Review: Who inspired the founders of the United States?

We witnessed a historic presidential election last November, but it was not the first time.

The race in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr saw the Electoral College vote 35 times without producing a winner. On the 36th ballot, the Delaware representative withdrew his support for Burr and gave the victory to Jefferson. That election had no TV debates or Twitter exchanges, but it had significant buzz: speeches, newspapers and pamphlets that made the campaigns difficult to ignore. John Adams, for example, called Burr “a Catiline, a Bankrupt, an unprincipled Scoundrell, a damn’d Rascal and a Devil,” and Jefferson was described as someone who “would destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Thomas E. Ricks’s First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country deals with how the first four presidents—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—were influenced by the classical Greeks and Romans. “Who were the men who taught them, and where did they come from? What books influenced them?” asks Ricks. “What ancient works were in their minds as they drafted the Declaration of Independence or debated the Constitution? How does their reliance on Greco-Roman history affect how we live now?”

Ricks structures his book in three parts and concludes with 10 steps to help his readers move “toward what we ought to be.” Part I, “Acquisition,” describes the lives and educational backgrounds of the first four presidents. Washington was notably different from the other three; he was the only one with no classical education. In 1775, there were only 3,000 college graduates in a population of 2.5 million, and only nine colleges in the colonies. Ricks points to Washington’s informal education “in the frontier of his time,” but his argument that Washington acquired some of the characteristics of a more formally trained gentleman is less than persuasive.

Thomas Jefferson was described as someone who “would destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

The other three founders had read the influential textbooks of the time, as well as the writings of Cicero, Horace, Ovid and Marcus Aurelius from the ancient period and Montesquieu, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume and John Locke from the Enlightenment. Adams was a “child of the Enlightenment” and “aspired to be the Cicero of his time.” Jefferson was “arguably more Greek than Roman, more Epicurean than Ciceronian.” Madison’s studies in logic and moral philosophy clearly merit consideration in understanding the development of his mind. Madison’s favorite French writer was Montesquieu, and he built a country house outside Princeton named Tusculum, for the town outside Rome where Cicero had his country villa.

In Part II, “Application,” Ricks addresses the type of society the first four founders envisioned. The founders at first devoted their attention to colonial thinkers, but when they found few insightful answers, they reached back to the classical world. While some famous colonists, like Thomas Paine, eschewed “classical citations and allusions, relying more on references to the Bible and images from farm life,” others returned to the principles of “Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sydney, Harrington and Lock,” as John Adams once wrote.

It would be difficult to find a better source than First Principles on the Revolutionary period and how it relates to today’s critical issues.

Washington modeled “his public persona upon Cato,” the statesman who was considered the embodiment of Roman virtue. Washington was also compared by historians to the Roman generals Fabius and Cincinnatus, both of whom helped save Rome from invasions, became temporary dictators and then relinquished their power to return to their farms. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote a document that valued the principles he aspired to follow. According to Ricks, Jefferson accomplished “an extraordinary feat, relaying a lifetime of classical learning about liberty and rights but employing strong, straightforward prose that could be read aloud on street corners and in taverns and understood by all who listened.”

From 1781 to 1789, the new country was governed by the Articles of Confederation. When the founders decided that the Articles needed to be replaced, James Madison drew upon the Greeks and Romans to discuss problems with the Articles and to develop the ideas that eventually became the basic elements of the U.S. Constitution. In 23 essays in the Federalist Papers in support of the Constitution, he brought together a sufficient consensus for the states to accept the newly drafted document. In Part III, Ricks turns to the 1790s and the decades following, depicting the 1790s as “the decade when the classical model ran out of steam.”

Introducing his 10 steps toward “what we ought to be,” Ricks describes how he woke up shocked after the 2016 presidential election and asked himself what had happened to our country. He wanted to go back to the fundamentals and offer suggestions that “might help put 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.” All 10 suggestions are worthy of consideration. Among them: implement campaign finance reform; refocus on the public good; provide health care access to everyone; promote, cultivate and reward virtue in public life; and reinvigorate our system of checks and balances by ensuring that voting rights are respected.

In its historical account of the background and development of the first four presidents and its analysis of how this knowledge can assist readers to appreciate today’s vital topics, First Principles offers a valuable perspective for anyone interested in American history. It would be difficult to find a better source on the Revolutionary period and how it relates to today’s critical issues.