Tom Ricks on his new book, “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country”

Wondering what to do with that gift card you received on the 25th?  I very highly recommend you use it to get a copy of Tom Ricks’ new book, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.  For a host of reasons, this is the perfect read with which to start a new year.  And, no, it’s not some stuffy academic tome; quite the opposite, it’s an amazingly engaging book that resonates with today’s challenges.  I am really pleased that Lawfire can share with you some of Tom’s thoughts about a book that ought to be a superb addition to everyone’s 2021 reading list!

Some context:

To me, First Principles isn’t a read-and-pass-along book, but rather one you’ll defintiely want to read-and-keep for future reference.  (My copy is already filled with highlighted and underlined text!)

So what’s it about?  Actually, the rather elongated title does a good job at setting out the book’s central thesis.  First Principles does explore the educational and experiential roots of the Founders, and uses that work to craft exquisitely insightful – and fresh – studies of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison.  Among other things, it explains how – and why – James Madison’s writing of the Constitution became, as Ricks describes it, “the high-water mark of classical republicanism in America,” and how, because of Madison, “the pursuit of virtue, the very core of the old viewpoint, was abandoned.”

Yikes!  The pursuit of virtue “abandoned”?  If that sounds startling, you need to read the book because Ricks explains that:

“Today it is merely a synonym for morality, and also, anachronistically, a signifier of female chastity …But for the Revolutionary generation, virtue was an essential element of public life…It meant putting the common good before one’s own interest.”

That is an important clarification as to how the Founders thought about the idea of “virtue.”   Madison was exploring whether the eighteenth century concept of public “virtue” would be enough to ensure the future of the new nation.

Here’s one of many I-didn’t-know-that moments I enjoyed in Ricks’ book:

While much attention has been paid to the writings of John Locke–the fact is that these men did not study Locke as much as they did the writings of the ancient world, Greek and Roman philosophy and literature: the Illiad, Plutarch’s Lives; the philosophical explorations of Xenophon, Epicurus, Aristotle; and the political speeches and commentary of Cato and Cicero.

Knowledge of the classics was far more common in the eighteenth century than it is today.  (And, BTW, Ricks summarizes and explains the relevant writings of these ancient personages, so no worries if you haven’t read them!)

Importantly, Ricks contends that the Founders classical knowledge “ultimately steered [them] wrong on three crucial issues.”  Specifically, first, on ” whether the new nation could subsist on ‘public virtue,’ relying on self-restraint of those in power to act for the common good and not their personal interest;” and second, “on party politics, which classical writers taught them to regard as unnatural and abhorrent;” and third – which Ricks calls “most troubling” – being their “acceptance of human bondage, which would prove disastrous for the nation they designed.”

As vitally important as all that is, the book gives you much more as it discusses several other Revolutionary-era figures (e.g., Hamilton).  In a real way, it’s a sketch of the intellectual and political world the Founders inhabited.  Moreover, it examines related themes and provides absorbing commentary on generalship, military strategy, law, history and, of course, politics across the ages.

It does all this in a little over 300 pages of remarkably readable prose. (The academically-inclined need not fret as there are more than sixty pages of notes to original source and other materials).

Ricks’ experience as a journalist is evident as he has an uncanny ability to explain complex material (e.g, the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans) in a way that is understandable to the general reader who has little or no background in the subject – a process that with this kind of material could easily go terribly awry in less talented hands.   This is why I think the book is especially valuable:  it is ‘accessible’ to a very wide range of readers to include, quite specifically, the general public.

Of course, the book is provocative, and I’d expect that not every reader will agree with all his comments, to include his epilogue entitled “What we can do.”  Regardless, the book is a timely reminder of the extraordinarily profound challenges the Founders faced – and that in so many ways we continue to face today.  As Ricks himself puts it:

If there is one thing a reader should take away from this book, it is that there is little certain about our nation except that it remains an experiment that requires our serious and sustained attention to thrive.

The interview:

Tom has graciously agreed to answer some questions for us and – wow – I found the interview to be fascinating!  It has so much good stuff that it’s almost like being treated to an extra chapter of the book!!!  (Young lawyers-to-be and young military officers, be sure to note what he highlights about the book for you!)

Lawfire: Washington seems to have been the least-educated of the Founders you examined, yet seems to come off the best.  Is this a case for wide-ranging experience being a better preparation than formal schooling?  

Ricks: One of my favorite passages in the book is where Vice President John Adams debates with Timothy Pickering over drinks one night in Philadelphia about whether Washington is actually illiterate. Washington indeed was poorly educated in terms of what a public man of the time was expected to know, and he recognized that lack. He did not read any foreign languages, and he didn’t read much in the English language, either, except about farming (and late in life about abolition). He never travelled much. He was more a man of deeds than words.

To his credit, he saw this lack, and made sure during the Revolution to gather around him people who had the knowledge and skills he did not. The most notable of those staffers was Alexander Hamilton, a terrific writer whose energetic prose leaps off the page. Unfortunately Hamilton lacked the prudence and reserve that governed the adult Washington. 

I would say that Washington is like many smart people who lack formal education—they often become very good at learning from experience, reflecting on it, and then changing. And that ability to adjust was the essence of what made Washington a great general. Without it, I think we could have lost that war. 

Lawfire: Yet classical education appears to have favorably influenced Madison who seems to be the ‘runner-up’ to Washington in your book.  Thoughts? 

Ricks: Madison is the most academically rigorous of the group. He studies the ancient world like a political scientist, looking for what brought down republics and how confederations or leagues were structured.

