First Principles by Thomas Ricks [Book Summary – Review]

Nowadays, the educational system in America doesn’t talk about the importance of Greek and Roman classics. Still, the impact of olden thinking is seen in numerous manners. 

Let’s take a look at Washington DC which is the capital of America, you will notice the buildings were made classically. When you listen to the news, you will also see them talk about Democrats and Republicans: these are words obtained from Greek and Latin respectively. 

However, the impact that Rome as well as Greece has on America is way more than the beautiful options and linguistics. The texts of the olden world played a crucial part in shaping how the founders of America perceived their emerging country. During the period of national commotion, present-day Americans need to reexamine and redirect their country’s original principles.

In this book, you’ll discover 

  • the best play of George Washington’s favorite play;
  • the similarities between John Adams and Cicero a Roman politician; and
  • the reason behind the Constitution being an Epicurean document. 

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Chapter 1 – Revolutionary Americans considered the old Roman Republic as a model of a republican form of government. 

Think about the term virtue. Nowadays, it is interchangeable morality. Virtue was used to talk about female chastity sometime in the past. However, during the era of the founding Fathers of America, it had a completely different meaning. To the founding fathers, virtue implied public-mindedness – the ability to take into consideration the common good before self-interest

Indeed, virtue is a Latin term. Also, virtue held a significant spot in the minds of the founders, if not an outright obsession, they had a deep admiration for it. In total, the term “virtue” shows up six thousand times in the United States National Archives. Whether or not you believe it, it appears much more than the term “freedom.” It is evident that the founders held on to the classical principles while creating their new country.

The key message here is: that Revolutionary Americans considered the old Roman Republic as a model of a republican form of government. 

The contemporary concept of virtue differs from what the founders envisioned, just as their whole understanding of the classical world also varied as well.

In the present day, literary works by Greek writers such as Herodotus, Homer, and Plato, are commonly highlighted on lists of exceptional books, whereas Roman authors receive comparatively less attention. However, during the Revolutionary time, the situation was reversed: Romans were highly respected, whereas Greeks were frequently perceived as impulsive and unreliable.

Also, historical people were perceived differently in the past. For instance, consider Cicero. In contemporary times, the Roman is often seen as nothing more than an arrogant person. However, the founders of America held Cicero in high regard, considering him a skilled orator and a great leader.

Together with its philosophers, the Roman republican government served as a guiding principle for America’s founders. Taking into consideration Alexander Hamilton’s words, in the thirty-fourth volume of The Federalist Papers, he expressed that the Roman Republic had reached the “highest peak of human greatness.” What intrigued the founders even more than Rome’s prosperity was its downfall; they pondered the factors that led to the decline of the once-great empire.

While Rome was a source of inspiration and guidance to the founders, it also led them astray sometimes. One particularly concerning situation revolved around the act of slavery. A lot of the founders viewed the enslavement of people as an inherent aspect of societal structure and employed classical theories to support this act.

It is clear to the eyes that the founders of America had their imperfections. However, they effectively established a republic that persistently extends rights to an increasing number of individuals. It is important to look at the classical concepts at the forefront of their thinking.

Chapter 2 – Washington aspired to be an upright statesman as well as a military general.

A play named Cata was one of the most famous theatrical productions during pre-Revolutionary America. Even though nowadays, the play appears rigid, sluggish, and difficult to read. However, in the 18th century, audiences found delight in its extensive orations and quotable one-liners.

Cato gained prominence for a different reason; the reason being that it was George Washington’s best play. The main character in the play had the virtues Washington aspired to be. Cato, a symbol of virtue, turned away the privileges associated with his aristocratic background and used his political career to fight against governmental corruption.

Similar to Cato, Washington was a man of deeds rather than just words. Different from his counterparts, Washington didn’t get an education from an esteemed university but he got it on the battleground.

The main point here is: Washington aspired to be an upright statesman as well as a military general.

The first significant fight Washington experienced was in the year 1754 and this was during the French and Indian fight – a fight that happened between the British and French, they were associated with a lot of First Peoples tribes/ 

The fight began with a victory for Washington who was 22 years old at that time. Washington together with his regiment victoriously caught the French off guard and this resulted in only one death of a person. However, things would instantly change for the worse. 

The French initiated their attack a few weeks later. However, during this time, Washington’s group had limited food and they were already feeling down. When the French eventually launched their attack, Washihton lost about one hundred of his people. Whereas just three soldiers lost their lives among the French people. 

