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