By Gabriel Green, Marketing Assistant at State Policy Network
I was born on the Fourth of July, or American Independence Day, which basically guaranteed my ardent patriotism. I likely over-conflate the celebrations of the United States with my own birth, but what do you expect from a kid that gets fireworks for his birthday every year? Since I was young, I’ve been interested in our Founders, our system of government, and how and why it has evolved.
Independence Day—and summer in general—is a great time to revisit ideas and writings that have shaped our nation’s history and the principles of freedom that we value so deeply. Below are the books and essays I recommend reading to reflect on the spirit and motivations behind our nation’s founding, and the factors that have influenced our changes. Some suggestions are books, others are articles. Sometimes I further suggest specific passages or sections, though that doesn’t mean the entire book isn’t worth reading cover to cover.
Some of the included readings aren’t strictly in line with my own thinking. But, they help me understand a line of thinking that influenced the American Founders, or a line of thinking that has influenced folks who critique our way of government.
A brief disclaimer: This list is not an endorsement of these authors’ lives or characters. They have their flaws, but I think all of them have something to teach us. Perhaps their hypocrisy, contradictions, or questionable actions can serve as lessons to be wary of our own blinders and logical inconsistencies.
This list is in no way comprehensive. Even though there may be other thinkers that my fellow free-market enthusiasts would recommend, this list does provide a starting point. I hope you enjoy!
This is my favorite founder, in part because I think she’s dramatically under-credited. I would recommend reading every letter she wrote to her husband, and every letter she wrote to her son John Quincy Adams. I cannot overstate how great her writing is for understanding the spirit of the revolution, and for its insight into the state of mind of the leaders who helped shape our Republic.
The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers were written as a guide to understanding the Constitution and the structure of our system of government. It’s the manual for how our government works. If you want to know the “why” behind our Constitution or its parts, read The Federalists Papers.
The Anti-Federalist: Storing edition (Chicago)
It’s easy to forget the direct opposition to the very essence of “Federalist” government that took place during the founding and early days of our nation. Thanks to their dedication to liberty, but their different conclusion from the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists gave us things like the Bill of Rights and the entrenchment of states’ rights in the Constitution.
Here’s something fun: James Madison thought that by writing down our “fundamental rights,” like in the Bill of Rights, we actually jeopardize them by making them something man-made and changeable instead of just implied by nature. Do you agree?
The only television suggestion I have is the first couple episodes of the John Adams miniseries on HBO. It’s interesting to consider his defense of the soldiers at the Boston Massacre and to understand the principles that led to defending these troops and helping to lead a revolution against their government.
The whole correspondence with Adams and Madison includes well-articulated and defined conceptions of what just and lasting government should look like. It’s worth noting which suggested rights did and did not make the Bill of Rights, and how different each author’s opinions were on some issues. In spite of intense ideological differences, they came together to form a great and thus far lasting nation. Let’s keep this experiment going!
Plato was one of the few ancients I can say was probably a feminist, so that’s always cool (check out Book V). Republic is one of the most purely intentional works of literature and is a masterclass in the art of precision. It’s also interesting that this book on the building of a republic (amongst other things) is heavily dedicated to a model of public education, something we didn’t begin as public endeavors until well after the ratification of the Constitution.
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War
The Gettysburg Address is a short version of Pericles’ funeral oration, and it is from Pericles that the phrase “shining city on a hill” first came into the American political lexicon. Diodotus’ speech could substitute a few names and be almost exactly about us today, though I’d say the folks we choose for leaders are more in the Cleon model.
Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (Especially Books 1 and 2)
The name “Machiavelli” is a dirty word these days, which is truly a travesty. The man led the last ever army for the Florentine Republic before it was taken by the Medici. He was tortured for years in medieval dungeons for working to subvert the Medici and restore the Republic. He wrote the first book in the Vernacular Italian, which helped to spread literacy and a new understanding of the cruel realities of feudalism. He was pragmatic, and this leads to a modern reduction of his work to “the means justifies the ends,” which he didn’t even say. Perhaps our “Game of Thrones” fans would understand when I say he was similar to Varys in his willingness to do some bad to try to maintain the whole good. I don’t stand behind all that he said, but I think we owe more to him than we can possibly imagine. I think there is no more foundational thinker for understanding the evolution of the modern republic, exemplified by the United States.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan & John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
I never want to take away from an author, but Locke and Hobbes can be understood pretty well through something like “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” and they’re both really dry reads. They were immensely influential on the Founders though, so they’re definitely important and are worth the effort if you do choose to read them.
Rousseau, Discourses on the Origins of Inequality (parts 1 and 2) & The Social Contract
Probably the most eloquent writer of the bunch, but the one with the furthest-out conclusions. If you want a little extra, check out Edmund Burke’s critique of Rousseau and the “Rousseau spirited” French Revolution.
Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws
Tough read, but immensely in line with Founding sentiments, so great for understanding the “spirit of the day.” It’s also important to note that he was the great articulator of the concepts of “separation of powers” that we instituted to protect liberty in perpetuity.