Years after, a more embarrassing defeat will happen. Washington was working under a man called Edward Braddock, a British General who was a dangerously pompous person who mocked the French troops.

Braddock faced the consequences of his action with his life, perishing together with 1,200 British soldiers during a clash that happened in the Ohio River Valley. The French, in collaboration with their allies, First People executed a well-planned ambush, compelling the British troops to withdraw.

This defeat had a profound impact on Washington. Afterward, he remembered traversing the British camp under the cover of night, his horse carefully navigating through the corpses and injured soldiers. It witnessed a firsthand realization of the possible outcome awaiting a prideful general who oppose adapting to situations and and disregarding advice.

The lesson from this stayed with Washington as he took the role of the commander of the Continental Army, engaged in the attack against the British thirteen years later. In spick of now having a formal education, Washington acquired the qualities of a genuine Roman leader, embodying both virtue and discipline.

Chapter 3 – In the Revolutionary War, Washington exemplified the characteristics of both Fabius and Cincinnatus.

The majority of present-day Americans see Washington as a somewhat military expert. However, Washington had yet to find a way to conquer the British during the start of the Revolutionary War. Truth is, the early approaches failed. 

Washington tried to confront the British directly at first. However, this strategy was destined for failure from the beginning all thanks to the British army’s superior riches, training, and numbers. Following a year and a half of wins, Washington took the counsel of one of his top generals, Nathaniel Greene, and he changed to a defensive approach known as a war of posts. In this defensive tactic, the army would withdraw back into fortresses and engage in wars from those fortified positions. However, this approach proved unsuccessful as well and led to costly difficulties, with thousands of troops surrendering to the British.

It was important to do a different thing. Therefore, Washington adopted a third approach – inspired by the approach employed by the Roman general Fabius.

The main point here is:  In the Revolutionary War, Washington exemplified the characteristics of both Fabius and Cincinnatus.

Fabius achieved his most notable success by conquering the well-known Carthaginian general Hannibal during the beginning of the 200s BC. To do that, Similar to Washington, Fabius was regarded as a slow thinker – formulating a meticulous technique. Instead of seeking a direct conquer over Hannibal, Fabius aimed to prevent him from securing a significant win.

To do this, Fabius employed tactics like cutting Hannibal as well as his army off their resources, disrupting their supply lines, and preventing their foraging function. Additionally, Fabius strategically positioned his armies’ camps in the hills rather than putting them on the plains, forcing his enemy’s armies to maintain steady vigilance.

Fabian barely won any war In the fight with Hannibal, yet he defeated him and won. Similar to that of Washington. He hardly confronted the British one-on-one in the latter part of the American Revolution. However, through the strategy of wearing out his rivals, draining their resources, and slowing their progress, he ultimately secured victory.

During late 1783 in December, after they won the war, the Congress had a party to celebrate Washington’s win. The following day, Washington resigned from being the Commander of the Continental Army. It was easy for Washington to change himself into a military dictator just like Julius Caesar. However, he decided to turn into Cincinattus – a man famous for rejecting the position of dictator and going back to his farm after leading the Romans to triumph. By doing that, Cincinnatus, as well as Washington, demonstrated a profound respect for public virtue.

Chapter 4 – John Adams saw himself as the Cicero of America.

Born in 106 BC to parents of ordinary status, the Roman orator Cicero started his career as a plebeian, an ordinary person. However, he succeeded in elevating his status to what the Romans termed a “new man,” someone who got to nobility through holding prestigious offices.

The peak of Cicero’s profession occurred in 63 BC when he assumed the role of one of Rome’s consuls, the highest political role in the empire. It was during this tenure that he challenged the Catiline conspiracy, a scheme plotted by Catiline the populist senator to remove the consulship of Rome. Through various compelling and emotionally charged talks, Cicero uncovered the Catiline scheme, leading to the senator’s eventual flee from Rome.

America’s founders were familiar with Cicero, but one of them, John Adams, held a particular admiration for the Roman orator. Adams shared some of Cicero’s notable traits, both good and bad.

The main point here is: John Adams saw himself as the Cicero of America.

Adams was undeniably a big admirer of Cicero. During evenings, Adam would read Cicero’s speeches out loud personally, and his admiration extended to documenting his thoughts about the Roman orator in his diary.

Adams recognized reflections of himself in Cicero. Nevertheless, both persons emerged from unremarkable backgrounds and gained a reputation through a blend of diligence and eloquence. Similar to Cicero, Adams was resolute in his pursuit of greatness—aiming for honor, respect, and influence.

