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.

Reader Discussion

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on February 05, 2021 at 11:02:58 am

Thanks to Professor Gamble for doing what a reliable, knowledgeable and objective book reviewer does best, which is to alert readers to avoid or to read a new book and convince them of why. To those ends and in deference to the brevity of life, in recent years I have incrementally acquired, at considerable cost of my time and money, a general, protective bias (subject to isolated exceptions) against reading any book, such as Mr. Ricks' "First Principles," that is written by a living journalist (such as Mr. Ricks) about history or the news, the past or the present, since, in my painfully-earned experience and empirically well-grounded opinion, such books, far, far more often than not, are written for ulterior purposes, those of using the past as a segue for a politically-correct sermon on the present and of distorting reality or rewriting history so as to render them ideologically conformable and politically useable.

So, rather than gambling my money on Ricks' "First Principles," I will, instead, "Gamble" my time on James Hampton's "Two Extracts." Thank you for that, Professor Gamble, you did your book reviewer's duty and in so doing confirmed my opinions, that not all bias is bad and that well-founded, protective bias can be a good thing.

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on February 05, 2021 at 13:30:13 pm

This was, indeed, a thoughtful, erudite review which, at all turns seems very fair-minded. Merely from the review, I should not dismiss Ricks's book out of hand, though as Paladin's comment suggests, life is too short to take the time to read contemporary "commentaries" on most things serious. My only contention: the "equating" of Trump and Biden as two who would equally offend the Founders. I believe they would have been appalled by Trump's lack of civility (including making fun of the handicapped), his turning people who disagree with him into enemies, and his ill-advised, specious hope that an UN-armed--this was not really a "coup" attempt as the liberals claim--invasion of the Capital might help to turn the election in his favor. As for Biden, I believe they would have been extremely surprised that so "ordinary" a man could have been elected to the Presidency.

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Daniel Farber
on February 05, 2021 at 13:56:37 pm

The Founders being not only wise, but not a few of them rather uncivil at times [pretty sure Trump hasn't actually shot anyone in a duel], I'm virtually certain they would have looked past the superficial gloss so many modern observers seem intent on burrowing into, even though it is only a superficial gloss, presumably because burrowing deeper reveals uncomfortable truths.
Among those are that both parties have accepted policies and ideas profoundly hostile to and destructive of our Founding principles and the Constitution. Moreover they would instantly recognize that of the Presidents Trump and Biden, Trump was vastly more respectful of and dedicated to those founding principles. And that is because despite duplicitous Democratic rhetoric their entire party is in the hands of dedicated progressives and leftists whose entire project is to destroy the Constitution and the principles upon which it is based.
Trump's bluster and combativeness was certainly not unknown to the Founders. Now was Biden's equally cantankerous fabulism and weirdness. More importantly Biden's lifelong corruption and dedication to feeding at and profiting from the public trough, both domestic and from our foreign enemies, was much more repulsive to the Founders and their principles than the gaudy bombast of Trump.

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on February 05, 2021 at 15:35:01 pm

>"As for Biden, I believe they would have been extremely surprised that so "ordinary" a man could have been elected to the Presidency."

I think the founders would be surprised a man might serve 36 years as a Senator, and much less be considered "ordinary."

As to Trump's lack of civility--apparently it's okay when Democrats do it: Democrats have tarred every Republican president or candidate as a Nazi or Hitler since Eisenhower. Trump merely responded in-kind to Dems with the very same sentiment. Mud-slingers complaining about the mud being slung is pretty funny.

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on February 06, 2021 at 12:59:17 pm

I found this review heartening until the discussion disintegrated into another tedious blast against our former president. I have spent the past twenty-five years immersed in what turned out to be a ground-breaking study of the Founding Fathers' view of Liberty. This subject is a cornerstone of 18th Century American political philosophy, and one that just about everybody from every facet of the Great Debate has got wrong. So I was pleased to see someone has taken the time to study it. Only, I am very unhappy to see that the author and the reviewer get sidetracked by the politics of the day. There is a lot to learn, and it is good to apply the basic principles of American Liberty to the politics or the current day (which requires at least one large glass of a strong adult beverage). But, the problem is that if you ask the right questions you will never discover the many treasures hidden in our founding documents. And in order to discover those questions, you have to ask what people might say are dumb questions. The dumber the better. Which is how I found out there is no such thing as a dumb question. Which is why although I did not vote for Trump in 2016, I did in 2021 because seems to have an instinctive understanding of what American Liberty is all about. The foundational principle of American government is that Liberty comes from God, specifically the Judeo-Christian God. If we ever lose sight of that, our goose is cooked.

