All Lessons

All Lessons

The Greeks, The Romans, and the Founding Fathers

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What America Owes to the Greeks and Romans

What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
By Thomas E. Ricks

Stunned by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, Thomas E. Ricks felt compelled to ask a question that is just as pertinent now as it was then: “What is America supposed to be, anyway?” His search for an answer led him back to the Revolutionary generation to discover their original vision for the nation. “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country” marks a departure for Ricks, a prizewinning journalist, the author of several works on contemporary military and national security affairs and a columnist for The Times Book Review. In this instructive new book, he offers a judicious account of the equivocal inheritance left to modern Americans by their 18th-century forebears.

“First Principles” tracks the intellectual journeys of the first four presidents by focusing on their immersion in the classics, which, according to Ricks, exerted an “underappreciated” influence on their thinking. Familiarity with classical learning, a hallmark of European and colonial American genteel culture, was not inherently revolutionary. When confronted by an imperial crisis that spiraled into an independence movement, however, American revolutionaries turned to this ancient knowledge as a practical guide in justifying their rebellion and forming new governments. It taught them that the success of their enterprise depended above all on the cultivation of virtue, placing the public good before private interest.

The foremost exemplar of the virtuous citizen, paradoxically, was the one early president who lacked a formal education and never learned to read Latin. But George Washington absorbed classical ideas from the surrounding culture and understood the symbolic importance of crafting a public image based on Roman models. Contemporaries likened him to Cato, the defender of the Roman Republic against the dictatorial Caesar. After the War of Independence, Washington was celebrated as America’s Cincinnatus, determined to relinquish military command and return to his farm. He was less pleased with those who compared him to Fabius, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal by avoiding battle in order to protect his own army.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison encountered the classics while at college. Adams developed his devotion to Cicero at Harvard, poring over the Roman’s famous orations in the hope of attaining a similar eloquence. At William and Mary, Jefferson’s tastes were more eclectic, shaped by the empiricism of teachers steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment and by a preference for Greek philosophers over Romans. Madison attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), whose Scottish-born president John Witherspoon relied on the classics to encourage students to love liberty and preserve virtue against encroachments from private interest.

Throughout their public careers, these men repeatedly sought wisdom from the ancients when grappling with the challenges of their own day. Each was keenly aware that all classical republics had eventually succumbed to tyranny once virtue gave way to a pernicious factionalism. Washington sternly warned against the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his farewell address. Of the four men, Adams remained the most steadfast classicist. At the time of the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, he urged his fellow colonists to “read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome.” During his presidency, he saw conspiracies around every corner, insisting that he alone remained above party. Deprived of a second term, he retreated to his Massachusetts farm, imagining himself a latter-day Cicero, who likewise ended up “watched, dreaded, envied, by all: no doubt Slandered by innumerable Emissaries, despized, insulted, belied.”

As for Jefferson, the opening words of the Declaration of Independence testified to his attraction to Epicurean thought, which emphasized happiness as “the aim of life.” Over time, classical models exerted a greater influence over his views of architecture than of politics. His first Inaugural Address, in 1801, barely mentioned virtue, and his reminder that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle” was at best a lukewarm warning against factionalism.

Madison, the youngest member of this foursome, proved the most intellectually dynamic. He could cite ancient texts as readily as anyone, but argue with them as well. Observing the weaknesses of the national government under the Articles of Confederation, he concluded that factions were unavoidable. The key was to limit their divisive potential through a system of checks and balances designed to prevent any one party from exercising overweening power — an absolute necessity for a republic far larger than any in the ancient world. At the Constitutional Convention, Madison made obligatory gestures toward virtue even as he led the way in devising a governmental structure that placed little reliance on the willingness of the people or their leaders to set aside their private interests for the good of all.

Vestiges of the founders’ fascination with the classics persisted into the early 19th century among many other Americans. New towns bore the names of ancient cities, public buildings followed Greek and Roman designs and politicians reviled their opponents as latter-day Catilines, likening them to one of the most notorious conspirators against the Roman Republic. Yet the heyday of classicism had passed. Such arcane knowledge smacked of elitism in an increasingly egalitarian age. With the rise of a market economy, Americans celebrated competition in pursuit of profit. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, the nation’s leaders embraced the factionalism of party politics. No orator urged his rowdy audience to be virtuous. It seemed that the only time Aristotle was mentioned was in defense of slavery.

So where does this leave Americans in the 21st century? Ricks concludes that the classically trained founders bequeathed us a mixed legacy. On the plus side, he commends the nation’s eventual extension of political rights to far more people than the landholding white male minority enfranchised in the Revolutionary era. One doubts, however, that the first four presidents — three of whom were slaveholders — would be “pleased” to see this, as Ricks suggests. He is on surer ground in claiming that they would be “appalled by how money has come to dominate American politics,” obliterating even the pretense of virtue.

“First Principles” ends with a list of 10 steps we might take to combat our present political ills. Americans should resuscitate virtue as a core principle of society and government, directing their energies at reforming everything — from campaign finance to a dysfunctional system of checks and balances — that undermines the public good. Yet, like Madison, we should be wary of placing our trust in people’s willingness to think less about themselves and more about others. Ricks urges Americans to fix their government so that it protects citizens from the inevitable lapses of a fallible people and, perhaps, even more fallible leaders. How to persuade a fractious people to improve their behavior, however, poses as much of a challenge to us as it did to the founders. The answer to Ricks’s opening question appears to be that today’s America is not at all what the founders hoped the nation would be, but represents instead what they feared it might become.