However, both persons also shared a significant weakness and that is vanity. Cicero had a strong inclination for praise, and Adams, as well, struggled to ignore negative publicity. While he was president, he went so far as to imprison newspaper editors who condemned him.

Before assuming the presidency, Adams actively participated in politics. Adam was the first founder to advocate for a revolution.

In the year 1765, Adams wrote a pamphlet that talked about an amazing and foresighted vision. In this pamphlet, Adam speculated the long-term future of America; he stated that liberty would ultimately prevail among millions of citizens.

During the summer of the year 1765, Adams wrote a lot of essays where he proclaimed that Americans possessed the right to liberty from God instead of being gotten from a king.

These essays had a remarkable influence, increasing the awareness of their rights and liberties among Adams’ fellow Bostonians. The essays prompted them to question if they were being treated with by the British. Also, they started embracing the concept that a revolution could be imminent.

Chapter 5 – The Greeks, most especially Epicurus, served as a source of inspiration for Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson stood apart from the other founding fathers in a lot of ways. Jefferson possessed a strong aesthetic sensibility, engaging in different activities such as music, extensive reading, as well as architectural design. Even though the Romantic movement, which prioritized emotion over reason had not yet started, Jefferson can be seen as a precursor to it. He demonstrated passion, emotion, and even illogicality sometimes.

The Romantic movement drew influential influence from the ancient Greeks, and Jefferson, in turn, was greatly influenced by them as well. Among the founders, Jefferson stands out as the one who could be seen as more Greek than Roman.

The main point here is: the Greeks, most especially Epicurus, served as a source of inspiration for Thomas Jefferson.

During his schooling, Jefferson had a type of diary known as a commonplace book, where he documented quotations from different books he read. In his diary, Greek authors were notably featured there – for instance,  Jefferson cited the Athenian tragedian Euripides around 70 times.

Intriguingly, the Greek philosopher Epicurus was notably absent from these entries, suggesting that Jefferson must have come across Epicurus later on in life. However, as soon as he encountered him,  Epicurus, the Greek philosopher would have a deep influence on Jefferson’s reasoning.

Although there is not much information on Epicurus’s life, it is documented that he created a community known as The Garden in Athens. In this community, members embraced the notion that tranquility as well as pleasure were the ideal goals in life.

Nowadays, Epicureanism is usually associated with the enjoyment of pleasures such as wine and sexual intercourse. However, during Jefferson’s era, the philosophy held a different meaning to this. In Jefferson’s diary, he outlined the Epicurean philosophy as follows: the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of life, and virtue serves as the basis of happiness. Virtue, according to Jefferson, encompasses justice, prudence, temperance as well as fortitude.

These principles resonate prominently in Jefferson’s masterpiece of work named, the Declaration of Independence.

In the second paragraph of his document, Jefferson states that every man is made the same and has the right to “liberty, life, and the search for happiness.” His choice of the word “happiness” reflects a manifestation of Epicureanism at its highest level. This stands in contrast to the word used by the English philosopher John Locke, who originally employed the words “life, liberty, and estate.” By doing this, Jefferson’s departure from this formulation signifies his vision of an optimistic future for every American, emphasizing values beyond private assets. Furthermore, Jefferson incorporates both prudence and justice in the Declaration, ideas he considers important to Epicureanism. 

Jefferson outlined a blueprint for the burgeoning country in his declaration. To some extent, Americans owe thankfulness to Epicurus for these foundational ideas.

Chapter 6 – James Madison examined the classics through the perspective of the Enlightenment.

The northwestern European country of Scotland was going through an intellectual revolution during the middle of the 18th century.

The revolution called the Scottish Enlightenment happened at a time when its nearby country, England, was experiencing a time of intellectual downturn. Some studies estimated that in the year 1750, 75% of Scots were able to read compared to only 53% of English people who could read. English universities such as Oxford were falling at that point, whereas universities in Glasgow and Edinburgh developed and thrived.

Thanks to the significant influx of Scottish immigrants to America, the Scottish Enlightenment greatly impacted the founding fathers. Drawing extensively from classical ideas, this movement had its most pronounced influence on James Madison, who would eventually become America’s fourth president.

The key message here is: James Madison examined the classics through the perspective of the Enlightenment.

While Madison was in Princeton, he came across Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. While at Princeton, his Scottish professors he taught logic, classics, moral philosophy, and French. They conducted lectures on the need for governments to add systems of checks as well as balances. Also, there, he was taught the concepts of the French philosopher Montesquieu.