Burke is a category of his own. His most impressive claim could be that he was the only thinker of his time to praise the American Revolution and condemn the French (well before it turned to terror). Other people at the time were either for or against both. They also didn’t have his insight into the subtle differences that kept the American Revolution from devolving into anarchy and eventually tyranny like the French Revolution did. I also think it’s amazing that a “father of conservativism” could hold to prudence and tradition while advocating against slavery and the oppression of India. The fact that he held these beliefs while he was a representative in British Parliament, and almost always in opposition to the majority, shows his courage and conviction.
The Lincoln Douglas Debates: Johannsen edition (Oxford)
Seriously, read it all. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing it is to understand the logic behind the two sides in our greatest period of national turmoil, and to understand the development of the federal government’s role in the light of the injustice of slavery. It’s also fun to read speeches from Lincoln that we haven’t oversaturated ourselves with, to see more of the man behind the myth, and to realize how lucky we were to have a leader with his specific qualities during our great trial of civil war.
Booker T. Washington
First and foremost, this articulates the cruelty of slavery, and the hope of an enslaved people in a way that is impassioned but easy to understand. Washington’s story is one of triumph and inspiration. Furthermore, he offers one of the most free-market solutions in history, “lower your bucket”—his belief that people should work hard and make the most of any situation they find themselves in.
WEB Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk
The different topics of black identity and American identity that he talks about are foundational to the evolution of our nation. I think it is a great tool for gaining empathy towards experiences many, like myself, can never fully understand. Pay special attention to the concept of the “double consciousness.”
Malcom X, The Ballot or the Bullet
In the spirit of our independence earned through bloody revolution, I give you another revolutionary. Perhaps most revolutionary was that Malcom was able to acknowledge the potential for violence to protect rights, and to empathize with the anger of a people betrayed again and again, all while maintaining a steady push for the peaceful methods of change like voting. “Give me liberty or give me death,” cried one generation. I believe this is the evolution of that sentiment.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I know that it’s cliché, but there’s a reason. What an orator, and a leader. I really think that King understood the principles of justice better than anyone else, and that his self-comparison to Socrates in the Apology and Crito are well earned.
Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I a Woman?
Feminism found its voice in Sojourner. This is, I think, is the shortest recommendation I have. It manages to pack quite the punch in a very short speech. We are blessed to have had a woman like this as a part of our nation’s history.
Betty Freidan, Our Revolution is Unique
Betty Freidan was able to hone-in on some intense issues that the men of the day were simply unwilling to even think about. The Feminine Mystique is a worthwhile read too. But obviously feminism and its causes have changed some since its publication, so the essay above works well for understanding her critique without investing the time into a full book. I think her revolutionary spirit would be admired by many of our founders.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
It’s an incredibly long book, but it’s worth reading in its entirety. Note what he got right (such as the Cold War) and what he got wrong (predicting that America would be bad at making art). Fun tidbit, ol’ T-Ville hid his true intentions for the book, under the guise of surveying our “modern” prison system in 1830s America.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
I actually think Mill could stand to have written a little more to flush out some of his thoughts, because I think he leaves a few logical threads un-pulled. It’s a shame that his discussion on the occasional necessity of despotism, an interesting topic for a liberty lover, leans on racist examples. I think concepts like the harm principle are excellent for understanding the reasonable boundaries of freedom in a civil society.
Friedrich Hayek, Road to Serfdom
Influenced by Tocqueville, Hayek articulated the dangers of centralization better than just about anyone. His focus on economic control, and the way that the absence of a free-market leads to the absence of a free-anything is darn good reading.
Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox
I am remiss that I almost missed this one, because it’s an incredible read for understanding the core difference in American political beliefs. In a nutshell, but one that doesn’t do the book justice, Mouffe shows us that a “liberal democracy” (like ours) is basically always torn between two incommensurable ideals: Equality and liberty. While both matter, one takes precedence. It’s important to ask yourself if you agree with this assessment, and then ask what it would mean for the reality of politics in a well-organized “liberal democracy.”
Want to dig even deeper? To understand the full picture of the ideas undergirding America’s system of government, it’s worth becoming familiar with conflicting ideas by reading the critiques and arguments against democratic republics and features of our system. Here are a couple of sources worth starting with:
Marx, On the Jewish Question
Marx offers a good critique of the concept of rights themselves. He also goes after the idea of the “individual” pretty hard. It helps explain why the Soviet Union, and other Marx-influenced systems, have such a problem with core rights like religious liberty.
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (first and second essays)
Nietzsche attacks from the other end, going after the group instead of the individual. He offers a critique of the very ideas of democratic equality, and pushes. While I don’t agree with all of his logic or conclusions, I will say that I think he is heavily misunderstood. His anti-Semitism went along well with Nazi ideas, but they clearly didn’t read enough of his work. He hated his fellow Germans, and anyone who reads his work and thinks it’s about a return to master-morality is forgetting that the masters lost.
Of this whole list, if I could only pick three of these authors to read to understand the American Founding and spirit, perhaps surprisingly, I’d suggest these three non-Americans.