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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  

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When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
When Thomas Jefferson penned the opening lines to the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, he engaged himself in a conversation with history. This conversation, whose roots run back to ancient times, was over 2000 years old by the time of the American Revolution. It predates Plato and Aristotle, because even their works make reference to earlier literary traditions. It is a conversation where each subsequent generation plants new seeds in the literary, philosophical, religious, and historical traditions sown by their intellectual forbearers. It was a conversation that Jefferson's contemporaries were very familiar with. And it is a conversation whose thread is perhaps at risk of being lost to all but a diminishing minority.

Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are two of the most familiar of the many foundational documents that helped establish, not only the nature of the United States government, but its national identity as well. As they stand alone, they are powerful pieces, not only of political, but moral and personal philosophy. However, stripped of history and context, these documents risk losing much of their richness and depth of meaning. In a nation born of conflict, the uninformed reader loses the sense of fierce intensity that shaped the choices that each phrase or even word might represent.

To truly ground these two documents in historical and intellectual context is well beyond the means of a single essay. The scope of the literature that shaped the intellectual development of the men and women who created the new nation is too wide and varied. As a group, the founding fathers, were extremely well read, both in classical and contemporary literature. Some, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were multilingual and possessed libraries containing thousands of volumes in a variety of languages. This Discovery Guide discusses, in general terms, the historical and literary traditions that guided the founding fathers and then focuses on a few representative authors who would have been familiar to them. This is only a beginning point, but hopefully one that will help illuminate a journey well worth taking.

Go To Reading Habits of the American Revolutionaries

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