From time to time, I have had someone ask me, “What did you research before you started writing on the American Republic?” I think the assumption is that I can rattle off a half-dozen titles and tell them to take it from there. Unfortunately, I cannot.
What follows is a list of the works I studied prior to launching my blog in late 2008 (it was then independent, not hosted by WordPress), and prior to posting my white papers online, starting in late 2009. The papers were first posted on Scribd, and are now on Google Drive, a move inspired by the moderator of a blogging community – to which I belonged – who asked me to consider a different platform since my posts were too long, a sin which I still commit.
You will notice that for the most part, I do not recommend specific chapters or sections. In reading courses at university, professors will undertake such recommendations, either out of consideration for the student’s time, or out of desire to guide the student to the professor’s ideologies.
The former is understandable, the latter contemptible.
In a couple of instances I make recommendations, but by and large, if the reader wants a thorough – and I do emphasize thorough – understanding of the American Republic, then the reader will have to undertake what I did: Read these works cover to cover.
There are many more readings, most of them residing on my computer (shorter works and academic papers), but I didn’t want to delve that far into my reading list. Once you start on these books, the topics for which you need additional information will present themselves, and online searches will uncover that information.
And hopefully you have access, or know someone who has access, to academic databases, in case you need to grab articles from academic journals. A soul can buy them online but mon dieu, the prices are outrageous.
With that in mind, I cannot stress enough how invaluable the Online Library of Liberty proved to be in this quest for additional research. I also must add the online depositories of Jefferson’s letters and Adam’s letters (amongst others on this latter website).
The heroic efforts one will have to undertake to pursue this reading list will not go unrewarded. I still stand amazed – once we get past the derisive and distracting accusations of the “dead white men” and “Jefferson as slaveholder” – how truly enlightened and radical the writings from the American founding and republic eras remain to this day. While the (largely) men who wrote these works were human, and thus fallible, the ideas and ideals that they wrote upon transcend time.
And, at least for me, eye opening.
After undertaking these readings, intrepid travelers on the road of small-r republicanism will come to understand that what is discovered here versus what is contemporary America represents a massive disconnect. Hopefully, this will cause you to ask, “How did we get here?” and thus launch your quest to read the more recent books found under the heading “Contemporary Works” below.
What passes for a “government” course at the high school level is so woefully inadequate in preparing our youth for life as productive citizens – and not as maniacal consumers of the latest electronic gadgets – that words fail me. The readings in this list will explain why.
Americans will have to look themselves in the mirror and ask, “Are we content with what we have?” If not, then we need to then ask ourselves the really tough question, “Does the American Republic have anything left to say to us in the 21st century?”
It’s not for me to answer. Americans may or may not affirm the question.
It’s hard to determine, when living inside of it, the significance of what we’re going through today, but I’m pretty sure we are at a critical crossroads in the existence of this country. We need to ask ourselves what we want the U.S. to be, and then get off our backsides long enough to do something about it.
Or remain on the sofa, if we find no relevance, and thus allow the consequences to fall where they may.
Regardless, those who continue to distort the ideals and ideas of the American Republic for their ideological ends need to shut up, and start conveying the real truth behind their designs for this country.
Perhaps then we’ll appreciate the realization that we are all frogs in a boiling pot.
Works That Influenced America’s Founders
Considering the research that has been undertaken to uncover what was in the libraries of America’s founders (using estate documents), this could be a lengthy list indeed. Yet what I pursued were those authors who most frequently appeared in those libraries, and that is mostly reflected here.
One must also keep in mind that I am an unapologetic supporter of Jeffersonian republicanism, in spite of this man’s bald-faced hypocrisy as a slaveholder. I am more interested in ideas, not ad hominem attacks on persons. I remain with the very small minority continuing to believe that 1) ideas matter and 2) ideas that matter are worth fighting for.
America’s founders, being classically trained if they attended university (largely for law or divinity school in 18th-century America) were steeped in the political readings of the ancients; particularly Tacitus, Polybius, Virgil, Cicero and Livy (further down the list are Plato and Aristotle). But at least in two instances, namely Jefferson and Adam, they didn’t seemed all that moved by the ancients. The then-recent works from Britain’s Commonwealthmen exerted more influence on these and other founders, hence the classics are noticeably absent, but can certainly be included at a later date.