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Karen A Renfro
on February 05, 2021 at 14:22:43 pm

Professor Gamble is very gentlemanly and civil in his critique of Thomas Ricks. On the other hand, Ricks is quite self congratulatory in the introduction of his book, where he states his belief that his book is the first of its kind to examine the education and intellectual influences of our founding generation. In the spirit of a gentlemen's civility, I will only say that I am slightly surprised that a professor at Hillsdale College didn't mention that Harry Jaffa and some of his students have spent lifetimes studying the intellectual grounding of the founders. Hillsdale's president Larry Arnn, and Gamble's colleague at the politics department, Thomas G West are just two students of Jaffa's that have gone further and deeper than Ricks. Outside of Hillsdale, Edward Erler and John Marini have made invaluable contributions to an understanding our founding principles. One should congratulate Ricks on at least commencing an attempt to study the founders, and managing to capitalize on it!

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Edward Estrellado
on February 05, 2021 at 17:18:23 pm

In the vast and never to be fully explored land of self-congratulatory and self-enamored wonders, Thomas Ricks is among the most intrepid and confident in that exploratory enterprise. He's well educated and knowledgeable, but his knowledge and awareness have bounds that his egoism refuses to acknowledge. In reading articles by and interviews of him, I have always been left with that impression. Thomas Sowell said,

"It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance."

Sowell was not indulging hyperbole, he was speaking to the unvarnished fact of the matter. To Sowell's pithy and seemingly simple insight I would only add that the knowledge in question needs a certain depth and range and likewise requires a more capacious self-knowledge, Socratically understood, than Ricks has mastered.

Lota' that goin' around.

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Michael Bond
on February 05, 2021 at 17:33:51 pm

Mr. Brian B said it very well. But as conservative jewels to political ungulates, I could expand and expound on his worthy points of why Trump fares well with the Founders. I could point out, as just one example of many, that the fake elevation by Democrat and Never-Trump swine of their subjective behavioral form so that it fleetingly trumps the conservative pearls of permanent, objective standards of constitutional substance is, indeed, to place form over substance in the worst way, and that it would not pass the Founders' muster.

Furthermore, it ignores the bi-partisan reality of both colonial and contemporary political behavior. Who was the greater hypocrite and moral coward among the Founders? Was it Secretary of State Jefferson, who secretly undermined President Washington and later urged James Monroe and paid James Callender as secret agents to defame Jefferson's political opponent, John Adams? Or was it Adams, who (allegedly) called Hamilton a ''bastard brat" and who advocated enactment of a sedition law to curb revolutionary speech and spirit? Were Obama and Hillary less the boor and the liar than Trump, when Obama called called half the country "bitter clingers" and Hillary called 74 million Americans ''deplorables" or when Obama lied about the Citizens United decision and threatened the Supreme Court to its face during his 2013 State of the Union Address and Hillary lied repeatedly about her criminal use of a private internet server? Or was Trump more the boor and liar when he called his Clinton opponent "crooked Hillary" and his Biden opponent the head of a crime family?

But why bother to go on, what with conservative pearls before Progressive swine and such?
I know lots about the founding and contemporary politics, and, as Democrats are so fond of saying about themselves, I say confidently about President Trump: he's on the right side of history, including that of the constitutional founding and the men who achieved it.

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on February 05, 2021 at 18:25:18 pm

In reading the above comments by Bond, Michael Bond, about journalist Ricks, it would appear that Professor Gamble has prior experience in reviewing the works of self-infatuated authors. I recall Gamble's review last November of "America's Revolutionary Mind," which, per Gamble, "brims with big promises" by historian Bradley Thompson, an author one might accuse of being self-alleged to be on the right side of history.

Perhaps what I said then of Thompson applies as well to Ricks:
"Surely Bradley Thompson is the most successful promoter of his own non-fiction since Bob Woodward and Thomas Friedman and of his own self since Norman Mailer died and Bill O'Reilly was fired by Fox.
I am actually sick of reading omnipresent stuff by and about Professor Thompson. It is as unavoidably invasive as CNN News at O'Hare Airport.
Decades ago New York Yankee coach Billy Martin was asked what he thought of Jim Bouton's inside baseball book, Ball Four. Martin replied, ''I don't like it. I didn't read it.''
My sentiments exactly about the self-inflated Professor Thompson and his over-rated (it seems, only by him,) over-reviewed, America's Revolutionary Mind. "

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on February 06, 2021 at 18:46:16 pm

If the only sh*t that the radical heavers of hate can manage to make adhere to an enemy is one's demeanor, course colloqialisms, verbal barbs and reactions, you know that there is a MANIFEST dearth of substantive charges that may be alleged.

As Paladin and others have indicated, our Founders were quite vigorous in their rhetoric, at times quite ribald AND never rolled over as our Never Trumpers, The left and the "passively woke" would prefer.
I'll say it again:

Trump was followed because as Lincoln said of US Grant, "He FIGHTS, Sir."

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on February 07, 2021 at 11:08:00 am

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on February 09, 2021 at 10:09:54 am

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