Founding Fathers’ Reading List and The Enlightenment

To better understand the evolution of how our Union came to pass, it is necessary to understand the inspiration behind the Constitution.  The Founders began with the Classics from Ancient Greece, intensely studied the history of Rome, and were contemporaries of and contributors to the Age of Enlightenment.  They became masters of philosophy, economics, warfare, and politics (and all without a Department of Education).  If you truly wish to understand your history, you must enter the minds of America’s greatest men.  Only then can you begin to see the gravity of what they were trying to accomplish.  Only then will you understand the importance of preventing it from fading from the Earth.


History of the Peloponnesian War/Melian Dialogue—Thucydides
Account of the 5th century BC war between Athens and Sparta.  Origins of scientific theory and political realism are contained therein.  Mandatory reading at today’s institutions of military learning.

Socratic Dialogue on the definition of justice, virtue, human tendency toward corruption at the reins of power, and the order and character of the city-state.  Includes the Allegory of the Cave and the story of the Ring of Gyges.

Early rendition of the proper construction of the community, analysis and comparison of the different versions of the day, definition and role of the citizen, and composition of the “ideal” state.

De Re Publica, De Officiis (On the Republic, On Duties)—Cicero
History of the Roman Republic, the character of the ideal leader, righteous living, moral authority, and the role of the citizen.  All of his speeches and letters are worth reading.

Parallel Lives—Plutarch
Series of biographies of both Greek and Roman historical figures.  Pay particular attention to the later works, as they were based on figures that lived closer to Plutarch’s time and are thus likely to be more historically accurate.

Summa Theologiae—St. Thomas Aquinas
One of the most influential works in Western literature.  Explores the existence of God, natural theology, and the purpose of man.

The Prince—Machiavelli
Father of modern “realpolitik”, Machiavelli emphasized the mechanics of maintaining power, rather than extolling the virtues of the philosophical idealism that was popular at the time.

Meditations on First Philosophy, Principles of Philosophy—Rene Descartes
Known for “cogito ergo sum”, leading mind on metaphysics and deductive reasoning.

Leviathan—Thomas Hobbes
Seminal work on political philosophy.  Explores the idea of the social contract, civil society, and the state of nature.

Two Treatises of Government—John Locke
Further dissection of the social contract, epistemology, and classical republicanism.  Heavily influenced the Declaration of Independence, an early proponent of the separation of church and state, and espoused the “right of revolution” as an obligation of citizens to safeguard against tyranny.

On the Spirit of Laws—Montesquieu
Study of forms of society, the nature of government powers, and is generally heralded with devising the separation of powers we have in the United States today.

A Treatise of Human Nature, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals—David Hume
An in-depth study of reason, ethics, determinism, and utilitarianism.

Known for his outspoken support of free trade, freedom of religion, and civil liberties, his wit and acerbic style heavily influenced both the American and French Revolutions.  All of his books, plays, letters, and pamphlets are worth reading.

Federalist Papers–Alexander Hamilton, James Madison
Series of essays promoting ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  Pay particular attention to Federalist No. 10 and Federalist No. 51.  The Anti-Federalists by comparison felt the Federal government envisioned by Hamilton and Madison (very small and weak by today’s standards) was a recipe for tyranny and preferred the Articles of Confederation.  The inclusion of the Bill of Rights into the Constitution was a compromise between the two documents.

The Wealth of Nations–Adam Smith
Seminal work on classical economics.  References the “invisible hand” that affects man to promote an end which was no part of his intention (the common good) simply by pursuing his own gain (self-interest).

Common Sense–Thomas Paine
Influential pamphlet advocating separation of the colonies from British rule.  A list of his quotations is also valued reading.

The Social Contract–Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Explores the idea of joining together into civil society by submission to the authority of the general will (the consent of the governed), and that sovereignty should remain in the hands of the people.

An Essay on the Principle of Population–Thomas Malthus
Political economist and demographer, Malthus explored population control in nature and the role of poverty in society.  A critic of “Poor Laws,” Malthus heavily influenced evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind–Edmund Burke
Satirical work questioning the moral legitimacy of the State.  While supportive of individual sovereignty and philosophical anarchism, it is necessary to understand that this was but one voice in a conversation over centuries on the proper definition/composition of a Republic.

Thoughts on Government–John Adams
One of many great works by America’s second president which outlines the three branches of American government along with checks and balances.  His letters to his wife Abigail also outline his thoughts in detail.  Highly encourage reading his biography by David McCullough, but the HBO miniseries based on it is also excellent.

Poor Richard’s Almanack/Thirteen Virtues–Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin is by far one of the most important figures of the age and was most influential in inventing the type of society America would become—-“a Republic……if you can keep it.”  Read everything he wrote.

Summary View of the Rights of British America/Declaration of Independence–Thomas Jefferson
Another one of the most important founders of our country.  Read everything he wrote, including the Jefferson Bible.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Fundamental document of the French Revolution.  Good as context.

Cato’s Letters–John Trenchard & Thomas Gordon
Named after Republican champion of Rome and opponent of Julius Caesar’s tyranny, heavily influenced the ideals of the American Revolution.  Read the more recent Rome’s Last Citizen by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni for context.

Jeremy Bentham  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

An introduction to a plan of a penal code and the philosophy of utilitarianism.  Check out his Panopticon idea for a prison that is eerily prescient of what we have today with respect to our lack of privacy.

Further Reading

The Law–Frederic Bastiat
Brief, readable treatise on economics, highlighting the concept of “legal plunder” through certain forms of taxation and subsequent redistribution.  Also states that “law is force” and perversion thereof sows the seeds of tyranny.  Instills right to defend one’s life, liberty, and property.

Democracy in America–Alexis de Tocqueville
Study of the American prison system in the 19th century that evolved into much more.  Analysis of republican representative democracy and why it had succeeded (at the time) in the United States while failing elsewhere.  The checks and balances of the Constitution, if strictly adhered to, coupled with the separation of church and state, could prevent democracy from degenerating into soft despotism or the “tyranny of the majority.”

On Liberty–John Stuart Mill
19th century work that further explores the struggle between authority and liberty.  Held in high esteem to this day by the British Liberal Democrats, it explains how tyranny of the majority is worse than tyranny of government because of the power of prevailing public opinion.  As the media today is less about informing the public and more about manipulating to its own ends, a more appropriate book I cannot suggest, as the best defense against tyranny is an informed electorate.

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money–John Maynard Keynes
Contemporary and intellectual rival of Hayek, Keynes was regarded as the father of 20th century macroeconomics.  His theory argued that government could influence markets toward positive ends by allowing some government control of the economy.

The Road to Serfdom–F.A. Hayek
Having come of age during WWI and lived through the hyper-inflation of the Weimar Republic in Germany afterward, this work warns of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic affairs.  See the economics raps in the “Videos” section for a great summary of the history of the intellectual battle between Hayek and Keynes.

Free to Choose–Milton Friedman
Friedman was a member of the Chicago School of Economics and a neoclassical economist who was a champion of laissez-faire economics.

The End of History and the Last Man–Francis Fukuyama
Argues that liberal democracy (in the classical sense) is the final form of government for all nations and that those that eschew it are destined to be riddled with conflict.