The Founders’ Lost World

Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason and adopted by the state’s constitutional convention on June 12, 1776, urged that the blessings of liberty and free governments be preserved “by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” These principles had been articulated repeatedly by the Continental Congress, the various colonies and innumerable local communities, and in abundant speeches, sermons, and pamphlets over the preceding decades. Americans knew that these principles could be ignored, abused, and forgotten, and that republics needed to stay connected to their roots. Thomas Jefferson would draw on the Virginia Declaration to write the Declaration of Independence. Among these “fundamental principles” were the natural rights of life, liberty, property, safety, and happiness; accountable magistrates; separation of powers; government by consent; due process; and a “firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”

Historians sensitive to what the great Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield called the “texture” of the past know the difficulty of recovering and then conveying that nuance and complexity to readers. Readers and editors like bold claims, dramatic turns, and events “that changed America forever”—one of the worst cliches in publishing. It’s easy and popular to tell a simple story that conforms to a pre-cut pattern, and reaffirms readers’ prejudices about who was right and who was wrong, about which changes were fortunate and which unfortunate, about vindicating a favorite figure or cause and damning the rest. Too often we would rather use the past to confirm what we already believe to be right and good than to do the hard work of personal and national self-understanding. “Know thyself” is inseparable from “Know thy past.”

Visiting a Foreign Country

To get at that textured past, students of the Founding era face a particularly difficult challenge as they collect and reassemble in due proportion the ideas, precedents, and experiences Americans relied on to shape their lives first as British subjects and then as revolutionaries and framers of new governments. No single tradition produced the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution, or set into motion a new federated republic that might, under Providence, just beat the historical odds and survive. It was an “experiment,” in the old sense of needing to be put into practice and learned from. The generation that formed state governments, waged costly and protracted war, won independence, and built a union of limited and defined powers looked to a range of traditions for wisdom to guide their labors. Without blushing, they were habitual “borrowers.” Some were more bookish and given to abstract speculation than others. But as a group, they reflected on nearly 175 years of colonial self-government, the venerable tradition of English law and liberty, the 17th and 18th century Commonwealthmen, the philosophers of the moderate Enlightenment, the Christian, especially Reformed, tradition in all its maddening variety, ancient and modern history, and the greats of classical Greece and Rome.

In First Principles, Thomas Ricks seeks to reconnect Americans to a lost world, with the ancient Greeks and Romans, that the self-absorbed twenty-first century is likely to have forgotten, or not ever to have known in the first place, and yet which mattered so profoundly to the generation of 1776 as sources of ancestral wisdom, exemplary models of statesmanship, and guides to achieving and sustaining republics. Ricks takes his title from a 1779 letter George Washington wrote to James Warren. “Unless we can return a little more to first principles, & act a little more upon patriotic ground,” the general warned, “I do not know . . . what may be the issue of the contest.” Washington, schooled in war and adversity, harbored no illusions about the prospects for victory over the British Empire, the durability of public virtue, or the certainty of independence and a free republic.

Ricks limits himself largely to the writings of Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—the nation’s first four presidents. He argues correctly that they favored the Romans more than the Greeks, as had the whole tradition of education in the West for centuries. While they did not ignore Plato and Aristotle (though Jefferson and Adams mocked Plato’s Republic), and revered the Greek Polybius, they turned again and again to Cicero, Tacitus, Livy, and Sallust to ground their notions of war, good government, and the virtue indispensable to a free and happy people. By bringing the ancients back to the forefront, Ricks is able to place such eminent figures as John Locke into a richer and more varied context, as one important voice among many and perhaps not the most formative at that. It is a welcome sight to see Cicero restored to the prominence he once held. To call a statesman an “American Cicero” served as high complement and was used so often it became a cliché.

A Personal Investigation

Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the bestselling Fiasco and Churchill and Orwell, brings an energy and flair to this well-written book. Given his experience covering America’s far-flung battlefields for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, his chapters on Washington are especially effective. Though Washington did not know Greek or Latin, and was not college educated, he modeled himself on Cato, Fabius, and Cincinnatus. His fellow Americans were quick to bless him with these nicknames. Ricks is not an academic historian, but, finding the existing biographies of the first four presidents to be thin on the classical influence, he took up the ambitious project of reading through what the Founders read and trying to understand from the sources how they were taught, how they taught themselves, and how the ancients shaped their conduct, aspirations, and self-image.

Ricks has read a great deal, relying heavily on the National Archives’ web-based Founders Online, a massive, ongoing project that to date includes the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and most recently John Jay. It is a delight to peruse. Hopefully, this digital resource will soon be expanded to encompass a definition of “Founders” wide enough to include John Dickinson, Roger Sherman, and some of the Antifederalists. Naturally, we all have our favorites and probably conceptualize that generation and its achievements with a specific set of founders in mind. But if we resort habitually to the same celebrity Founders to get our sense of American ideas in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries we risk missing so much of the complexity and diversity of the founders.

Our principle of selection can blind us to as much as it illuminates. It’s hard to understand, for instance, what Ricks means by saying that Antifederalist thought was marked by “anti-classicism.” Some of the leaders of that amorphous group could have provided Ricks with some of the most deeply classical of the founders, and they were indeed founders who had fought in the common cause for liberty and sound government. They knew their way around Athens and Rome as well as any of the Federalists. They played Brutus to new Caesars. Nevertheless, by focusing on the first four presidents, Ricks kept what would have been an overwhelming research project manageable and his story clear and cohesive. His book is best understood as a personal encounter with a distant land and that era’s own encounter with the past and less as book obligated to adhere to the strict canons of historical method.

