Political Writers and the Founders

Side profile of Charles Montesquieu, anonymous artist, 1753–1794.

Throughout the debate over the ratification of the Constitution and the drafting and adoption of the Bill of Rights, Americans often referred to political and legal writers and writings. A tabulation of these references in the indexes of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights show the frequency with which these writers were cited. Two writers stand out—Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws and Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Common Law of England. One reason why these two writers appear so frequently is that their principles were endorsed by both Federalists and Antifederalists. The most frequent references to Montesquieu cited his endorsement of the doctrine of separation of powers, his assertion that republics could exist only in small geographic territories with homogeneous populations, and his reclassification of governments as republics based upon virtue, monarchy based upon honor, and despotism based upon fear. Americans also embraced Blackstone’s espousal of separation of powers and the importance of jury trials.

Portrait of Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)

Surprisingly, John Adams was the third most frequently cited political writer during the ratification debate. While serving as U.S. minister to Great Britain, Adams wrote a three-volume history of republics in which he advocated balanced governments. He particularly praised the English system that balanced the democratic, aristocratic, and monarchic elements of society. Fearing constant social conflict between the democratic and aristocratic elements, Adams saw a strong executive as a moderating force. Adams also strongly defended the bicameralism of the American state legislatures against the criticism of French economist and statesman Baron Turgot. Adams’s first volume, published in London, arrived in America in January 1787, and excerpts were printed in many newspapers to acclaim but also to condemnation for being supportive of an aristocratic form of government.


List of Political Writers Cited in DHRC Volumes (number of citations are within parentheses)

Baron de Montesquieu (139)
The Spirit of Laws (1748; Eng. Trans. 1750)

Sir William Blackstone (115)
Commentaries on the Common Law of England (4 vols., 1765–1770)

John Adams

John Adams (56)
A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (3 vols., 1787–1788)

John Locke (40)
Second Treaties of Government (1690)

Jean Louis DeLolme (32)
The Constitution of England; Or, an Account of the English Government (1771; Eng. trans., 1772)

David Hume (29)
History of England (6 vols., 1754–1761)

Richard Price (24)
Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1784)

Algernon Sydney (20)
Discourses Concerning Government (1698)

Marchese di Beccaria (19)
On Crimes and Punishments (1764)

Abbé de Mably (Gabriel Bonnot de Mably) (15)
Observations sur le gouvernement et les lois des États-Unis d’Amérique (1784)

Emmerich de Vattel (15)
The Law of Nations (1758)

Niccolò Machiavelli (15)
The Prince (1732)

Sir Edward Coke (14)
Institutes of the Lawes of England (1628–1644)

Thomas Paine (13)
Common Sense (1776); “The American Crisis” (16 numbers, 1776–1783)

Adam Smith (13)
An Inquiry in the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

James Harrington (10)
The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656)

Philip Francis (10)
Letters of Junius (1769–1772)

Baron Turgot (8)
A private confidential letter to Richard Price (1778)

James Burgh (7)
Political Disquisitions (1774)

Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (7)
The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1751)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (7)
The Social Contract (1762)

Edmund Burke (7)
Thoughts on the Letter of Edmund Burke, Esq. to the Sheriffs of Bristol, on the Affairs of America (by Willoughby Bertie, 1777)

Edward Wortley Montagu (6)
Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republicks Adapted to the Present State of Great Britain (1759)

Sir Francis Bacon (6)
Essays, or Counsels Civill & Morall (1625)

Thomas Hobbes (6)
Leviathan (1651)

William Paley (5)
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785)

Abbé Raynal (4)
Principal contributor to Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Éstablissements et du Commerce des Européans dans les Deux Indes (4 vols., 1770)

William Temple (4)
Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1673)

Baron Samuel von Puffendorf (4)
On the Duty of Man and Citizen (1682)

Bernard Mandeville (3)
The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714)

René Descartes (2)
Discourse on the Method (1637) and Principles of Philosophy (1644)