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A Founding Father’s Library

Historian Forrest McDonald exhaustively details what the Founders were reading.

Literature of Liberty 1, No. 1 (1978)

Bibliographic Essay:  A Founding Father’s Library

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 word.


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 [5] 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 pretentions 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 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.”


Anglo-Saxon Roots

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 words 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 vogue.


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 [8] 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 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 [9] 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 counter-parts 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 Constitution

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 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 nor comprehensive.”

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.


Political Theorists

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 this day.

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 geniune 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 Revolution.

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 American’s 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 of individuals.

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 government.


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.