Prof. Alison L. LaCroix’s article at Common-Place on “The Founders’ Fiction” describes a University of Chicago Law School experiment in understanding the U.S. of A.’s constitutional basis better by reading what founders read for pleasure. She writes:
To guide us in the process, and to ensure that the books we chose were ones that the founders had read, we turned to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his prospective brother-in-law, Robert Skipwith, in August 1771. Skipwith had asked Jefferson to provide a list of books that would be the basis of his library. . . . [Jefferson] exceeded Skipwith’s proposed budget of “about five and twenty pounds sterling, or if you think proper…thirty pounds” by some seventy pounds. . . .Yep, that was usually how Jefferson managed his finances.
Of course, Jefferson wasn’t involved in writing the Constitution, nor typical of his generation in many ways. But never mind that—the light is better in his library.
Most striking to modern eyes is the prominence of fiction on the list. More than a third of the books listed under “Fine Arts” are works of fiction. All are by European authors. They include classics that are still read today, such as Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales, as well as less familiar works more likely to be found on the syllabus of a course on eighteenth-century English literature than on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, such as Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle and Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. . . .I’ve read those four, and occasionally take a bite of Peregrine Pickle. And now I’ve found webpages devoted to Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph and Solyman and Almena to keep myself busy.
Jefferson’s list made the case that a gentleman’s library ought to include literary fiction. “[T]he entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant,” Jefferson wrote to Skipwith. “[E]verything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.”
Suppressing the temptation to assign one of the list’s more obscure novels (would the students really be able to track down copies of John Langhorne’s Solyman & Almena: An Oriental Tale?), Jake and I chose four works from among Jefferson’s recommendations: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield; and the sensational duo of 1740s literary London, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and its parody Shamela, by Henry Fielding.