Montesquieu’s influential ideas in his renowned work, The Spirit of the Laws, were largely rooted in the histories of Rome and Greece. Drawing on the examples of these two civilizations, the French thinker stated that republics could only thrive in smaller countries. If they grew bigger, the risk of internal conflict and warring factions would emerge, eventually leading to the fall of the country.

These considerations held immense value for Madison as well as his fellows. Madison most likely got inspiration from Montesquieu when composing his two masterpiece works titled: the American Constitution and The Federalist Papers.

While the Constitution provided the framework for the emerging country nation, The Federalist Papers provided it with a genuine sense of legitimacy. In these writings, Madison talked about concerns that American politicians might eventually abandon virtue for partisanship. Different from Rome, Madison predicted that the government of America government would embrace partisanship as a feature rather than viewing it as a weakness. The government would acknowledge the inevitability of partisanship and self-interest by establishing three components that could mutually check and balance one another.

Regarding Montesquieu’s claim that a republic could only thrive in a small country, Madison offered a counterargument for that as well. Madison maintained that the way to solve the issues of factionalism was to establish a big national republic. By doing so, the country would be put into numerous communities and parties, making it exceedingly challenging for any one group to exert dominance over the remaining group. Furthermore, in the event of regional conflicts ever happened, which eventually happened with the Civil War, a robust federal government could play an important part in preserving the unity of the country.

Chapter 7 – The decline of American classicism occurred following the acceptance of the Constitution.

Nowadays, we use the word “loyal opposition” which means the act of questioning and critiquing those in authority while maintaining loyalty to the country’s government. 

However, during the time of America’s founders, this word had not yet been created. They lacked the political terminology to articulate the concept of beneficial political contests or partisanship. Therefore, they kept on interpreting it through Roman words. Notably figures like The Federalists such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, portrayed their adversaries—the anti-Federalists—as “Catilines,” depicting them as traitors to the state.

The classical framework proved abortive for the founders to comprehend the distinctive situations of their new country. Even as partisanship was on the rise, the Federalists continued to hold onto the notion that their government could thrive without it. However, this notion was destined for failure.

The key message here is: the decline of American classicism occurred following the acceptance of the Constitution

The success of the Federalist vision of government depended on the presence of honorable individuals to take charge. Washington embodied such virtue, serving as an ideal moral excellence despite his reluctance to become the president.

Say Washighton’s presidency supported the vision of the Federalists, Adams’s presidency destroyed the Federalist vision completely. Contrary to Washington, Adams actively opposed the rising partisanship. However, he did that in greatly undesirable approaches—such as arresting journalists, suppressing the opposition press, and instrumentalizing the judiciary department for political purposes.

Despite Adams’ shortcomings, he did achieve one crucial aspect of a new democracy: and that is the transfer of power without any problem. Thomas Jefferson, his successor, was fasting turning into a brazen partisan.

In his inaugural speech, Jefferson declared a decisive triumph for the anti-Federalists. However, essentially, he pledged not to infringe the rights of the people who had been defeated. Regardless of one’s perspective, everyone had the privilege of the same rights.

Remarkably, Jefferson scarcely used the word “virtue” in his inaugural address, marking a distinct deviation from the traditional classical mindset. While virtue was considered desirable, it was no longer seen as important.

Under Jefferson’s presidency and Madison’s subsequent tenure, classicism gradually transformed into a subject of mockery, perceived as an indication of elitism and upper-class folly. Concurrently, there emerged a growing sentiment among individuals that slavery contradicted the foundational American principle of freedom for everyone.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the dominance of reason and rationality waned, giving way to a more emotional view. This change brought about the gradual decline of classicism. While Americans did not entirely forsake classicism, it no longer served as their predominant guiding influence.

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

The founding fathers of America used the civilizations of olden Rome as well as Greece as illuminating guides to help them establish a successful republican government. Not only did they aim to copy the personal heroes of the Roman and Greek. While James Madison was formulating the Constitution as well as The Federalist Papers, he started to deviate from the traditional standard. This marked the reduction of American classicism into the diminished state it occupies today.

It’s essential to go back to the principles of virtue as well as the common good. 

Even though the word “virtue” may have changed over time, it doesn’t signify that Americans can still uphold this fundamental principle.  This can be done by actively taking part in local governance, participating in respectful debates, and talking against the people who undermine America’s core values – even when they belong to the same side. Eventually, Americans need to redirect their discussions to prioritize the public good and also the well-being of the rather than only focusing on individual good.

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