But he also is from a younger generation, and he is less wedded to the idea of living by classical values. In fact, he begins to suspect during the 1780s, the Articles of Confederation period, that relying on public men to be virtuous is insufficient and that instead we need a system that pits ambition against ambition. Washington, not often considered a political philosopher, had come to have similar thoughts during the Revolution. And Madison begins to beat the drum for a Constitutional Convention to write a new fundamental law of the land. His great insight, which he gets from Montesquieu, I think, is that dispersal of power is key—divide it between the states and the federal government, between three branches of the federal government, and between two houses in the legislative branch of the federal government. 

Lawfire: Your analysis of Washington’s ‘modified Fabian’ strategy contradicts some professional historians; have they given you any feedback?  I would think most people with military experience would agree with you, but have they?

Ricks: You’re right, I think that academic historians have gotten Washington the general badly wrong, in part because they have conflated two different forms of defensive warfare—“a war of posts” and “a Fabian strategy.” I haven’t had any direct feedback from academic historians, except from Gordon Wood, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Peter Onuf, three of the leading historians of the Revolutionary generation, who all read the book before publication and agreed to blurb it, and a couple of reviews that also applauded the book. (The blurbs are available on the book’s page on Amazon, if you are curious.) On the military side, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis loved the book. Here’s a lively conversation I had with him about it—

Lawfire: Your rendition of Washington’s handling of the Newburgh Conspiracy is the best I’ve seen.  Do you think – as some do – that it set the civilian control tradition that persists in the US military to this day? 

Ricks: Thank you! I learned a lot about Newburgh from Richard Kohn, the military historian from the University of North Carolina. 

There’s a saying among historians that the more you know about Washington, the more you appreciate him. He was very conscious as a general that the new republic was wary of generals—they were very focused on Julius Caesar’s attack on the Roman Republic, and also had in mind the more recent example of Oliver Cromwell toppling the English king and then making himself ruler.

Washington established a lot of the norms that we still have today, both as an officer, deferring to Congress, and as a president. Indeed, since I wrote the book, I have come to think that the norms of the presidency [came] to a surprising degree from Washington’s role model, Cato, the Roman statesman who fought the rise of Julius Caesar. Cato was known for his prudence, judgement, reserve, frugality, and rigor. Washington’s favorite play was said to be Addison’s Cato, which was popular in the 18th century. In it, one character regrets that he has only but one life to give to Rome, and another says give me liberty or give me death.

Lawfire: What would you highlight for a young lawyer-to-be? 

The answer here surprises me: Find a mentor or two along the way. I say this because Washington, Jefferson and Madison all had mentors who helped develop them intellectually and professionally. Adams never seems to have had a mentor, perhaps because of his prickly personality, and he was worse off for it. He would have been a better president had he had someone who deflated his vanity—or perhaps he wouldn’t have needed that vanity had he learned from a good mentor.

Lawfire: What would you highlight for a young military officer? 

Ricks: I think a military officer could benefit by reading Chapter 2 (about young George Washington in the French & Indian War) and then Chapter 8 (how Washington adjusts his mode of warfare during the Revolution). In the first of those chapters, Washington sees a British general utterly defeated by the Indians and French, in part because of his arrogance.

In the chapter about the Revolution, we see Washington enter the war as a conventionally thinking officer quite similar to his British opposites. For example, early on he wants to launch a complex land and amphibious attack against the British in Boston, which would have been a difficult job even for seasoned soldiers and NCOs [noncommissioend officers], which he didn’t have. He also was contemptuous of his militia men. Then he gets defeated on Long Island, kicked out of Manhattan, and chased across New Jersey. He begins to change and fight differently, generally avoiding big battles and instead nibbling away at the foe in skirmishes and by attacking foraging parties and supply lines—something the miltia men are very good at doing, especially in areas around their homes that they know. 

Lawfire: Do you think Cincinnatus could be a model for today? 

Ricks: I think Cincinnatus, the Roman general who was called from retirement to fight a war and then, after defeating the enemy, went back to his waiting plow, at least should be an aspiration. I am impressed how General Mattis, for example, left his job as defense secretary and went back to working at a food bank in a remote part of eastern Washington state.

As a start, I think that flag officers should not be allowed to work in the defense industry for, say, ten years after retiring. That would allow the generation of recent subordinates below them to operate unfettered by former superiors out making a buck.

About the Author:  

I met Tom Ricks n the early 1990s when he penned a story for The Atlantic (see here) about an essay I wrote while at the National War College.  Over the years, I’ve found him to be an authetically astute observer of issues, and expecially those in the national security realm.  I also greatly admire all the time he spent in war zones (he wrote two magnificant books about the Iraq war.)

For my money, Tom knows more about the military than most who served do,.  And he also doesn’t do things halfway, especially with respect to his research.  I am not even a little surprised that he spent more than four years reading original works and historical studies in order to write First Principles.  He’s an intellectual giant of the first order.

I very much encourage you to read his full bio found here, but here are a couple of highlights from it:  Tom was part of a Wall Street Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2000 for a series of articles on how the U.S. military might change to meet the new demands of the 21st century.  Moving on to the Washington Post, he was part of a team there that won the 2002 Pulitzer prize for reporting about the beginning of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism.  He’s the author of seven books, including Fiasco and Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. 

Currently, he’s the military history columnist for The New York Times Book Review, and is also a visiting fellow in Bowdoin College’s history department.

Here on Lawfire our mantra is for readers to make their own assessments, so read the book, gather the facts, consider the arguments, and decide for yourself!

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