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Two Treatises of Government – John Locke. A very foundational influence, particularly the second treatise. Eye opener: Locke’s discussions on license, largely ignored by contemporary Lockean scholars, and most other Americans.
The Spirit of the Laws – Montesquieu.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith. Don’t even bother reading The Wealth of Nations without first reading Smith’s preceding work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Moral Sentiments provides the moral and ethical groundings for Wealth of Nations, a fact conveniently ignored by contemporary economists and neo-liberals.
Discourses Concerning Government – Algernon Sidney.
Cato’s Letters – Trenchard & Gordon. Now published in a two-volume set, the influence this series of British newspapers columns held upon America’s founders cannot be overestimated.
Discourses on Livy – Niccolo Machiavelli. One can tackle this without reading Livy, although it is more enjoyable having read Livy. Nevertheless, this work reveals what I consider the real Machiavelli, not the one who authored The Prince under what was probably severe “persuasion” by the Medici. It’s telling of our times, however, that most of what we hear discussed from Machiavelli is The Prince, reflective of our increasingly authoritarian times, just as we learn more about Julius Caesar than the Roman Republic.
Who says history is objective?
Certainly not Gordon S. Wood or Joseph J. Ellis, two contemporary American historians who are the most prominent laborers in the American Republic era. Undertake a reading of the first three sub-lists (influencers, founders, and the interim writers) here. Then grab any book from each of these historians.
Then look me in the eye, with a straight face, and tell me they don’t hold an agenda.
Areopagitica and A Treatise of Civil Powers in Ecclesiastical Causes; Showing That it is Not Lawful for Any Power on Earth to Compel in Matters of Religion – John Milton. If there was one writer who did more to influence the inclusion of the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution, I cannot think of anyone above Milton. Areopagitica primarily focused on freedom of the press, but Milton also discusses church-and-state separation in this treatise. The second work focuses exclusively on separation. American Christian Dominionists, take heed: Your desire to establish a theocracy in the U.S. rests on treasonous grounds.
I would be remiss in my list if I did not also mention the influence of the British or British Commonwealthmen writers James Harrington, Marchamont Needham, Blackstone, David Hume, Francis Bacon, or Henry Neville, but the above readings represent a very solid start.
Works of America’s Founders
Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason – Thomas Paine. I don’t believe I insert too much hyperbole into the statement that it was Paine who almost single-handedly infused the ideals that pulled the colonists together and drove the classless American Revolution to fruition. The influence of this man in late 18th-century America cannot be taken for granted. And what a writer: Paine’s prose still sings to this day.
The Federalist Papers – James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. This is the work that commonly gets edited by university professors for purposes of personal ideologies. Get a version that identifies the authors (the original newspaper columns left the authors unattributed). From there, I can provide this guideline, and only this one, in good conscience: Jay’s contribution was thin, Hamilton’s columns largely focused on the mechanics of the national government, but Madison provides the philosophical groundings on why the Constitution includes what it includes. Start there.
The Anti-Federalist Papers – Various authors. First of all, get it out of your head that there were two political parties emerging from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The “Federalist” and “Anti-Federalist” factions did not exist as formal entities, nor were these camps identified as such during the heated public debates while the Constitution was undergoing ratification (1787-1789) by the first nine states (the threshold by which the ratification would take hold).
Broadly speaking, the Federalists upheld the need for a completely new constitution; the Anti-Federalists upheld the need for amendments to the Articles of Confederation only. Here’s something the history books largely ignore: The ratification of the U.S. Constitution was by no means a foregone conclusion. Dyed-in-the-wool patriots defended the Articles of Confederation, and they were not split along north/south lines. That division came later.
In fact, almost one-third of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention walked out of the proceedings or refused to sign off on the final document. A collection of the Anti-Federalist newspaper columns is more difficult to find than the Federalist columns (today’s elite want to sweep them under the rug), but the Signet Classic paperback is cheap and provides a good starting point, while The Library of America two-volume collection is more complete but more pricey, too.
Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer – John Dickinson.
