What American Democracy owes to the Ancients
By David Holahan
The presidential election of 2016 inspired Thomas Ricks, as it did many other Americans, to ponder existential questions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author gets right to the point in the prologue to his seventh book: “What kind of nation do we have now? Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?”
To find the answers, Ricks embarked on a four-year intellectual odyssey to determine whether the current state of our nation is what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison had in mind some 240 years ago.
What he determined is that there were few political role models for America’s founding fathers to draw on, certainly not in recent history. To guide themselves through the creation of an unprecedented form of government, they frequently traveled as far back in time as two millennia, to ancient democracies and early republics. Governance, it seemed fair to conclude, had been backsliding ever since the glory days of Greece and Rome.
In “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country,” Ricks masterfully documents how two thousand-year-old examples of city states like Athens and the Roman Republic, (before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon) informed the four aforementioned founding fathers and their fellow travellers (Alexander Hamilton, among others, drifts in and out of the narrative).
Forget about philosophers-come-lately like Locke and Montesquieu, the founders, according to Ricks, were fixated on old-school thinkers and doers such as Cicero, Cato, and Epicurus. It’s a small wonder because education circa 1776 required scholars to master Greek and Latin, and the writings of the ancients were part of the core curriculum. Of America’s four first presidents, only George Washington couldn’t read Latin.
A cursory architectural tour of public buildings in Washington, D.C., like the U.S. Capitol, reflects the founders’ reverence for ancient Greece and Rome.
So the question lurking in the shadows throughout this engaging political peregrination is: “Did the founders anticipate Donald Trump?”
Madison did, according to Ricks, who quotes the key architect of the U.S. Constitution thusly: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” The founders had one such example right before their eyes: Aaron Burr, who almost became president when, as Thomas Jefferson’s running mate, he received the same number of electoral votes but did not do the honorable thing and concede the election to the head of the ticket.
It is worth noting that Burr, a prolific philanderer, was the only vice president in American history to serve while being under indictment for murder—he could never go home again, to New York, where he would have been arrested. In 1807, he went on trial for treason.
Even iconic political figures behaved in sometime disturbing ways. For example, Ricks writes of America’s third president: “[T]hough raised by my parents to revere Thomas Jefferson, I increasingly found myself disturbed by his habitual avoidance of reality.” Sound familiar?
The author thoroughly explores the ancient definition of “virtue,” originally denoting putting the common good ahead of one’s own interests. George Washington, the least educated of the first four presidents, had it, but other founders struggled with living up to his example. Faction, or what is known today as partisanship, soon overtook virtue in the embryonic days of the nation.
For example, Hamilton and Madison, who together had teamed up to convince to the original 13 states to adopt the Constitution, subsequently went at one another every bit as vehemently— arguably more so—than Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer do today. The document was eminently more perfect than the men who created it.