In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson responded to the questions of John Norvell Washington regarding the study of civil government and history. The letter is dated June 14, 1807. Jefferson answered plainly: “I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights of nature.”
However, did Jefferson know of any books that might suffice? He wrote, “I should recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley’s Essay on the first Principles of Government, Chipman’s Principles of Government, & the Federalist. Adding, perhaps, Beccaria on crimes & punishments, because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that branch of the subject.”
First, he recommended John Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government. This is no surprise since he borrowed heavily from Locke’s ideas to write the Declaration of Independence. Second, he recommended Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government. Sidney was a republican contemporary of Locke who opposed the Restoration Monarchy and suffered execution for it in 1683. Both authors wrote in response to Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (a defense of the divine right of monarchs) and both dealt with the arguments of Thomas Hobbes regarding absolute rule. Third, Jefferson referred to Joseph Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government in which he argued for political and religious liberty in England in the late 18th century. Fourth, Jefferson recommended Nathaniel Chipman’s Sketches of the Principles of Civil Government. Chipman was a lawyer, politician, and judge from Vermont. He had fought in the Revolutionary War. Lastly, Jefferson recommended the Federalist Papers written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. One could argue that these works form the basis for classical liberal and early American political thought. Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments laid the foundation for modern criminology and called for reform of prisons in 1764. It condemned both torture and the death penalty.
Jefferson could have stopped there but he chose to recommend two works on money and commerce. First, he encouraged Mr. Washington to read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations which rejected government-regulated mercantilism and argued generally in favor of free markets and self-interested merchants. Second, Jefferson recommended Jean-Baptiste Say’s work on economics which at the time was only available in its original French Traité d’économie politique. It was later translated into English and influenced economic theory in the 19th century. (Do a search on Say’s Law.)
In this letter Thomas Jefferson has recommended the works we should read to understand civil government and economics in the early 19th century. He set forth a list of works on classical liberalism and free market economics. They are all available in print and many of them in complete texts online. Perhaps, we should at least be familiar with the basic arguments of these works.