The question of who were the sources of the general political philosophy of the Founding Fathers has been long debated. In the 1970's a group of political science researchers undertook to answer the question. They analyzed more than 15,000 writings during the period 1760-1805. They were attempting to determine the specific sources cited during the Founding period of the American government. If the sources could be identified it would be a valuable tool to understanding the origins of the political ideas of the Founders.

During the analysis the researchers identified 3,154 specific quotations which could be related to a specific source. The following table presents their findings and represents the percentage of quotes attributed to a particular author during a specific decade : 1

Note: The total list contains more than 180 names. The ones above represent the most highly quoted.


Montesquieu montesquieu

(1689 - 1755) Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède and de Montesquieu, was born in the Aquitaine region of France on January 18, 1689, during the Age of Enlightenment. Through his education and travels he became a sharp social commentator and political thinker who gained the respect of his fellow philosophers with his masterwork The Spirit of Laws, which went on to have a major influence on English and American government.

His masterwork, The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, had enormous influence on how governments should work, eschewing classical definitions of government for new delineations. He also established the idea of a separation of powers—legislative, executive and judicial—to more effectively propagate liberty. Although the Catholic Church put Spirit on its list of banned books, the work influenced France's Declaration of the Rights of Man (Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen) and the U.S. Constitution. Montesquieu later published his Défense de L’Esprit des Lois in 1750.

Montesquieu died of a fever in Paris on February 10, 1755.

 Sir William Blackstone

(1723-1780) William Blackstone was born in Cheapside, London, on July 10, 1723, the posthumous son of Charles Blackstone, a merchant. He was educated at the Charterhouse School and at Oxford and entered the Middle Temple in London in 1740. He was elected a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, in 1744 and received the bachelor of civil law degree in 1745. Although he was admitted to the bar in 1746, he had limited success in practicing law and continued to hold several university posts and to lecture on English law. Shortly thereafter, Blackstone was appointed to the newly created Vinerian chair. In 1761 he was elected to Parliament and also received a patent of precedence giving him the rank of king's counsel. He resigned from his chair in 1766 due to his success at the bar that year, and in 1770 he was appointed a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, where he served, with no special distinction, until his death

Blackstone was the first since Henry de Bracton in the 13th century to present an encompassing treatment of English law. The Commentaries (1765-1769), which grew out of Blackstone's university lectures, is a very readable elementary text. Although its scheme of organization is borrowed from an earlier work by Sir Matthew Hale, Analysis of Law, it represents a radical departure from contemporary legal thought, which tended to treat the law as a catalog of unrelated writs and statutes. In Commentaries, Blackstone blended the intellectual traditions of the common law with those of 17th-and 18th-century English political philosophy.

In the United States, Blackstone's example contributed significantly to the development of law schools, and during the Revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods the Commentaries was the most widely read law text in America. After 1850 United States lawyers no longer tried to copy Blackstone, for living law was being shaped by the local institutions. By the middle of the 20th century few Americans read Blackstone, even as a classic, but he remains a symbol for American lawyers.

 John Locke

 (1632 - 1704) John Locke was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and medical researcher. Locke’s monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) is one of the first great defenses of modern empiricism and concerns itself with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to a wide spectrum of topics. It thus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to know and what one cannot. Locke’s association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Among Locke’s political works he is most famous for The Second Treatise of Government in which he argues that sovereignty resides in the people and explains the nature of legitimate government in terms of natural rights and the social contract. He is also famous for calling for the separation of Church and State in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Much of Locke’s work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This is apparent both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church. For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. He wants us to proportion assent to propositions to the evidence for them. On the level of institutions it becomes important to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions of institutions and to make the corresponding distinction for the uses of force by these institutions. Locke believed that using reason to try to grasp the truth, and determine the legitimate functions of institutions will optimize human flourishing for the individual and society both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare. This in turn, amounts to following natural law and the fulfillment of the divine purpose for humanity.

David Hume

(April 26, 1711 - August 25, 1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian. Hume was the third, the most radical and, in the eyes of many, the most important of the so-called British Empiricists, after the English John Locke and the Anglo-Irish George Berkeley. Along with Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, he was one of the most important representatives in the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume remains a towering figure in the history of philosophy and is perhaps the most significant English-speaking philosopher of all times.

At the age of eighteen, in 1729, Hume made a philosophical discovery that opened up to him "a new scene of thought." He did not recount what this was, but it seems likely to have been his theory of causality—that our beliefs about cause and effect depend on sentiment, custom and habit, and not upon reason or abstract, timeless, general Laws of Nature.

Hume was heavily influenced by empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley, along with various Francophone writers such as Pierre Bayle, and various figures on the Anglophone intellectual landscape such as Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and Joseph Butler.


