"Ricks knocks it out of the park with this jewel of a book. On every page I learned something new. Read it every night if you want to restore your faith in our country." — James Mattis, General, U.S. Marines (ret.) & 26th Secretary of Defense
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author offers a revelatory new book about the founding fathers, examining their educations and, in particular, their devotion to the ancient Greek and Roman classics—and how that influence would shape their ideals and the new American nation.
On the morning after the 2016 presidential election, Thomas Ricks awoke with a few questions on his mind: What kind of nation did we now have? Is it what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders? Trying to get as close to the source as he could, Ricks decided to go back and read the philosophy and literature that shaped the founders’ thinking, and the letters they wrote to each other debating these crucial works—among them the Iliad, Plutarch’s Lives, and the works of Xenophon, Epicurus, Aristotle, Cato, and Cicero. For though much attention has been paid the influence of English political philosophers, like John Locke, closer to their own era, the founders were far more immersed in the literature of the ancient world.
The first four American presidents came to their classical knowledge differently. Washington absorbed it mainly from the elite culture of his day; Adams from the laws and rhetoric of Rome; Jefferson immersed himself in classical philosophy, especially Epicureanism; and Madison, both a groundbreaking researcher and a deft politician, spent years studying the ancient world like a political scientist. Each of their experiences, and distinctive learning, played an essential role in the formation of the United States. In examining how and what they studied, looking at them in the unusual light of the classical world, Ricks is able to draw arresting and fresh portraits of men we thought we knew.
First Principles follows these four members of the Revolutionary generation from their youths to their adult lives, as they grappled with questions of independence, and forming and keeping a new nation. In doing so, Ricks interprets not only the effect of the ancient world on each man, and how that shaped our constitution and government, but offers startling new insights into these legendary leaders.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
What were America’s founders actually thinking? Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas E. Ricks, a national-security journalist, explores this epic question by revealing the profound influence that Greek and Roman philosophers had on the first four U.S. presidents. His vivid history book shows that though George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison had vastly different upbringings and leadership styles, they shared a common goal: To shape their new nation according to the ideas of classical writers like Plutarch, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Cicero. Ricks takes us behind closed doors, explaining how the founders first learned about these ancient thinkers (for example, the Roman statesman Cato became influential simply because he was the subject of a popular play) and illustrating how each man tried to apply ancient philosophies to their presidencies, usually with mixed results. Learning about what the early presidents saw as a philosophical road map for their country sheds revealing new light on our early leaders—and shows how those ancient principles could help shape America’s future.
Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks (Churchill and Orwell) delivers an immersive and enlightening look at how the classical educations of the first four U.S. presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) influenced their thinking and the shape of American democracy. According to Ricks, the evolution of Washington's military strategy during the Revolutionary War drew from Roman general Fabius's defeat of Hannibal in 203 BCE. Ricks also documents classical antecedents in the construction of the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson's architectural plans for government buildings in Washington, D.C., and analyzes 18th-century opinions on the ancient world expressed in Robert Dodsley's textbook The Preceptor ("a blueprint for the Declaration of Independence") and Joseph Addison's play Cato (which inspired Patrick Henry's famous line "Give me liberty or give me death"). The Amphictyonic League, a confederation of early Greek cities, is partly responsible for the U.S. Senate's equalized representation regardless of state size, Ricks points out. The book closes with suggested steps for returning America "to the course intended by the Revolutionary generation," including "don't panic," "re-focus on the public good," and "wake up Congress." With incisive selections from primary sources and astute cultural and political analysis, this lucid and entertaining account is a valuable take on American history.