First Principles | Thomas E. Ricks

Summary of: First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
By: Thomas E. Ricks


Dive into the fascinating world of America’s Founding Fathers and discover how classical Greek and Roman principles played a significant role in shaping the United States as we know it. ‘First Principles’ by Thomas E. Ricks brings to light the influence of classical literature, philosophy, and ideas on the founders, their vision for the country, and their approach to governance. Throughout this summary, we will trace the evolution of America’s adoption and eventual loosening of the classical perspective, from its integral position in building the nation to its decline in the face of progress and social change.

Virtue and America’s Founding Fathers

To America’s founding fathers, “virtue” meant public-mindedness instead of morality. They held the Roman Republic as a model for republican government, admiring figures like Cicero and valuing Romans more than Greeks. Although this admiration for classical principles guided them in building the nation, it also led to some flaws, such as the justification of slavery. Despite these imperfections, the founding fathers managed to establish a republic that continuously expands rights for its citizens.

In the era of America’s founding fathers, the concept of virtue embodied public-mindedness – the ability to prioritize the collective good over personal interests. This understanding of virtue, derived from Latin origins, deeply influenced those who built the United States, appearing over six thousand times in Revolutionary-era writings, even more frequently than the word “freedom.”

The founders looked to the ancient Roman Republic as an exemplary model of governance. Unlike today, where Greek works by Homer, Plato, and Herodotus dominate great books lists, Romans enjoyed a higher status than Greeks in the Revolutionary era. Revered for their wisdom and stability, the Romans, compared to their Greek counterparts, were seen as a key influence on America’s fledgling nation.

Modern perspectives on historical figures differ significantly from those held by the founding fathers. While Cicero may now be regarded as a pompous figure, the founders idealized him as a masterful orator and accomplished leader. The Roman Republic itself served as a guiding light, with Alexander Hamilton regarding its government as having achieved “the utmost height of human greatness.” Moreover, the founders were intrigued by the decline of Rome, seeking to understand the reasons behind its erosion.

Nevertheless, the founders’ admiration for their classical predecessors sometimes led to troublesome decisions, such as their stance on slavery. Many founders justified human bondage as a natural aspect of society, drawing on classical theories for support.

Though the founding fathers were not perfect, their dedication to classical ideas and principles laid the foundation for a republic determined to expand rights and opportunities for an ever-growing population. This insight into their mindset offers valuable lessons for understanding the roots of governance in the United States.

Washington’s Virtuous Leadership

George Washington’s favorite play, Cato, showcased the virtuous and disciplined qualities he sought for himself. Through his experiences in the French and Indian War, he learned important leadership lessons. The 22-year-old faced successes and crucial failures, such as General Edward Braddock’s costly arrogance, which deeply impacted his approach as a future military general and statesman. Consequently, Washington succeeded as a leader who exemplified discipline, humility, and virtue.

Cato, a popular pre-Revolutionary American drama featuring lengthy speeches and memorable one-liners, was George Washington’s all-time favorite. It depicted the life of a virtuous figure who was born into privilege but fought against corruption, qualities Washington tried to emulate. Unlike many founders of his time, Washington wasn’t cultivated within a prestigious university. He gained knowledge and wisdom on the battlefield.

Washington’s introduction to combat occurred in 1754 during the French and Indian War, a battle between the British and French alongside their respective First Peoples allies. A young 22-year-old Washington led his regiment and won a battle against the French with few casualties. However, subsequent battles were not always so victorious.

Eventually, French forces launched a counterstrike, resulting in heavy losses for Washington’s troops. A year later, an even more ignominious defeat unfolded under British General Edward Braddock’s command. Braddock’s overconfidence led to the deaths of 1,200 British soldiers in the Ohio River Valley, ultimately teaching Washington a fatal lesson about arrogance.

These experiences shaped Washington’s character and prepared him for his future role as commander of the Continental Army. Having witnessed the perils of hubris, Washington led his forces with humility, discipline, and wisdom, following the Roman ideals of virtuous leadership. Despite his lack of formal education, his steadfastness and sincerity guided him in becoming a successful and respected leader.

A Revolutionary Military Genius

George Washington’s military approach during the Revolutionary War transitioned from early failures to a successful strategy influenced by the Roman general Fabius. Washington’s evolution as a leader demonstrated his commitment to public virtue and humility, ultimately choosing to resign and return to civilian life after victory.

Washington, often regarded as a military genius, initially struggled to find an effective strategy against the mighty British army during the Revolutionary War. His first attempt was to face the enemy head-on, but the British army’s wealth, training, and numbers made this approach futile. After a year and a half of defeat, Washington shifted to a war of posts strategy following the advice of his trusted General, Nathaniel Greene. Unfortunately, this defensive approach, which involved retreating into fortresses, also resulted in costly setbacks and troop surrenders.

Realizing the need for a drastic change, Washington turned to a third strategy inspired by Roman general Fabius. Notorious for his slow thinking but cautious tactics, Fabius defeated Hannibal of Carthage by focusing on a war of attrition, denying the enemy a decisive victory. Mirroring this approach, Washington cut off the British army’s resources, impaired their supply lines, and forced them to maintain a constant guard.

Though Fabius was known to have rarely won a battle, his war of attrition technique led to victory. Washington adopted this model successfully, ultimately overcoming the British forces by exhausting their resources and wearing them down. After the war, Washington displayed a profound commitment to public virtue when he chose to resign as Commander of the Continental Army and return to civilian life, similar to Cincinnatus, who renounced his Roman dictatorship after leading his people to victory. This pivotal decision exemplified Washington’s humility and respect for the principles he fought for during the American Revolution.

American Cicero: John Adams

The Roman orator Cicero and the American founding father John Adams shared more than just their political ambition – both men climbed the social ladder from humble beginnings, strove for greatness, and were sensitive to critique. Despite their vanity, they delivered inspiring speeches, took a strong stance against tyranny, and ultimately helped shape their respective nations. Cicero exposed the Catiline conspiracy to safeguard Rome’s consulship, while Adams published essays and predictions that sparked revolutionary sentiments among fellow Bostonians, cementing his legacy as an American Cicero.

Born in 106 BC, the Roman orator Cicero started life as an ordinary citizen, eventually achieving high office and nobility. What set him apart were his eloquent speeches, which reached their pinnacle when he thwarted the Catiline conspiracy, an attempt by senator Catiline to overthrow Rome’s consulship. Cicero’s brave stance against tyranny, combined with his political prowess, made him an inspiration to America’s founding fathers.

None admired Cicero more than John Adams, who saw remarkable similarities between the Roman and himself. Just like his idol, Adams had risen from a humble background through hard work and a gift for persuasive speech. Both men aspired to be respected, powerful, and honorable political figures.

Unfortunately, vanity was the shared Achilles’ heel for these two great men. Cicero loved adulation, while Adams had a hard time dealing with negative criticism. As president, Adams even went so far as to imprison newspaper editors who spoke ill of him.

Even before his presidency, Adams played a crucial role in American politics. He was the first founding father to actively call for a revolution. In 1765, he penned a pamphlet envisioning a future America reigned by liberty and fueled by millions of citizens. He followed this up with a series of essays, suggesting that Americans were entitled to freedoms granted by God, not a king.

Adams’ influential writings spurred Bostonians to reckon with their rights and the fairness of their treatment at the hands of the British. They started to embrace the idea of a forthcoming revolution. It was this vision and courage that earned John Adams his fitting title as the American Cicero.

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