Jean‐​Jacques Burlamaqui was a legal and political theorist who played an important part in intellectual history as the popularizer and transmitter of ideas more fully developed and articulated by others. The nature of these ideas and their influence, through his mediation, on several important historical figures accords Burlamaqui an important place in the history of classical liberal thought and politics. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, he grew up in the early years of the Enlightenment and became a professor of ethics and natural law at the University of Geneva at the early age of 25. He taught there for 15 years with great success before having to retire due to ill health. He also maintained a voluminous correspondence with many other intellectuals, both on the Continent and in Britain. After retiring, he was active in local politics, but he seems to have spent much of his time writing the two works for which he was best known, Principles of Natural Law (1747) and Principles of Political Right (1751).

These two books are, in the main, compendia or digests of the thoughts of other legal theorists, notably Cumberland and Grotius, and are written in an expository style. As such, they were popular and were soon translated into many languages, including English, as well as being read in the original French. They were the main vehicle by which ideas of natural law and its application to politics entered the English‐​speaking world, above all the American colonies. The work of Bernard Bailyn showed that Burlamaqui was one of the most widely read and cited authors among the founding generation and the immediate source of much of what we now regard as the politics embraced by the founding fathers. As such, although now largely forgotten, he deserves considerably wider notice.

Further Readings

Baylin, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Burlamaqui, Jean‐​Jacques. The Principles of Natural and Politic Law. Thomas Nugent, trans. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2006.

Harvey, Ray Forrest. Jean Jacques Burlamaqui: A Liberal Tradition in American Constitutionalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Stephen Davies
Originally published