book review: "First Principles, What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country"
History - American Released - Dec 24, 2020
The author and historian (Thomas E.Ricks) says he researched and wrote his book in the wake of Donald Trump's election as president, which he found disturbing. To better understand how we got here, he began researching the Founding Fathers and their efforts to avoid the inevitable pitfalls that sunk many a republic. This book is an analysis of what he learned.
Most of us have heard how the Founding Fathers were influenced by the Enlightenment, but Ricks discovered the Ancient Greeks and Romans played a significant role as well. That's the premise of "First Principles, What America's Founders learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country." Ricks makes a convincing case in a relatively short 297 pages. The book reads incredibly well; indeed, Ricks manages to keep it simple and far from dry, writing about a vast and complex subject.
While creating a new nation, the Founding Fathers looked to the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration; particularly James Madison, who studied the Greek republics while gathering information for the Constitutional Convention in 1787; and George Washington, who modeled his leadership qualities after a number of Roman generals; in particular Fabius, and Cincinnatus, but not, alas, Julius Caesar (politically ambitious).
Ricks also underscores the point that Washington, while a brilliant military strategist and leader, was the least educated of the Founders (a number of his influential state papers were ghost-written by others). A good portion of the book deals with Washington as a military leader during the French and Indian Wars and, of course, during the war for independence that followed, and his eight years as our nation's first president; and with James Madison in his spirited quest to form a more perfect union.
All of the Founders were obsessed with the Greek and Roman ideals of public virtue. In the Ancient World "public virtue" equated to putting the public welfare ahead of personal ambition. What did the Founders read from the ancient world? "The Iliad", Plutarch's "Lives of Ancient Greeks and Romans", the philosophy and literature of Xenophom, Epicurius, Aristotle, and the speeches and commentaries of Cato and Cicero.
Of particular concern to Madison, was the formation of political factions, which was the root cause of the breakup of the Greek and Roman republics. As a possible solution, Madison looked to several Enlightenment philosophers, particularly to a French philosopher named Charles Montesquieu, who, the author says, constituted a bridge between the Enlightenment and the Classical World. His masterpiece, "The Spirit of the Laws" while largely rejected in France due to the popularity of the monarch, proved highly influential among the Founders. The book was essentially a meditation on how to inject ancient wisdom into modern governance. While the author builds a strong case for Montesquieu's influence on Madison, he largely ignores Scottish philosopher David Hume, who also wrote a significant and influential essay on how to create a republic that effectively counteracted factions. Indeed, historian Douglass Adair, makes a strong case for Hume's influence on Madison (see "Fame and the Founding Fathers", by Douglass Adair). Surprisingly, while Ricks writes extensively about Montesquieu, he pretty much ignores Hume's influence.
Also, while the author admires Madison and Washington, he does not think highly of John Adams ("over-rated"), or Thomas Jefferson ("I found his avoidance of reality disturbing" ), or Alexander Hamilton (too ambitious and something of a conniver).
Despite being mostly about the influence of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the author also delves deeply into the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, which arrived on American shores in the form of books by David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Hutchison and others, as well as a host of scholars, tutors, and teachers who emigrated to America in the mid-eighteenth century. Among them was William Small, who tutored Thomas Jefferson while a student at William and Mary; Donald Robinson, who tutored James Madison while a teen; and Hugh Knox, who, while teaching in the Caribbean, was the first to recognize Alexander Hamilton's literary gifts, and arranged what amounted to a scholarship for Hamilton's college education in the American colonies; and John Witherspoon, who as a professor at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, taught James Madison on the subject of political government. Witherspoon would go to partake in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. His signature appears on the U.S. Constitution.
While Ricks lauds the Founders for creating an enduring republic, he laments that, being such an incredibly intellectually-gifted and well-read group, the Founders failed to find a solution to slavery, which in our day lives on in the form of white supremacy.
At the close of the book, the author offers ten steps "that I think might help us more on the course intended by the Revolutionary generation to help us move beyond where we are stuck and instead toward what we ought to be."
Concludes Ricks: Our government remains an experiment that requires our serious and sustained attention to thrive."
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