Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thomas Ricks spent four years researching the intellectual world of the American founders. He has produced a thoroughly researched and engaging book on this potentially abstruse topic, titled First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.
The founders were steeped in the classics, which formed the core of colonial-era education and leisure reading. In their respective efforts at building city-state democracy and larger-scale republicanism, the ancient Greeks and Romans had confronted first-hand the sorts of challenges that faced the founders nearly two millennia later. Who should have a say in their own governance, and how? Which systems best safeguard against corruption and tyranny? How can the majority rule without alienating the minority or trampling upon its rights? Such fundamental questions preoccupied the founders as they broke free from Britain to create a modern democratic republic.
Tumultuous times come and go—a fact the founders foresaw—and recent events have reawakened these questions. Inspired by his own bewilderment at the 2016 election, Ricks turns for guidance to George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. He also has much to say about figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and John Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s dynamic moral and intellectual presence at the College of New Jersey (later called Princeton) was so compelling that Madison chose to matriculate there rather than attend William and Mary (Jefferson’s alma mater) in his home state of Virginia. Witherspoon was instrumental in bringing the Scottish Enlightenment to these shores. Adams was a Harvard man. Washington did not attend university but was nonetheless imbued with the classical ethos of the day.
That ethos had virtue at it center. Working with the trove of documents in Founders Online, Ricks determines that the founders used this word in their writings far more often than either democracy or republic. To them, virtue meant to put the common good above personal or factional interest. Washington styled himself after Cincinnatus, a great warrior in the hour of need, a moral leader who chose to return to the farm rather than become de facto king.
While Jefferson was taken with the Greeks—whose Epicurean strain finds expression in the Declaration of Independence—Rome generally exercised a greater influence on the young republic’s imagination. The founders strove to encourage leadership in the mold of Cato and to avoid tyrannical, self-seeking Caesars. Washington set tone and precedent. Adams, a lifelong devotee of Cicero, was deeply embittered at his failure to be reelected in the notoriously rancorous election of 1800. Nonetheless, he took the early coach home on inauguration day, making way for Jefferson. The universally detested Burr had the stuff of Caesar in him, but never found his way to power. He did, however, come within one vote of the presidency.
As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, the influence of the classics waned rather quickly, and virtue lost its pride of place amongst political ideals. Madison recognized that factions are inevitable and therefore must be managed. We who live in a highly partisan age can hope, as Ricks does with mild optimism, that we can return to virtue to cope with the problems of modern-day factionalism.