First Principles Book Summary - First Principles Book explained in key points
Listen to the Intro

First Principles summary

Thomas E. Ricks

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

4.3 (239 ratings)
23 mins
Table of Contents

    First Principles
    Summary of 7 key ideas

    Audio & text in the Blinkist app
    Key idea 1 of 7

    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.

    Want to see all full key ideas from First Principles?

    Key ideas in First Principles

    More knowledge in less time
    Read or listen
    Read or listen
    Get the key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes, not hours.
    Find your next read
    Find your next read
    Get book lists curated by experts and personalized recommendations.
    Shortcasts New
    We’ve teamed up with podcast creators to bring you key insights from podcasts.

    What is First Principles about?

    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.

    Best quote from First Principles

    Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. – John Adams.

    —Thomas E. Ricks
    example alt text

    Who should read First Principles?

    • Anyone interested in American history, or political philosophy
    • Students of Greek and Roman classics

    About the Author

    Thomas E. Ricks is a journalist who served as the Washington Post’s military correspondent from 2000 to 2008. Currently, he writes an award-winning blog for Foreign Policy magazine and serves as an adviser on national security at the organization New America. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of the best-selling book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

    Categories with First Principles

    Books like First Principles

    People ❤️ Blinkist
    Sven O.

    It's highly addictive to get core insights on personally relevant topics without repetition or triviality. Added to that the apps ability to suggest kindred interests opens up a foundation of knowledge.

    Thi Viet Quynh N.

    Great app. Good selection of book summaries you can read or listen to while commuting. Instead of scrolling through your social media news feed, this is a much better way to spend your spare time in my opinion.

    Jonathan A.

    Life changing. The concept of being able to grasp a book's main point in such a short time truly opens multiple opportunities to grow every area of your life at a faster rate.

    Renee D.

    Great app. Addicting. Perfect for wait times, morning coffee, evening before bed. Extremely well written, thorough, easy to use.

    People also liked

    Start growing with Blinkist now
    27 Million
    Downloads on all platforms
    4.7 Stars
    Average ratings on iOS and Google Play
    Of Blinkist members create a better reading habit*
    *Based on survey data from Blinkist customers
    Powerful ideas from top nonfiction

    Try Blinkist to get the key ideas from 7,000+ bestselling nonfiction titles and podcasts. Listen or read in just 15 minutes.

    Start your free trial