Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s “Must Read” Sources to Understand Liberty and American Government

By: Mike Maharrey

How can we learn about the founding principles and the meaning of the Constitution?

Minutes from an 1825 meeting of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors shed some light on sources James Madison and Thomas Jefferson thought were essential to know in order to understand the general principles of liberty and the workings of the state and general government.

Jefferson and Madison served on the board along with three prominent Virginia statesmen — George Loyall, John H. Cocke, and Joseph C. Cabell.

During the meeting, the board approved a resolution listing several sources it deemed essential for learning America’s founding principles.

To understand “the general principles of liberty and the rights of man in nature and in society,” the board recommended John Locke’s Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government

Many of Locke’s ideas found their way into the Declaration of Independence, including the notion that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed.

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

The board also recommended “Discourses on Government,” by Algernon Sidney.

Sidney isn’t as well-known as Locke today, but he had a profound influence on America’s founding generation. Like Locke, he rejected the notion of royal absolutism and the divine right of kings. He argued that the right to rule should be based on merit rather than birth. He also espoused principles such as limited government, voluntary consent of the people, and the right of people to alter or abolish governments.

“God leaves to man the choice of forms in government … He who institutes, may also abrogate,” he wrote.

In 1683, British authorities arrested Sidney and tried for him treason. He was ultimately found guilty and beheaded. Despite never being published, a draft of Discourses was used as a “witness” against him.

In The Apology of Algernon Sidney, in the Day of his Death, Sidney expounded on his life work, saying his goal was to “uphold the Common rights of mankind, the lawes of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power and Popery . . . I doe now willingly lay down my life for the same; and having a sure witness within me, that God doth … uphold me … am very littell sollicitous, though man doth condemne me.”

The board also recommended four sources for understanding “the distinctive principles of the government of our own state, and of that of the U.S.”

First on the list is the Declaration of Independence “as the fundamental act of union of these states.”

Second, the board cited the Federalist Papers, calling it “an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all.” The board members said that the Federalist essays “rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the U.S. on questions as to its genuine meaning.”

During the ratification debates, the essays had minimal influence outside of New York. But their influence apparently grew in the ensuing years, judged by the board’s decision to include them as foundational sources.

One has to wonder how Madison’s position on the board influenced the inclusion of the Federalist Papers. Madison wrote 29 of the essays.

The third important source cited by the board is the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. Passed in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, these resolutions penned by Madison and passed by the Virginia legislature lay out the constitutional justification for “interposition.”

“This Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact; as no further valid that they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.”

The board said the resolutions “appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the U.S.”

Finally, the board recommended George Washington’s farewell address, or his “Valedictory Address” as they called it.

In this address, Washington covered topics including foreign policy, factions and the danger of debt.

Today, most people have little to no familiarity with these sources. That could explain why the country has strayed so far from the vision of the founding generation.