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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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Reading Habits of the American Revolutionaries

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In the American colonies, literacy levels among all but the lowest classes were substantial (Taylor, 1997). Reading and writing were the only means of communication among this broadly dispersed population, so they were highly valued skills. The laboring classes would not have possessed the leisure to do much reading, but the men who served as their representatives in local and national politics were as a group extremely well read. Compared to their peers in England, these colonial gentlemen had less formal education but spent a considerable amount of their time in self education, particularly in matters of the law (Robinson, 2004).

George Washington
George Washington
The founding fathers would have been well acquainted with classical literature and history. Greek and Roman history would have been of particular interest to them from a political perspective, because they offered examples of democratic and republican forms of government. The founding fathers were products of Enlightenment thinking, which strongly emphasized the use of human reason. Philosophers of the era challenged longstanding traditions and institutions such as the Catholic Church, aristocracy, and monarchical government. They shared a strong affinity to the classical emphasis on reason and logic, disregarded much of medieval thought, and embraced Renaissance humanism. Consequently the founding fathers would have focused much of their reading on classical and contemporary literature. Three related schools of thought that particularly attracted their attention were the philosophical writings from France, England, and the Scottish Enlightenment (Beeman, 2009). These philosophical writings emphasized subjects such as reason, laws, good governance, human nature, and natural rights.

Beyond these general interests, we actually know a considerable amount about the private reading habits and book collections of a number of the most famous members of the political bodies that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the case of George Washington, we know that he was not nearly as bookish as other early American Presidents. He did, however, keep two books on his nightstand. One was the Bible; the other was Joseph Addison's play Cato: A Tragedy about a Roman senator who lived in Julius Caesar's time. A man of rigid honor, Cato commits suicide rather than submit to Caesar's troops and dishonor the republic in whose ideas he fiercely believes. Washington demonstrated his belief both in honor and republican ideals at the end of the Revolutionary War. He disbanded the army and retired to his plantation rather than assuming political authority, when many people would have been happy to make him king. When he did accept a political role, it was as President. As the first President of the United States, he was always keenly aware that he would be setting many of the standards by which the office would be conducted.

We know a great deal about the collections of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, because large portions of their libraries were preserved in public collections. Jefferson sold a substantial portion of his personal library to the Library of Congress (see http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/coll/130.html). John Adams willed to the town of Quincy his library, which passed through a number of hands until it eventually came into the possession of the Boston Public Library (and is on line at http://www.johnadamslibrary.org/).

The following sections briefly cover Greek and Roman political history and literature, then focus on four authors who represent different literary influences on the founding fathers. For French philosophy we look at the writings of Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu. For English political philosophy we cover essays by John Locke. For the Scottish Enlightenment we examine David Hume. And to cover the emerging literature of the United States, we investigate works by Thomas Paine.

Go To Greek Politics

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