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

Being in a book club can have its drawbacks. (Chief of which is you might have to read a book you flat-out don’t wanna read.) But it also has its upsides. It might give you the excuse to finally read that book you’ve been wanting to read for years. (In my case it was Tony Judt’s 2005 900 page Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and Elyn R. Saks’s 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.) But if you’re lucky, a good book club will introduce you to excellent books you didn’t know existed. Last summer it was Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s 2013 Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, a book that had been completely off my radar and ended up making my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Last month or so my book club announced it was reading First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. While early American history might not be my favorite subject the book’s subtitle intrigued me. As luck would have it I was able to borrow a Kindle version through Overdrive. I’m happy to inform you there’s a strong likelihood First Principles, a book that until recently I’d never heard of, will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction just like Black Against Empire did last year.

Published in 2020, First Principles details the impact of classical thought in shaping the political views and practices of the Founding Fathers, especially the first four American presidents of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. Rooted in antiquity, the intellectual achievements of Greece and Rome would help guide late 18th century American leaders in their quest to transform the British colonies into the United States of America and construct the lasting institutions necessary for the republic’s survival.

George Washington, unlike the other three Founding Fathers mentioned earlier didn’t attend college, let alone read classical Greek or Latin. But as General battling the British he took inspiration from the Roman Fabius’s guerrilla-like tactics. Later, he cast himself in the mold of another Roman general, Cincinnatus, coming out of retirement as a gentleman farmer to lead the newly-founded nation as its first President. John Adams, “who cast himself as a modern Cicero” according to Ricks suffers “an inflated reputation in recent years, with insufficient attention paid to his unhelpful commentary during the War for Independence and also his disastrous presidency.” Thomas Jefferson, “the only one in this quartet who favored the Greeks over the Romans” and in doing so took a dimmer view of Federalism compared to many of his contemporaries. Lastly, James Madison in search of workable templates he could graft onto the American political system locked himself away in his private library for months studying the texts of Ancient Greece and Rome. His solution was a system of checks and balances designed to channel competing forces into beneficially constructive currents and, in theory anyway preventing stronger states or factions from dominating those weaker.

Reverence for the wisdom of Greece and Rome and those willing emulate its practices would fade with the next generation. In the coming decades as the Romantic era eclipsed the Enlightenment Americans embraced more experiential and populist outlooks. Being unlettered in Greek and Latin was seen by many as a virtue and not a stigma. In matters of religion, worshippers sought out more individual and expressive forms of faith, ushering in the Second Great Awakening leading to the birth of groups that would become the  Methodists and LDS (Mormons).

First Principles is great follow-up reading to Kenneth C. Davis’s 2010 A Nation Rising: Untold Tales from America’s Hidden History as well as James Burke’s 2007 American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked. It’s also inspired me to read Henry Steele Commager’s 1977 classic The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment which has sat ignored on my shelf for years. If that indeed happens it might at long last provide the inspiration I need to finally begin The Enlightenment Project I proposed almost 10 years ago.

While it’s only March First Principles is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises and I could see it making my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Consider it recommended.

3 thoughts on “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country by Thomas E. Ricks

  1. Pingback: The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman | Maphead's Book Blog

  2. I am glad you liked this one. When I taught American Government to high school seniors they really didn’t care about where the ideas came from, they just wanted to know how they were affected and how they could participate.

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