( c. 45-50 AD and c. 120-125 AD) L. Mestrius Plutarchus, better known simply as Plutarch, was a Greek writer and philosopher who lived between . A prodigious and hugely influential writer, he is now most famous for his biographical works in his Parallel Lives which present an entertaining history of some of the most significant figures from antiquity.

Plutarch was born into a prominent Greek family in the early days of the Roman Empire. He attained a liberal education and spent his early life as a civic leader and educator. He was best known for his biographies of leading figures in antiquity and his essays on ethics and virtue.

 Plutarch produced an extensive body of writing while leading an active social and civic life. Of his approximately 227 known works, the most famous are Moralia, also known as Ethica, and Parallel Lives. Moralia is a series of 60 or more essays written in dialogues or diatribes on ethics, religion and the politics of contemporary Greek society. Their literary value is enhanced by the frequent quotations from Greek poems and plays, especially verses of Euripides and other dramatists.

Plutarch's work was revered during his own time, and in later antiquity it inspired other historians and philosophers. His writings attracted the attention of the Byzantines, who showed no prejudice for their pagan origins. Plutarch's writings were introduced to the 16th century humanists and Renaissance dramatists, such as William Shakespeare, who incorporated parts of his work into their works. His work strongly influenced the evolution of biographical and historical writing in Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Although Plutarch was admired by American philosopher, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, his popularity and influence began to decline in the 19th century, partly due to the Romantic Movement's focus on exploring the limits of human passion rather than strict virtuous behavior, and partly due to 19th century scholars' placing high value on historical accuracy, which was not emphasized in Plutarch's writings. In more contemporary times, Plutarch's writings serve as a reference for popular ideas on Greek and Roman history.


 (1738 - 1794) Cesare Beccaria was born on March 15, 1738, in Milan, Italy. In the early 1760s, he helped form a society called "the academy of fists," dedicated to economic, political and administrative reform. In 1764, he published his famous and influential criminology essay, On Crimes and Punishments. In 1768, he started a career in economics, which lasted until his death on November 28, 1794, in Milan, Italy.

Beccaria's view of government was that it should work to prevent crime, rather than focus on punishment; and that effort spent on education and rewarding good behavior would reap better results and bring about greater happiness for all. His ideas, although not adopted in their entirety, were nonetheless highly influential in reforming European laws, and in forming the United States Constitution and American criminal justice system.

Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. It put forth the first arguments ever made against the death penalty. Beccaria reflected the convictions of the Il Caffè group, who sought to cause reform through Enlightenment discourse. His treatise was also the first full work of penology, advocating reform of the criminal law system. The book tackled criminal reform and suggested that criminal justice should conform to rational principles.

The book's serious message is put across in a clear and animated style, based in particular upon a deep sense of humanity and of urgency at unjust suffering. This humane sentiment is what makes Beccaria call for rationality in the laws.

Beccaria remains remembered as a father of classical criminal theory. Although he wrote only one major piece, his influence is enormous. On Crimes and Punishments had a significant impact on the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the American criminal justice system. Many reforms in the penal codes of the principal European nations can be traced to Beccaria's treatise, although few contemporaries were convinced by Beccaria's argument against the death penalty. When the Grand Duchy of Tuscany abolished the death penalty, as the first nation in the world to do so, it followed Beccaria's argument about the lack of utility of capital punishment, not about the state's lacking the right to execute citizens.

Beccaria’s work greatly influenced Jeremy Bentham in his development of his doctrine of Utilitarianism.


(95 BC, Rome – April 46 BC, Utica), Commonly known as Cato the Younger (Cato Minor) to distinguish him from his great-grandfather (Cato the Elder), was a statesman in the late Roman Republic, and a follower of the Stoic philosophy.  A noted orator, he is remembered for his stubbornness and tenacity (especially in his lengthy conflict with Julius Caesar), as well as his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his famous distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period.

 Cato is probably most famous as a staunch opponent of Julius Caesar, who he believed would overthrow the Republic and set himself up as a tyrant. Long an enemy of Caesar, Cato joined Pompey the Great's forces in the civil war; and after Pompey's defeat and death in 48 BC, Cato led a remnant of the Pompeians to North Africa. His forces were decisively defeated at Battle of Thapsus, and Cato, retreating to nearby Utica, committed suicide rather than fall into Caesar's hands

Caesar complained that he had been denied the opportunity to pardon Cato. Cicero wrote an essay which made Cato a symbol of the lost republican cause. 18 centuries after his death Cato became a hero of Enlightenment political theorists in Europe and the American colonies. He became the model of civic virtue for David Hume and many of the American Founding Fathers, along with Brutus, Cassius and Cicero. Thus George Washington admired Cato so greatly that he had Joseph Addison's 1712 play about Cato performed in Valley Forge to boost the troops' morale. Cato's speeches (as reported in the 1713 play by Joseph Addison) were echoed by Patrick Henry, Give me liberty or give me death!," by the cry of Nathan Hale before his execution as an American spy, "I regret I have but one life to lose for my country,"

Cato inspired English political journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon to publish anonymously Cato's Letters (1720–23). These were 144 short essays that expounded on republicanism and which greatly influenced the American Founding Fathers.


