Aristotle, The Politics, translated by Carnes Lord In one of his last letters before his death, Jefferson wrote that the principles of the Declaration were found in the “elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke & Sidney.” Considered the first political scientist, Aristotle—a disciple of Plato—examined different types of governments, their strengths and weaknesses, and the possibility of combining stability and justice.
Cicero, The Republic, translated by Niall Rudd Cicero was a Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher. This volume attempts to clarify how a large, diverse nation can remain true to republican principles.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett ______. A Letter on Toleration, edited by Patrick Romanell Locke was a 17th-century English political philosopher whose books, along with the Bible, were among those most cited by the Founders. He was a pioneer theorist of limited government and religious tolerance. His most important works are his Second Treatise of Government and his Letter on Toleration.
Baron de Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, edited by Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone Montesquieu was an 18th century French political philosopher who argues for the connection between character and politics. His description of the separation of powers made him a crucial source for the Founders.
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, edited by A.H. Clough (2 vols.) Plutarch wrote during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. His very influential collection of short biographies paired famous generals, statesmen, and political founders in the Greek and Roman worlds. The American Founders regarded Plutarch as a rich source for understanding human nature, political motivation, virtue, and the desire for honor and fame.
Algernon Sidney, Discourses on Government, edited by Thomas G. West Sidney was a martyr of the anti-monarchical party opposing James II. He is part of a tradition of English defenders of republicanism against established or state-sponsored religion. The Founders recognized Sidney's Discourses as the classic defense of republicanism and popular government.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, edited by D.D. Raphael ______. Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by D.D. Raphael Smith was an 18th century Scottish political philosopher with a particular focus on economics. Smith defends the moral and political advantages of free market economics.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Hobbes, commentary by David Grene ______., The Peloponnesian War, translated by Robert B. Strassler, introduction by Victor Davis Hanson Thucydides was an Ancient Greek historian. He wrote an account of the 5th century B.C. war between the Spartans and the Athenians in which he participated. Thucydides was often cited by the Founders, and influenced their understanding of human nature and politics. The Hobbes translation is superior while the Strassler translation is more accessible due to the supplementary material in the latter edition.
Click above to download Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey's indispensable guide to understanding the principles of the American Founding: The Rise and Fall of Constitutional Government in America (pdf).