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First Principles

What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

By Thomas E. Ricks
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First Principles by Thomas E. Ricks

Over the years, much has been made of the influence of Enlightenment ideas –⁠ particularly those of English philosopher John Locke –⁠ on America’s founding fathers. First Principles (2020) takes a different approach. It focuses instead on the ways in which Greek and Roman history and philosophy profoundly shaped the values and goals of America’s first four presidents, and how classical ideas are embedded in the nation to this day.

Key idea 1 of 8

Revolutionary Americans viewed the ancient Roman Republic as an exemplar of republican government.

Consider the word virtue. Today, it’s synonymous with morality. A little bit further in the past, it was used to describe female chastity. But in the time of America’s founding fathers, it had an entirely different definition. To them, virtue meant public-mindedness –⁠ the quality of putting the common good before self-interest.

Virtue was, of course, originally a Latin word. And it was one the founders were, if not obsessed with, at least deeply enamored by. In the compilation of Revolutionary-era writings in the US National Archives, the word “virtue” appears about six thousand times in total. Believe it or not, that’s more often than the word “freedom.” It’s clear the founders had classical principles in mind when building their new nation.

The key message here is: Revolutionary Americans viewed the ancient Roman Republic as an exemplar of republican government.

The modern idea of virtue is different from the one the founders had in mind. But their entire conception of the classical world was different, too. 

Today works by Greek authors like Homer, Plato, and Herodotus are featured prominently on lists of great books. Romans, however, are comparatively neglected. In the Revolutionary era, it was the reverse: the Romans were revered, while the Greeks were often viewed as flighty and unstable.

Historical figures were also viewed through a different lens. Take the example of Cicero. Nowadays, the Roman is considered little more than a pompous blowhard. But America’s founders idolized Cicero as a highly skilled orator and successful leader.

Along with its thinkers, the Roman republican government was a lodestar for America’s founders. Just take Alexander Hamilton’s word for it. In the thirty-fourth volume of The Federalist Papers, he wrote that the Roman Republic had “attained to the utmost height of human greatness.” Of even greater interest than Rome’s flourishing was its demise: what, the founders wondered, had caused the erosion of the glorious empire?

As much as Rome inspired and guided the founders, it also occasionally steered them wrongly. The most troubling instance concerned the practice of slavery. Many of the founders saw human bondage as a natural part of the social order and used classical theories to justify it.

It’s plain to see that America’s founders were flawed men. Nevertheless, they successfully created a republic that continues to expand rights for more and more people. It’s worthwhile to examine the classical ideas at the forefront of their minds.

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