Has America Lost Its First Principles?

By Edward J. WattsJuly 18, 2021

Has America Lost Its First Principles?

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped our Country by Thomas E. Ricks

FIVE YEARS AFTER the election of Donald Trump, Americans are no closer to explaining what his election meant and where our country now stands. Did his loss in 2020 usher in a calmer political era? Or do the violent last few weeks of the Trump administration point toward bigger, more sustained future assaults on the American Republic?

Thomas E. Ricks’s First Principles suggests that the America of today can best be understood by returning to the intellectual world inhabited by its founders. This will, he writes, permit us to examine our “assumptions about this country and its design” by questioning not just “what the founders had thought but wondering what had shaped their thinking.” This is a sensible approach at a time when so many of us have failed to appreciate that, in Ricks’s words, so many of our “fellow citizens had an understanding of our nation profoundly different from [our] own.” If we have misunderstood our nation, Ricks proposes that we can better grasp America’s nature by reevaluating the goals of its architects. What emerges is a delightfully written, fast-paced, and intellectually sophisticated group biography of our first four presidents.

Ricks chose a fruitful point of entry into the minds that shaped our nation. Instead of looking at the written work of mature political thinkers struggling to piece together a state during and after the American Revolution, Ricks focuses on the intellectual formation of our first four presidents. These men grew up in British America learning the rules of elite life in a society dominated by notions of proper aristocratic conduct culled from the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. The Classics both shaped the Founders’ worldview and often defined the limits of their imagination.

Each of the future presidents had a different introduction to the Greco-Roman legacy. Young George Washington lacked the formal schooling to read the Classics in Greek or Latin. Washington instead absorbed the lessons of antiquity largely through osmosis as he farmed, surveyed, and fought in the land along and beyond Virginia’s Appalachian frontier.

Ricks presents John Adams as an irascible adolescent whose petulance and intelligence simultaneously pulled and repelled him from Classical learning. This changed when Adams’s teacher Joseph Marsh introduced him to works of the Roman statesman Cicero. The arrogant and mercurial Cicero enchanted Adams to such a degree that the young student purchased a volume of Cicero’s works “with his own meager money.” Later in life, flattering Adams as the American Cicero became a sure way to gain his appreciation.

Thomas Jefferson received the most diverse classical education of our early presidents. He began learning Greek, Latin, and French at the age of nine, attended William & Mary as a teenager, and then studied law under George Wythe, a Virginian lawyer Jefferson called “the best Greek and Latin scholar in the state.” Jefferson eventually grew into a connoisseur of Epicureanism, a Greek philosophical system whose privileging of happiness above all other pursuits Jefferson evoked in the Declaration of Independence.

James Madison most systematically blended the Classics with the ideas of influential 18th-century European thinkers like Montesquieu and Hume. His efforts took shape at Princeton, which Ricks describes as being “to the America of the 1760s what the University of California at Berkeley would be two hundred years later.” It was there that Madison first engaged with Princeton president John Witherspoon’s notion that virtue “promoted the general good” when public and private interests are “made to assist and not destroy each other.”

Ricks’s four protagonists generally shared Witherspoon’s opinion that virtuous public and private conduct could best advance the common good during the years surrounding the American Revolution. They had soaked up stories about exemplary Roman heroes and villains whose lives modeled virtuous and vicious behaviors. On the heroic side of the ledger sat figures like Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman senator and farmer who was appointed dictator so that he could save the Roman Republic from an enemy attack. Cincinnatus quickly neutralized the threat and only 16 days after his appointment relinquished power and returned to his fields, restoring Rome’s normal constitutional order. Cicero stood out as a man whose eloquence and commitment to republican principles outweighed a vanity and egotism that even 18th-century Americans recognized as distasteful. But the Founders most idolized Cato, a first-century BC Roman senator and Stoic philosopher who vigorously defended Rome’s representative democracy and then committed suicide rather than live under Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. By the 1700s, Cato’s legend was such a part of colonial culture that Joseph Addison’s popular play based on Cato’s life was said to be George Washington’s favorite dramatic production.

