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A review: “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our Country” by Thomas Ricks

“I’ve been changed by this journey and seek in this book to share what I’ve learned. Not everyone has the time, opportunity, or inclination to spend several years in the basements of college libraries reading ancient Roman political speeches or minor Greek philosophers…” –Thomas Ricks, military history columnist for the New York Times Book Review and a visiting fellow in history at Bowdoin College

The first four presidents were a variety of educational backgrounds and personalities. One can look to present day headlines to see personalities and educations in politics remain largely unchanged—prestigious law school graduates to autodidacts. Educations and personalities are not the only similarity between then and now but the complex societal issues woven into the nation’s founding. “The nation was founded in part on the acceptance of slavery,” which remains a critical flaw in the birth of the United States.[i]  The nation remains “a nation fundamentally dedicated to equal standing before the law, yet also have deployed a political system in which one of the two major parties always seems to have offered a home to white supremacists…”[ii]    

First Principles is an indispensable work that must permeate classrooms and personal libraries. Thomas Ricks bestows several years of study to include: Aristotle, Plutarch, Cato, Cicero, Presidential personal letters, journals, Greek, Roman, and Scottish history (sixty-four pages of notes with endless resources) neatly packaged into Parts I, II, and III with the epilogue being the crowning jewel. This is not to diminish the value of Parts I-III, as each page of this book provides incredible historical fact and quotations. The importance of the epilogue emphasizes that unless First Principles is approached with a critical eye, the facts and examples cited throughout the first three parts are all for naught.

This is a work that demands of the reader the acceptance of slow political change over the course of the nation’s founding is both a blessing and curse. The founders identify ageless human characteristics through the study of classic works resulting in “First Principles” that democratic governments confront and operate with to this day. In the words of Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[iii]

The four presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all had strengths and weaknesses. Washington, the first President, lacked what many considered a typical education, but was instrumental in fighting factions within the government. “George Washington still clung to the concept of having a legislature peopled solely by good men who abhorred partisanship.”[iv]

Washington also encountered, and was disgusted by, “attacking every character, without respect to persons—public or Private, who happen to differ from themselves in Politics,” which is found in the press and social media daily.[v] The death of Washington was the death of bipartisanship in its purest form in what seems a steady decline since his passing.

Although Adams, Jefferson, and Madison are discussed, the easiest way to describe them is most readers will find them relatable to present day politicians. Adams, without a monument to his name throughout the Capitol (notable when compared to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison), was a figure fit for revolution.

Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the ground and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome…”[vi]

Adams’s impassioned rhetoric was offset by a glaring absence from the capital, “Adams was often absent from his job, spending seven months of 1799 not at the capital but “angrily secluded” at his home in Massachusetts.”[vii] Present day citizens may find familiarity with President Adams and his gross disdain for the press and a feeling of rejection by failing to achieve re-election, “I was turned out of Office, degraded and disgraced by my Country.”[viii] In this rejection, Adams did not attend the inauguration of Jefferson.

The author’s reverence for Jefferson was debunked during this book resulting from, “his [Jefferson’s] habitual avoidance of reality.”[ix] Even after leaving office, Jefferson once again found himself in solitude ignoring current events and escaping to his childhood, “He went over the works of Eschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.”[x] Jefferson’s return to the classics was in response to his growing disdain for the political changes occurring around him, “As for politics, I think little of them, and say less. I have given up on newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.”[xi]  

Madison’s tenure is questionable with the most notable event in his two terms being the War of 1812.[xii] Although a questioned tenure, Adams credits Madison with achieving more than the first three Presidents combined, “I pitty [sic] him more, because notwithstand [sic] a thousand Faults and blunders, his Administration has acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all his three Predecessors Washington Adams and Jefferson put together.”[xiii] Madison would be remembered as the last of the Romans when a traveler from Virginia found him reading with Madison having found, “happy old age that Cicero has so touchingly and beautifully described.”[xiv]

For the epilogue, I will not spoil the crowning jewel of this book with my own interpretation. The epilogue is best endeavored upon individually, leaving each of us to decide how we can help “America be more American.”[xv]

Thomas Ricks provides a comprehensive review of the nation’s founding and the individuals responsible for the experiment that endures today still known as America. This work is indispensable and is a must read for any American or citizen of the world looking to understand America, its founding, and how it came to be. Thomas Ricks leaves the reader with a series of questions only to be answered individually while remembering the words of Jefferson, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”[xvi]

[i]Ricks, Thomas E. First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2020, p.292

[ii] Ibid, xix.

[iii] Ibid, 212.

[iv] Ibid, 216.

[v] Ibid, 242.

[vi] Ibid, 109.

[vii] Ibid, 246.

[viii] Ibid, 253.

[ix] Ibid, xix.

[x] Ibid, 264.

[xi] Ibid, 265.

[xii] Ibid, 264.

[xiii] Ibid, 264.

[xiv] Ibid, 272.

[xv] Ibid, 290.

[xvi] Ibid, 252.

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