While many spend time reading about our founding fathers, few spend much time considering what our founding fathers read. Few realize that many of the founders spoke multiple languages. Latin and Greek were important so that the classics could be read in their original languages. If someone today wanted to walk in the intellectual path of our founders, that effort would not even be able to begin until they mastered – at least – those two languages.
Something interesting to point out here is that literacy was the norm in colonial times. John Adams once pointed out that a native of America who cannot read or write is “as rare a comet or an earthquake”. All this achieved with no government involvement in education (a topic worth later discussion).
So for those who want to follow in the reading footsteps of our founders, where should you begin? Sadly, I would love to be able to tell you that the works you need to consider are riveting and inspiring. Before I developed a passion for reading what our founders read, I was required by more than one college course to read much of the works where you should begin. By “read” I mean I either a) shopped high and low for cliff notes, b) mooched notes from a friend or c) actually read the work with some liberal skipping mixed in. Here are some of the classic writers you should start taking a look at if you want to start your self-education as many of our founders did:
The great news for readers who are short on cash is that ALL of these authors works can be obtained for FREE. Whether you use a Kindle or some other reader, do a search on the internet and you fill find that you can get these free of charge. As a side note, this is true of just about all books published before about 1923.
It is also interesting to note that the classical authors listed above were not seen as toil by the founders. They read them as part of their education but returned to them often in their adult lives for enjoyment and to renew their familiarity with the works.
The founders frequently quoted these classic writers extensively. Adams once even complained to Jefferson about his frequent Greek quotes – Adams preferred latin. Even some of our favorite founders had no formal college education, but still were literate and found inspiration from the classics. George Washington was not a college graduate but was still fond of Cicero. It would seem that for the founders, an education was measured more by what your mind could produce versus what might be written on a diploma.
In addition to the ancient classics listed above, there are other authors who helped to inform our founders opinion on the nature of man and how political systems did and did not work. You can find a list of all the books that influenced our founders in the reading room.
If your goal is to not only understand our founders, but to see what helped form their opinions, these works are an excellent place to start. Once you start to explore in the same way our founders did, you will find yourself even more amazed by the accomplishments of these men.