The Founders despised the Roman rebel Catiline even more than they admired Cato. Catiline was famous for organizing a revolt against the Roman Republic in 63 BC. Although Catiline’s plans were quickly discovered and he and his followers were killed, the event occurred while Cicero held Rome’s highest magistracy and both Julius Caesar and Cato spoke at length in the senatorial debate about how to respond to Catiline. Because it involved such famous Romans, Catiline’s revolt figured prominently in many of the Roman literary works found in 18th-century libraries and school curricula. America’s Founders had been taught that Catiline was a vicious man who lacked any concern for virtue or the common good. He embodied the opposite qualities of the men on whom the Founders hoped to base their Republic.

Greek and Roman ideas about effective representative government played a large role in the deliberations at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Although thinkers like Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton expressed concern about “the wisdom of civil governments […] of Greece and Rome,” Madison came prepared to counter those objections. He had spent much of the mid-1780s studying how ancient republics worked and what led to their collapse. Madison even enlisted Jefferson to send him editions of ancient authors from France to broaden his understanding of these ancient states.

In Ricks’s telling, Madison’s deep knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman political systems allowed him to dominate some of the earliest discussions at the Constitutional Convention. Madison argued that ancient republics failed because they were either too small to prevent factions from tearing them apart or so large that “centrifugal tendencies” tore them apart. Madison’s solution was a large republic with a strong central government that could dilute the passions of factionalism while uniting a continent. After input from Adams and others, this central government would have separate branches that checked one another, a structure first explained in the second century BC by the Greek historian Polybius. But Madison had also moved on from the idea that the personal and public virtue of citizens could sustain a nation when “a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.” The result was a federal republic made up of three branches of government, each with separate powers designed to check the excesses of the others. This political structure would govern a country that virtue alone had failed to unify.

The Constitutional Convention and the resulting discussions about Constitutional ratification in the states pushed American political thought beyond its classical roots, but our early presidents remained enchanted by the Roman exemplars about whom they had learned. Washington modeled his strategy in the Revolutionary War after that used by the famous Roman general Fabius Maximus when Fabius thwarted Hannibal’s invasion of Italy in the third century BC. When the Revolutionary War ended, Washington imitated Cincinnatus by walking away from a position of supreme power that he could have maintained indefinitely. Washington did this again in 1797 when he stepped down from the presidency and returned to his farm. Then, at the conclusion of his difficult presidency, John Adams compared himself to “poor Cicero” who “was libelled, Slandered Insulted by all Parties […] by Catilines Crew” just as Adams himself had been “injured, insulted, and provoked.”

As Adams suggested, the frightening specter of Catiline loomed over elite American political discourse across the 1790s and early 1800s. At times when the Founders were frustrated with their countrymen, they used Cataline as a discrediting insult. So, for example, Alexander Hamilton asked those participating in 1794’s Whiskey Rebellion, “How long, ye Catilines, will you abuse our patience?” By the early 1800s, Hamilton and many like him came to agree that Aaron Burr “is truly the Catiline of America.” Adams, for his part, wrote that Burr was a “Catiline.”

Imprecation by Roman analogy still resonated among these elites as the new century dawned, but the virtuous Roman exemplars against whom Burr’s Catiline contrasted seemed less relevant as the age of the Founders gave way to the stirrings of Jacksonian democracy. Ricks concludes his work by describing an America that had embraced rapid westward expansion, the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, and the beginning of industrialization. That United States untethered itself both from the Classical literary works that had inspired its Founders and the revolutionary age that their shared cultural vocabulary had shaped. For better or worse, it was no longer a society dominated by a Classically trained upper class.

As Ricks suggests, the Founders’ ideal of a new republic governed by virtuous elites whose actions were inspired by great Romans was doomed to fail. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison imagined an American future founded on moralizing literature in which the complications of ancient people were glossed over so that an illustrative lesson could be taught. One cannot create a functional state around such illusions, and Presidents Jefferson and Madison deserve credit for turning away from simplistic Classical archetypes when they realized the complexity of the country they ran.

“America,” Ricks writes, “is a moving target,” but he nevertheless concludes the book with a set of 10 recommendations for how we might return to “the course intended by the Revolutionary generation.” These include steps like focusing again on the public good, rewarding public virtue, and revitalizing Congress. Embracing such changes can, Ricks hopes, allow us to salvage “the American experiment” that our first four presidents treasured.