The Trouble with Trump

Ricks frames his book with Donald Trump, and while that decision gives the book a timely (though immediately dated) relevance, the strategy limits the audience he might otherwise have reached with a more detached perspective. But Trump’s election in 2016 surprised and confused Ricks and provoked him to figure out what America was supposed to be in the first place. Ricks was not happy. He picked up Aristotle’s Politics in search of answers, not realizing that he had begun a four-year odyssey and a new book project. In his epilogue, Ricks hits Trump hard, condemning his “retrogressive form of personal rule” and “attacks on immigrants,” and calling him “anti-Enlightenment, even though he would not know what that means.”

It is difficult now for a generation not educated in the way the Founders were to understand them. If we do not even ask the questions they asked—about human nature, power, liberty, self-government, debt and taxes, and empire—can we truly know them at all let alone learn from them?

This kind of eye-rolling detracts from what could have been a sober interrogation of modern American politics in toto. Missing here is any recognition that the Founders would have just as much to say about Joe Biden as Trump, about Democrats as Republicans, about “progressives” and “conservatives,” about journalist, think tanks, lobbyists, academics, and CEOs of any stripe. There is much more that modern Americans need to learn from the chasm between our own time and the Founding and between our time and the Greeks and Romans they admired. It is flattering to think that they would be proud of their offspring, but it seems more likely they would denied any responsibility for our bloated empire, decadence, and plunge into reckless debt. The “first principles” of justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue are in a sorry state, and recovery of these principles will require the genuine self-knowledge that a serious and sober study of the past can give us if we but listen attentively.

Ricks concludes that the Founders would be pleased with just how flexible what they created has turned out to be. For Ricks, America is an “experiment,” a “moving target, a goal that must always be pursued but never quite reached.” Such an assumption enables Ricks to square the founding with the racial and sexual enthusiasms he favors in current politics. Did he notice in his research that one of the nastiest barbs that 18th century writers could throw at Parliament and Whitehall was to call them “innovators”?

Ricks indicates the whole trajectory of his book with the dedication: “For the dissenters, who conceived this nation, and improve it still.” This tribute posits a continuity in American history that is just not there. It limits how the Founders might sit in judgment on our own time and thereby teach us something significant about ourselves and where we have ended up. Ricks criticizes the Founders for placing too much faith in “public virtue,” their disdain for party politics, and their acquiescence, at best, to slavery. But it doesn’t occur to him that they would be dismayed by our high taxes, budget deficits, public and private debt, divorce, abortion, pornography, statism, arrogant nationalism, imperialism, democratist ideology, and a paternalism that promises to keep us safe from all anxiety. We have traded the boast that we are “the land of the free and the home of the brave” for a new national motto: “Be safe.”

A Missed Opportunity

My own perusal of the Founders Online led me by chance to a book well known to the Founders and one that offers the depth of self-examination missing in Ricks. In 1764, the English cleric James Hampton published his Two Extracts from the Sixth Book of the General History of Polybius, a fresh translation from the original Greek. This slim volume followed publication of Hampton’s much more substantial five books of Polybius. His celebrated Polybius ran through multiple editions and remained the standard English translation well into the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic. None other than Samuel Johnson predicted the work would “long do honour to the present age” and would only “grow in reputation” over time, combining as it did the “dignity of antiquity” with the “easy flow of a modern composition.” This was high praise from the curmudgeonly Johnson. Whether or not they needed the Tory reviewer’s recommendation of Hampton, American colonists snatched up the volumes. Benjamin Franklin purchased them for the Library Company of Philadelphia. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson owned and recommended them.

Hampton’s Two Extracts appeared immediately following Britain’s decisive but costly victory over France in the Seven Years’ War. The empire’s colonial territory and debt had doubled; trouble with patriotic but disgruntled Americans loomed. Hampton’s title page promised “some reflections tending to illustrate the doctrine of the AUTHOR concerning the natural destruction of mixed governments, with an application of it to the state of Britain.” What marked Hampton’s preface was his cautious handling of both similarities and differences between Rome and Britain, avoiding superficial and misleading comparisons. Hampton believed Polybius had much to teach attentive readers about the precarious nature of mixed government and the evils of “simple” monarchy or “simple” democracy at either extreme. The Revolution of 1688 had struck the “middle point,” Hampton affirmed, but the tendency toward democracy and the loss of public virtue imperiled that achievement. No government on earth would endure forever, but with wisdom, sound reflection on experience, and public spirit, decay might be postponed, stability preserved, and liberty remain tempered by law. His litany of threats echoed the old Roman historians: imperial luxury, arrogance, greed, “prodigality,” “dissolute manners,” and factionalism.

Hampton’s way of using Polybius to understand his turbulent world characterized a great deal of political thought in the 18th century. American colonists participated fully in this quest to learn from the wisdom and experience—both triumphs and disasters—of the ancient Greeks and Romans as they raised the alarm over imperial “innovation,” waged successful war, altered their governments, and built a federal republic of limited, separated, and decentralized powers. The classics provided more than a warehouse of literary allusions, handy pennames, and the decorative adornments of gentlemanly erudition. Kept in dialogue with Christianity and modern political theorists, study of the ancients did much to teach generations of colonists what to admire and what to fear. It held up exemplary statesmanship, military genius, and public virtue while it warned against the catastrophe lying ahead for those dominated by the lust for wealth, power, and glory.

It is difficult now for a generation not educated in the way the Founders were to understand them. If we do not even ask the questions they asked—about human nature, power, liberty, self-government, debt and taxes, and empire—can we truly know them at all let alone learn from them? Ricks ends with an appeal to his readers to “know your history.” That advice is needed now more than ever. First Principles is a missed opportunity to confront a new generation with the potential for recovery and renewal lying ready for us in some of our most ancient political and moral wisdom.