For a quick understanding of what Thomas E. Ricks’ book, “First Principles,” is all about, readers need look no further than the subtitle.
“What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.”
While the subtitle is long, it provides a concise overview of the themes in “First Principles.”
Ricks reviews these themes by taking readers on walks through the lives and founding times of the first four American presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Men who shaped the nation before America was a nation through the move for Independence from Great Britain to the Revolutionary War to the creation of the Constitution and the establishment of the early government and presidential administrations.
Throughout each mini-era, Ricks reveals how these men and other American founders relied on lessons taken from the Greeks and more especially the Romans.
In the cases of the more academically prepared Adams, Jefferson and Madison, some of these comparisons can be found literally in their speeches, writings and books in their libraries as well as the ideas they advocated in everything from addresses on the floor of the Continental Congress to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.
Though less book-learned than his contemporaries, Washington was just as familiar with Roman thought, people and events from history. Popular plays of the age centered on historical Roman figures and Roman philosophy on public virtue, history and examples were common place in conversations, classrooms and news essays of the 18th century.
While the others argued and expounded on these themes, Washington, according to Ricks, personified Roman ideals. He lived the Roman ideals from his admiration of Cato, a senator from the waning days of the Roman republic. Like Cincinnatus, who returned to his fields after saving Rome, General Washington relinquished military power after securing American independence in the Revolutionary War.
As with his book, “Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ricks digs deep into his themes but writes in a clear style that explains lofty concepts well while building strong foundations for his stated themes.
He also shares interesting details throughout his books.
“First Principles” isn’t a series of traditional biographies on its four principals but rather a set of biographical profiles on their connections with Roman, and some Greek, ideas in their lives and the events they shaped.
And a strong guide for how these “First Principles” shaped the documents, ideals, history and government of the United States of America.