I fear that these recommendations do not go far enough to address the real challenges our republic faces. Both ancient and modern republics struggle to deal with political dissatisfaction amid dramatic economic transformations. In Rome, an economic revolution that fostered wealth inequality in the 150s and 140s BC caused a political crisis in the 130s from which the Roman Republic never fully recovered. Americans are now more than a generation into a financial revolution of our own that has similarly produced wealth inequality but, aside from Ricks’s recommendation to reform campaign finance, he offers little that can address this problem.

Political violence represents an even more serious threat to republics. Rome’s nearly 500 years of republican government ended in the first century BC after a century of intermittent political violence. The prospect of similar political violence in America must have seemed remote to Ricks when he published First Principles in 2020. After the January 6 storming of the Capital, however, Americans must now confront the real possibility that similar attacks might remain a part of our politics for years to come. Ricks offers no good solutions for America’s terrifying new politics of intimidation, though I suspect few can fault him for this.

The historian Sallust, another Roman author read extensively by the Founders, suggests our current political ailments may be more serious than we realize. Sallust’s gripping history of Catiline’s rebellion and its violent suppression explains that personal and political virtues often decline together and, as they do, their failures compound. In Rome, this meant that corrupt individuals corrupted the society around them and the social degeneration this produced further corrupted future generations of individuals. This created a mutually reinforcing spiral of vice that destroyed both public and private virtue. Catiline took advantage of these conditions to launch his rebellion.

In his War with Catiline, Sallust explains that “as a young man I was carried away with a zeal for the Republic” but “shamelessness, bribery, and avarice instead of modesty, incorruptibility, and virtue flourished at that time.” “Amid such rampant vices,” Sallust wrote, “my youthful weakness was seduced and held captive” until “my desire for honors inflicted on me the same bad reputation and jealousy that it did on all others.” Sallust did not absolve himself of blame for the depravity into which he fell, but he also believed that he would have retained his naïve virtue had he entered political life at a different time.

Sallust saw Catiline as a talented but flawed product of this same degenerate age. In Sallust’s telling, neither Catiline’s revolt nor his personal behavior could have occurred in Rome at an earlier time when the “noblest and best” governed the city. But Sallust was equally uncomfortable with the moral dimensions of the Roman response to Catiline’s rebellion. Catiline had encouraged his followers to embrace avarice, shamelessness, and anger, but Sallust saw the Senate behaving irrationally as well when it debated how to punish the few Catilinarian conspirators who had been arrested in the city of Rome. In a speech he put in the mouth of Julius Caesar, Sallust implored the Roman Senate to deliberate “without hatred […] or anger” because “when you apply your intellect, it prevails; but if passion takes control, it dominates and the mind cannot prevail.” The senators did not listen to Caesar’s call to embrace virtue and rationality rather than anger and passion. They instead voted for the immediate execution of the arrested Catilinarians. The men were strangled a few hours later. By “placing anger above [their] reputations,” Sallust felt that the Senate had eliminated the immediate political threat but furthered Rome’s fall away from virtue and reason.

Sallust closes his War with Catiline by describing the battlefield outside of modern Pistoia where Catiline was defeated. As the victorious troops surveyed the ground, “the entire army was afflicted variously by joy and mourning, lamentation and happiness” as each one came upon the bodies of men he knew. These were tens of thousands of men consumed entirely by their passions and no longer governed by their minds.

Sallust might suggest that a similar, passion-fueled American carnage could await us if we do not properly reckon with the Trump years. Like the age of Catiline in Sallust’s telling, the last five years saw Americans become increasingly comfortable setting aside rational discussion and collectively giving in to the vices of shamelessness and anger. Eventually, like Catiline, some of us even condoned a violent assault on the seat of our government. Americans gave in to these vices as individuals, but we also were encouraged to do so by the conditions under which we lived. As Sallust understood, our personal failures worsened wider social conditions. The Founders feared their new nation falling into this vicious Sallustian spiral and they tried to build structures that could arrest its destructive course. By reminding us of those first principles and retelling the fascinating lives of the men who animated them, Ricks may have offered us a path along which we can find our way back. I sincerely hope that his optimism is merited.


Edward J. Watts holds the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author and editor of several prize-winning books, including The Final Pagan Generation.

LARB Contributor

Edward J. Watts holds the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. The author and editor of several prize-winning books, including The Final Pagan Generation (2015), he lives in Carlsbad, California.


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