In Summary

Works by Enlightenment thinkers from JMC programs for teachers.

“To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts.” 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract, Book I


The American founders were heavily influenced by European Enlightenment philosophers. When framing the Constitution, they considered Enlightenment ideas about human nature, social contracts, constitutions, and regime types. The works below are a sample of what the founders would have been reading and thinking about during the founding era.

JMC Resources

David Hume


David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, and economist. In these sections, Hume explains the relationship between reason and passion, how that relationship impacts humans’ understanding of virtue and vice, and the natural virtue of justice.


A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739

Book II, Part III, Section III: Of the Influencing Motives of the Will


Book III, Part I, Sections I-II: Of Virtue and Vice in General


Book III, Part II, Section I: Justice, Whether a Natural or Artificial Virtue?


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Adam Smith portrait

Adam Smith


Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is best known for The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, and is considered the Father of Capitalism. Many years earlier, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explores the feeling of sympathy and ideas of justice and patriotism. Some selected chapters are below.


Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

Part 1, Section 1, Ch. 1


Part 1, Section 3, Ch. 1 


Part 2, Section 2, Ch. 2-3


Part 6, Section 1


Part 6, Section 2, Ch. 2-3


Part 7, Section 2, Ch. 4

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Rousseau, a Genevan Enlightenment philosopher, wrote The Social Contract in 1762. His conceptions of society, slavery, and individual rights were influential in the American and French revolutions. In these sections, he also explains just formations of societies, the sovereignty of the people, and the indestructibility of the general will.


The Social Contract, 1762

Book I


Book II


Book III, Ch. 4, 11-15


Book IV, Ch. 1-3, 8-9

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Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu


A French judge, historian, and political philosopher, Montesquieu originally published The Spirit of the Laws anonymously in 1748. His theory of separation of powers became a central tenet of the American Constitution. In these sections, he defines types of laws, categorizes regimes based on principle, and how political systems protect or endanger liberty.


The Spirit of the Laws, 1748

Book I: On laws in general


Book II: On laws deriving directly from the nature of the government


Book III: On the principles of the three governments


Book V: That the laws given by the legislator should be relative to the principle of the government


Book VIII: On the corruption of the principles of the three governments


Book IX: On the laws in their relation with defensive force


Book XI: On the laws that form political liberty in its relation with the constitution


Book XII: On the laws that form political liberty in relation to the citizen

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