The Writings of Jefferson – The Library of America compilation. Read this, and you’ll gain an appreciation for just how radical were the writings and ideas of Jefferson. Alas, in 21st-century America, they remain radical. Little wonder Hamilton gets the $10 bill, while Jefferson has been relegated to the unsung $2 bill. These writings also suggest why Jefferson has undergone a relentless barrage of ad hominem attacks in contemporary America, from all points along the political continuum. The elites cannot attack his ideas without looking like traitors to the American Creed, so attack his person. An observation worth pondering.
The Adams – Jefferson Letters – Omohundro Institute. The early letters between Adams and Jefferson (1777 – 1801) were largely prosaic and pragmatic in nature, although one will occasionally find the loftier ideas being discussed. After 1801, the friendship between Adams and Jefferson frayed – two bookends of the American Revolution – stemming from many things but in particular Adams’ “Midnight Appointments.” The letter writing abated, save for one brief period in 1804 between Abigail Adams and Jefferson, sparked by the recent death of one of Jefferson’s daughters.
The letters of Abigail Adams included here highlight how she was the intellectual equal of these two men.
Eventually, through the pleadings of mutual friends, this led to the revival of the letter-writing campaign in 1812, lasting right to the end of their lives, as both passed away on July 4th, 1826, at the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
When the letter writing resumed, one can detect some awkwardness between Adams and Jefferson, and a sense of hesitancy from Jefferson to resurrect the friendship. As both Adams and Jefferson grew older, however, they started to recount how those from the American Revolution generation – those with which they labored to gain America’s independence – were rapidly passing away. From this, these two letter writers started to appreciate what they had accomplished, and an emerging sense of their own importance in history took hold, without so much as a tinge of arrogance. This sense of history drove them on, and as time passed the letters become more and more sublime. Some hold passages that are truly moving to the human spirit to this day.
If you’ve never seen yourself as a reader of others’ letters, set that fear aside for this collection. There are few written works from the American Republic that surpass these letters in transcendence.
This is a bit of an awkward inclusion, and I call it the interim since these writings came after America’s founding era, but before the collapse of the American Republic in the wake of the Civil War.
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An Inquiry Into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States and Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated – John Taylor of Caroline. Critical, critical, critical: Another couple of embarrassing works for the contemporary elite in the U.S., thus two works for which I cannot emphasize enough their importance. John Taylor was a U.S. senator from Caroline County, Virginia. He is the only writer to have formalized the framework of Jeffersonian republicanism. Without reading these works, I truly believe one cannot arrive at a completely grounded understanding of America’s founding or the American Creed or the U.S. Constitution.
Taylor published these works in 1814 and 1820, thus was able to send them on to Jefferson before his death, who endorsed them enthusiastically.
Note that Taylor did not use the phrase “Jeffersonian republicanism” to flatter Jefferson. This is a contemporary designation that defines and separates the American Republic period (1789-1860) from the later “Hamiltonian system” (1865-present) that won out after the Civil War, via Hamilton to Clay to Lincoln (with massive help from Chase and Seward while everyone else kept their eyes trained on the Civil War).
These two works of Taylor’s are hard to find today and so lethargic is the felt need to keep them in print that they reside only as either outright copies from the original texts [originals that suffered from ink-bleeding), or as massacred outputs from OCR software (a result of the ink bleeding). And for the truth-in-advertising portion, Taylor wrote in such a dense and plodding style – even for early 19th-century America – that it will take the reader all his or her patience to get through these books. A shame indeed.
Regardless, read them.
On Liberty – J.S. Mill.
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville. Another work that suffers from selected reading assignments at the university level. Hint: If you’ve read all the above listed works, your understanding will be a better guide as to what to read in this lengthy but highly readable work. I find very few of our contemporary commentators who think they know Tocqueville and thus quote from him ad nauseum, actually know him. Most pick up quotes in a feckless manner to support their pet ideologies, without so much as creasing the spine of Tocqueville. Yet, as Jack Garratt asks of us, surprise yourself.
Most of these works emerge from the 20th-century, providing insights into the contemporary (and mostly American) scene, discussing issues that America’s founders could not have imagined. They are listed in no particular order but as always, critical works are duly noted.
By and large, these works pull in more economic considerations that the previous works. At America’s founding, the U.S. operated in a highly decentralized economic system, thus the need to address economics was not apparent. The founders could take for granted that the economy was only one part of a bigger system that is American society, and it wasn’t the 800-pound gorilla in the room as it has become today.
