Did the American Founders Have a Little Captain in Them?


this is a barrel of constitutions

Peter Leeson, George Mason economist and author of The Invisible Hook (which I reviewed in the current print edition of Reason) has been guest blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy all week. 

In my favorite post of the week, Leeson describes the way golden age pirate crews kept order aboard their ships. They all agreed to a lists of rules that looked and acted an awful lot like constitutions, with checks and balances, voting, guidelines for punishments, distribution of booty, and even judicial review. So could the Founders have been influenced by pirates? Well, according to Leeson:

Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of both of the two most important late 17th-century and early 18th-century books that describe pirate governance, Alexander Exquemelin's Buccaneers of America, and Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the Pyrates.

Does this prove that pirates' constitutional democracy influenced Jefferson? Of course not. For one thing, Jefferson had many books in his personal library. That doesn't mean all of them played a role in his thinking about American government. Further, I don't know when Jefferson acquired these books. His copies were published (in 1774) before the Declaration of Independence; but that doesn't tell us when Jefferson bought or read them.

But, at least in principle, it does suggest TJ could have "had a little captain in him."

Read all the pirate economics posts here.

More on Leeson and his wench-to-be here

NEXT: 'Incredible Is What the Law Requires'

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  1. Just the fact that there is a book titled “General History of the Pyrates” makes the English language and our species way cooler.

    “Pyrates” with a “Y” — yeah!

  2. Don’t forget that usually pirate captains were elected democratically. If they sucked they weren’t just demoted they were kicked off the boat. If they REALLY sucked they may have to “walk the plank”. Hmm, maybe that’s a idea we should bring back. LOL.

  3. Well, now I will need to refrain from referring to government officials as a bunch of damn pirates…

    …there is no reason to insult pirates after all, especially in light of this new information 😉

  4. Did the American Founders Have a Little Captain in Them?”

    No, but Tenille certionaly did . . . .

  5. Pyrate Party: like the other guys, but less sodomy

  6. Jesus, this is a new low in stupid.

  7. I read several libertarian blogs, and I have to say, I am sick to death of this guy and his pirate book.

  8. Yeah, but you have to admit he’s a really enthusiastic marketer.

  9. Most of the founders apparently had a LOT of Captain in ’em. Rum was extremely popular back in those days, and by all accounts, the colonials drank like fish. Not everyone and not all the time, but from the history I’ve read, I’d think that most of them could drink most of us under the table. Yo ho!

  10. I read several libertarian blogs, and I have to say, I am sick to death of this guy and his pirate book.

    Me, too. I haven’t read it, and I am a big fan of the Temporary Autonomous Zone concept, but nattering on about an emergent order based on the violation of rights of others strikes me as not advancing the cause of liberty.

  11. “They’re more just guidelines.”

  12. So, TJ was influenced by pirate constitutions because he had pirate books in his library?

    Did TJ fill these pirate books with marginalia in his own handwriting? That would show that TJ was actually paying attention to the content of the books.

    Speaking of the use of TJ’s library books to show his intellectual influences, consider the possibility that TJ was influenced by Saint Robert Bellarmine:

    ‘[A] book found in Jefferson’s personal library (now in the Library of Congress) was Patriarcha, by Protestant theologian Robert Filmer, who was the court theologian to King James I. It is a treatise in defense of the Divine Right of Kings, which Jefferson obviously read because *the book’s margins are full of his notes*. . . . [emphasis added]

    ‘The most interesting aspect of Patriarcha from a Catholic perspective is that the first pages discredit and attack the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most eloquent and prolific defenders of freedom the Catholic Church has ever produced. . . .

    ‘In Patriarcha, Filmer quotes Bellarmine directly as follows: “Secular or Civil authority (saith he) ‘is instituted by men; it is in the people unless they bestow it on a Prince. This Power is immediately in the Multitude, as in the subject of it; for this Power is in the Divine Law, but the Divine Law hath given this power to no particular man. If the Positive Law be taken away, there is left no Reason amongst the Multitude (who are Equal) one rather than another should bear the Rule over the Rest. Power is given to the multitude to one man, or to more, by the same Law of Nature; for the Commonwealth cannot exercise this Power, therefore it is bound to bestow it upon some One man or some Few. It depends upon the Consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a King or other Magistrates, and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the Kingdom into an Aristocracy or Democracy’ (St. Robert Bellarmine, Book 3 De Laicis, Chapter 4). Thus far Bellarmine; in which passages are comprised the strength of all that I have read or heard produced for the Natural Liberty of the Subject.” (Patriarcha, page 5.)

    ‘Imagine what Jefferson must have been thinking as he read the opening paragraphs of Patriarcha, a direct assault on the Roman Catholic scholarship of Bellarmine:
    “Since the time that school divinity (i.e. Catholic Universities) began to flourish, there hath been a common opinion maintained as well by the divines as by the divers of learned men which affirms: ‘Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at the first by human right bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.’ This tenet was first hatched in the (Medieval Roman Catholic Universities), and hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity. The divines also of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it as being most plausible to flesh and blood, for that it prodigally distributes a portion of liberty to the meanest of the multitude, who magnify liberty as if the height of human felicity were only to be found in it – never remembering that the desire of liberty was the cause of the fall of Adam.”

    ‘There is no doubt that Jefferson, after reading Filmer, must have been struck by Bellarmine’s definition of individual freedom and popular sovereignty. It may come as a surprise to some, but a closer analysis of Bellarmine’s writing and Catholic Church history demonstrates that since 1200 AD, Catholic Church has defended individual rights and freedoms, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery, serfdom, and the rise of popular sovereignty at the expense of absolutist monarchs and tyrannical nobles.’

  13. Does Leeson acknowledge Peter Lamborn Wilson?

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  15. TJ could have “had a little captain in him.”

    I link to this without comment.

  16. Marge: Oh, I like your earring. does that mean you’re a pirate?

    Sailor: Kinda…

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