 (1740 – 16 July 1806) was a Swiss and Eglish political theorist and writer on constitutional matters, born in the then semi-independent city of Geneva. As an adult he moved to England, and became a British subject.

 Jean Louis De Lolme’s The Constitution of England, which first appeared in French in 1771, was a major contribution to eighteenth-century constitutional theory and enjoyed wide currency in and beyond the eras of the American and French Revolutions. Its authority and judgment were invoked in parliamentary debate and in partisan political polemic. John Adams, the American revolutionary leader, constitutional advocate, and later president, praised the work as “the best defence of the political balance of three powers that ever was written.”

De Lolme’s final years were spent in his native Geneva. As with so much of his biography, the details of his departure from England are not known. He received an inheritance that enabled him to pay his creditors and to return to the setting that first inspired his influential political speculations. He died on July 13, 1806, and was buried in Seewen-sur-le-Ruffiberg in the Swiss Canton of Schwitz.

 Notwithstanding the reputation and influence that The Constitution of England earned its author, the details of De Lolme’s life remain poorly documented.


 (January 8, 1632 – October 13, 1694), was a German jurist, political philosopher, economist, statesman, and historian. His name was just Pufendorf until he was ennobled in 1684; he was made a baron a few months before his death in 1694. His commentaries and revisions of the theories of Thomas Hobbes and Hugo Grotius advanced the development of the theory of natural law and distinguished between the hegemony of church and state. Unlike Hobbes, he believed that it was the nature of human beings to live sociably in peace. War was justifiable if it was necessary to establish and maintain that peace. His work De habitu religionis christianae ad vitam civilem (Of the power of the Christian religion in relation to the life of a citizen) traced the limits between ecclesiastical and civil power and propounded a "collegial" theory of church government (Kollegialsystem), which, developed later by the learned Lutheran theologian Christoph Mathkus Pfaff, formed the basis of the relations of church and state in Germany and more especially in Prussia, and opened the way for official tolerance of religious differences by European governments.

Early in his academic career, Pufendorf was influenced by Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. In De jure naturae et gentium (On the Law of Nature and of Nations), and De officio hominis et civis ("On the Duty of Man and Citizen") he took up the theories of natural law proposed by Grotius and sought to complete them by means of the doctrines of Hobbes and of his own ideas. His first important point was that natural law does not extend beyond the limits of this life and that it confines itself to regulating external acts. He disputed Hobbes's conception of the state of nature and concluded that the state of nature is not one of war but of peace. He identified the true foundation of natural law as the “sociality” of humankind, concluding that God had created man to live in society with others. “Any man must, inasmuch as he can,” he wrote, “cultivate and maintain toward others a peaceable sociality that is consistent with the native character and end of humankind in general.” Peace, however, was insecure, and “just war” was sometimes necessary to secure and maintain it.

Pufendorf is seen as an important precursor of the Enlightenment in Germany. He was involved in constant quarrels with clerical circles and frequently had to defend himself against accusations of heresy. A lifelong quarrel with Leibniz which began over the pamphlet Severinus de Monzambano somewhat undermined his influence in Germany. Locke, Rousseau, and Diderot all recommended that the works of von Pufendorf be included in law curricula, and Pufendorf greatly influenced Blackstone and Montesquieu, who in turn introduced his thought to the American founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.

Notwithstanding the Founders’ reliance on a constellation of political philosophers, Lutz’s researchers discovered that there was one source quoted more frequently than any other – the Bible. It was mentioned almost twelve times more often than John Locke and it was ascertained that the Bible accounted for fully 34% of the direct quotes examined of the Founding era.

While the previous chart indicates citations by a particular author it does not indicate that author's particular political perspective.This chart highlights the wide-ranging sources of political and philosophical quotes examined by a particular political view:

  1. This category included the eighteenth century philosophical writers who based their views on the political and social issues of the day upon scientific and intellectual foundations. Nearly three-fourths of these references are from conservative enlightenment writers, e.g., Locke, Montesquieu, Pufendorf, etc, whilst the others represent more radical writers, e.g., Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc. 
  2. Whigs were those advocating popular rights and pro-American independence, whereas Tories advocated royal rights and anti-independence.
  3. Common-law authors addressed the rules, principal, and customs, which have been received from our ancestors and by which courts have been governed in their judicial decisions.(Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.
  4. Classical refers to the Greek and Roman writers, such as Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, Virgil, etc.

The fact that Lutz's researchers revealed that the Bible was quoted more often than any other single source is an important revelation with respect to the formation of the Republic.


1. Donald S. Lutz, "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought," American Political Science Review, Volume 78, Issue 1, March 1984, p. 191.

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