As America’s economic system became more and more centralized in the 19th– and 20th-century, it too started to threaten the individual and society at the same – perhaps greater – levels as America’s founders feared a national government could threaten. Alas, this meant America’s founders did not warn on economic excesses. Thus, it was left for others to warn us.
And many of these voices warn.
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On Revolution – Hannah Arendt. I don’t know how many of the above titles were read by Arendt, but after reading this book she must have held a very good grasp of what the American Revolution and its founding truly represented. Nowhere have I read a 20th-century author who held a better understanding of the American Republic. That’s why I place it at the top of this sub-list. Note: This book discusses revolutions in general, not just the American, but the portions that discuss the American Revolution and its ideals are laser-accurate. Arendt’s due as an intellectual powerhouse has yet to arrive.
History of Political Philosophy – Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. A great primer and a great place to start in understanding political philosophy in general, but don’t stop here. Note: Strauss doesn’t shy away from his views.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs. Want a glimpse of American street life before it became completely dysfunctional? Read on. This work highlights, in stark relief, what Americans lost when their communities – and sense of community – collapsed.
A Humane Economy – Wilhelm Röpke. A work largely found in the libraries of organic conservatives. Burned by neo-cons and neo-liberals years ago. Röpke knew how to place institutions in the proper order: Individuals and society first, then economics and government.
The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty – F.A. Hayek. Those from the left persuasion commonly dump Hayek in with Friedman, not having bothered to read Hayek’s (or Friedman’s) works. But Hayek pulled much more of the human element into his writings. His only shortcoming: He just couldn’t bring himself to recognize that unrestrained economic actors and institutions could represent as much tyranny as unrestrained governmental actors and institutions. Otherwise, Hayek has something to say.
The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory – Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal and Hayek were sworn enemies, so this provides a counterpoint in the reading list. Certainly one will take exception to some of it, but Myrdal had the intestinal fortitude to recognize that wage labor represented a relinquishing of personal freedoms, something Hayek couldn’t bring himself to admit. That recognition alone makes this book worth reading. And it’s not as dry as the dreary title suggests.
Social Darwinism in American Thought – Richard Hofstadter. Although written in the postwar period, a must read to understand how hyperindividualism came to define America in the 21st century. What doesn’t leap off the page here is why Social Darwinism was a must-ideology for the elites to ply their neoliberalism trade. To be fair, neoliberalism was far from being in full bloom when Hofstadter wrote this. Nevertheless, Jefferson saw the collective action of individuals at the grassroots level an honorable pursuit, and expected it. Today’s hyperindividualism and consumerism is all about hedonism, indebtedness, neglecting civic engagement, infringing upon the natural rights of others and deflecting personal responsibility.
The Organization Man – William H. Whyte. A postwar (from 1956) and on-the-ground look into an America that was becoming over-institutionalized, thanks to its rapidly centralizing political and economic institutions. No wonder Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was such a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy room.
Individualism and Nationalism in American Ideology – Yehoshua Arieli. Originally published in 1964, Arieli’s aim was to provide an historical investigation into the sources of American individualism and nationalism. Along the way, he also provided a good exposition on Jeffersonian republicanism (bonus points: includes John Taylor of Caroline’s take) versus the “Hamilton System” or “American System.” The entire book is a worthy read but at certain points, Arieli struggles with clarifying some concepts. I think it goes back to his own difficulties differentiating between a democratic-republic and a democracy. Nevertheless, if you want to know what we left behind when we ditched the republic after the Civil War, read Chapter 8. Warning: Tape your jaw into place before proceeding.
The Great Transformation – Karl Polyani. Ever notice how centralized government and centralized economics feed off each other? Polyani did. So did the conservative economist George Stigler, early in his career and before he compromised himself to the corporatists.
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy – Joseph A. Schumpeter. For all those libertarian anarchists in technology who have never gotten past their adolescent angst, or glommed onto Chaos Theory before understanding it, and need to find endorsements for blowing up everything in business and government, guess what? Schumpeter didn’t adhere to “creative destruction.” In the very book in which he discusses this concept, Schumpeter corrected himself by writing that a better term would have been “creative transformation.” Sorry. Now go home. Let the real creative transformation begin.
