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First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

Review

First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

Fresh from the 2020 presidential election, there probably isn’t a better book to read than Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas E. Ricks’ FIRST PRINCIPLES. Well informed, gracefully written and brimming with contemporary relevance, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, it’s a bracing antidote to the presentism that’s one of the worst afflictions of our public life.

For Ricks, the journey that culminated in this book began on the morning after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, a result he admits shocked and disconcerted him. “Clearly, many of my fellow citizens had an understanding of our nation profoundly different from mine,” he writes. In an effort to assuage his bewilderment, he decided to investigate the intellectual influences of a quartet of the Founding Fathers --- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison --- our first four presidents. What he discovered was the outsized role of classical sources, especially stalwarts of the late Roman Republic like Cato and Cicero, on the worldview of these leaders, each in a unique and profoundly important way.

"Well informed, gracefully written and brimming with contemporary relevance, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, it’s a bracing antidote to the presentism that’s one of the worst afflictions of our public life."

FIRST PRINCIPLES proceeds in a roughly chronological fashion, but Ricks is well attuned to the differences in the role that classical sources played in shaping the thinking of each of his subjects. Of the four, Washington was the only one who did not receive a college education, and thus was not steeped in the classics as he would have been had he attended one of the colonial colleges like Harvard (Adams), William & Mary (Jefferson) or the College of New Jersey, now Princeton (Madison). For him, the classical lineage was decidedly less cerebral.

In Washington’s case, the ancient world principally provided models of behavior, with particular emphasis on the concept of virtue. Most strikingly, when he resigned from command of the Continental Army and returned to Mount Vernon, he “would not become a Julius Caesar, the general who takes over a nation,” instead following the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen-farmer, who put down his plow to assume a military command and returned to his farm as soon as combat ended. He reprised that moment when he chose not to seek a third term as president in 1796.

Much of Ricks’ journalism has focused on military topics, and he brings that expertise to bear in one of the book’s most intriguing chapters. In it, he dissects Washington’s military strategy during the American Revolution, comparing it to the Roman general Fabius, who defeated the invasion of Hannibal of Carthage in the third century BCE. In both instances, these military leaders avoided direct confrontations with superior forces, eventually prevailing after exhausting their more formidable adversaries.

Ricks argues that “the more we grasp the influence of the Greco-Roman world on the Revolutionary generation, the better we will understand them and their goals, problems, fears, and mistakes.” In considering his other subjects, he digs deeply into primary sources to explore their intellectual journeys through the classical world. The egotistical Adams took as his role model the celebrated orator Cicero, while Jefferson (Ricks’ least favorite of these founders), more enamored of Greek sources, was heavily influenced by Epicurean philosophy. Odds are you have never heard of the Amphictyonic League --- an early series of confederations of Greek city-states --- but that entity’s structure played a significant role in shaping Madison’s thinking on the composition of a Senate that would allow each of the states to have equal voting rights under the new constitution. As Ricks demonstrates, with the possible exception of the 18th-century French philosopher Montesquieu, these ancient examples exercised a far more powerful influence on the thinking of Adams, Jefferson and Madison than did Enlightenment theorists like John Locke.

But for all their influence during the revolutionary period, Ricks traces the fairly swift decline of American classicism in a rapidly democratizing nation. As the conflicts between partisan political factions grew in intensity, “the classical mindset would prove a poor framework in which to view the emerging politics of the 1790s, only making the situation worse,” he writes. With the rise of what he calls an “American Romanticism” in the 19th century, “common vocabulary and shared vision had waned, and so there was one less thing to hold together a growing, divided and disputatious nation.” Sadly, in what might be seen as a degraded classicism’s last gasp, some of the most ardent defenders of slavery turned to Aristotle’s Politics to justify their poisonous views of racial superiority.

However, Ricks concludes on an optimistic note, offering 10 suggestions --- from the more general, like eschewing panic and spending more time studying history, to specific prescriptions that include strengthening the role of Congress and curbing corporate campaign spending --- he believes will “help us move beyond where we are stuck and instead toward what we ought to be.” Describing the American experiment as one that is “still underway” and that can be “lost if we are not careful,” in FIRST PRINCIPLES he provides a rich lode of material for any engaged citizen seeking hope and some encouragement to engage in that process.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 13, 2020

First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
by Thomas E. Ricks

  • Publication Date: November 10, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062997459
  • ISBN-13: 9780062997456