous background in American political thought, or for that matter in any kind of political thought, so I try not to overwhelm them.  The present version of the course assigns only a third as much reading as the original version, which left students gasping.  I have found that relatively short readings, studied closely, are more effective than long readings, studied quickly.  A series of short essays with feedback, one for each unit, seems to be more helpful than a single long term paper.

I also give extra credit for composing "analytical outlines."  An analytical outline is a logical diagram of an author's arguments, composed in outline format.  Besides the two syllabi, I have also posted a handout that I provide students about analytical outlining.  In some courses, I require analytical outlines rather than just giving extra credit for them.  While students are composing analytical outlines, they dislike them, but some students return, years later, to express thanks for requiring them to do the work.  (A little footnote:  What a shame that the ridiculous practice of requiring the survey of teachers by students gives teachers a disincentive to assign exercises that their students find laborious.)

Old BooksThe fifteen brief readings for "What the Founders Were Reading" are arranged chronologically, and in such a way that with a little help from the teacher, the earlier ones pave the way for a sound understanding of the later ones.  I have selected them largely on the basis of 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.  I would like to think that 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.