The Sacred and the Profane – Mircea Eliade. Consciously or otherwise, Eliade favored a tiresome orthodoxy in his other works, but what I like about this book is his recognition that an increasingly secular and hyper-rationalized society still hold threads of the spiritual and, in fact, the spiritual threads (vis-à-vis the secular threads) are the only ones that hold value. Worth supporting? That’s for the reader to decide. Worth pondering? Absolutely. Life is far more than just money and materialism. Hell, Jefferson recognized that when he scratched out Locke’s “property” and replaced it with “pursuit of happiness.” And “happiness” should be read as “contentment,” not “hedonism.”
Social Limits to Growth – Fred Hirsch. I’m a big fan of Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. But the works of these economists can be difficult reads (pursue Daly first). You can plug into it at an easier – and social-based – level with Hirsch. Hirsch and Daly don’t necessarily equate, but the below-the-radar parallels are there, as both recognized the economy is not the system, but a sub-system that operates inside society (Hirsch) and the earth’s ecosystem (Daly).
The upshot is the same: We cannot all be materially wealthy. Something has to give, and it is breaking apart in our persons (half of US adults are on psychoactive drug prescriptions), our families (household debt levels, divorce rates, domestic violence rates and adult-level psychoses increasingly infecting adolescents and teenagers), our communities (disappearing small rural towns, declining mid-size markets, and non-existent neighborhoods in large cities) and our planet (yes, there is a finite inventory of natural resources on this planet, and a finite area into which we can dump our relentless waste).
And for those worried about any implicit inequalities resting below the surface in the statement, “We cannot all be wealthy,” guess again: Pull back on needless consumption (especially with the use of debt), and the middle-class transfer of wealth to the top ceases, and right quick. Want to address rising inequality? Start there.
This is all about working for a better future, regardless of whether we harvest the goods. Don’t talk “family values” if you’re stressed from working overtime to pay all the bills, and in the process create a living hell for everyone around you, particularly your family. And please don’t state that tired phrase “creating a better future for our children” while you insist on extracting every last ounce of natural resources to build and fuel your oversized pickup, thus stealing from your grandchildren’s future. As the Greek proverb goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Mutual Aid – Peter Kropotkin. The most controversial inclusion is for last and oooh boy, here comes the Screaming Meanies, ready to cast aspersions in my general direction, claiming that I’m showing my true colors for including Kropotkin.
Kropotkin has been described as an “anarcho-communist,” whatever the hell that means. Anarcho-communism has never existed, except on paper. Kropotkin was an anarchist, in so much as he subscribed to decentralized governance but did not subscribe to violence.
In 1968 the biologist Garrett Hardin could see nothing but selfish interest in “The Tragedy of the Commons” (the British commons, that is), and this was an argument immediately upheld by Social Darwinists and mainstream economists (and published in Science).
In 1905, however, the natural biologist Kropotkin wrote in Mutual Aid on how the commons worked successfully in Switzerland, a republic no less. He committed his observations to paper here, along with noting that Darwin didn’t subscribe to “survival of the fittest” (that was Herbert Spencer), but that Darwin did subscribe to the survival of those species best-able-to-adapt, an entirely different idea. And species best-able-to-adapt always include those who learn intra-species cooperation.
From this vantage point, every war of humanity is a civil war.
Someone may notice that I did not list E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. For anyone who has read just a little of what I’ve posted online over the years, it wouldn’t take long for them to realize I support the decentralization of both governmental and economic institutions, and localization of control over our governance and economic lives, as much as pragmatism allows. So why do I show a lack of support for Schumacher’s book?
To be truthful, I own a copy of the book, and have read it. There is nothing with which I violently disagree in Schumacher’s book. It’s just, well, he seems to be coming from a sense of über idealism. The book doesn’t come off as grounded in its arguments. And while I support idealism as a way for a society to set goals for itself, I feel the necessity of those ideals being traceable to solid ideas, yes, and implementable action.
I just never gained a sense of grounded action from Schumacher’s book. Perhaps it’s just me.
For the upshot from reading and researching these books, see The American Republic and its Relevancy in the 21st Century on TSr Institute’s Google Drive.
Full TSr Institute’s Google Drive URL:
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