The 2016 presidential election impressed Thomas Ricks, because it did many different People, to ponder existential questions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer will get proper to the purpose within the prologue to his seventh ebook, “First Ideas: What America’s Founders Realized from the Greeks and Romans and How That Formed Our Nation” (Harper, 416 pp., ★★★ out of 4): “What sort of nation do we have now now? Is that this what was designed or supposed by the nation’s founders?”
To search out the solutions, Ricks launched into a four-year mental odyssey to find out whether or not the present state of our nation is what George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had in thoughts some 240 years in the past.
What he determines is that there have been few political position fashions for the Founding Fathers to attract on, actually not in current historical past. In order that they incessantly traveled again in time, so far as two millennia, to look at historic democracies and early republics. Governance, it appeared honest to conclude, had been backsliding ever because the glory days of Greece and Rome.
In “First Ideas,” Ricks masterfully paperwork how examples of metropolis states like Athens and the Roman Republic (earlier than Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon) knowledgeable the 4 aforementioned Founding Fathers and their fellow vacationers (Alexander Hamilton, amongst others, drifts out and in of the narrative).
Overlook about philosophers-come-lately like Locke and Montesquieu; the founders, in keeping with Ricks, had been fixated on old-school thinkers and doers akin to Cicero, Cato, and Epicurus. It’s no surprise, as a result of training circa 1776 required students to grasp Greek and Latin, and the writings of the ancients had been a part of the core curriculum. Of America’s first 4 presidents, solely George Washington couldn’t learn Latin.
A cursory architectural tour of public buildings in Washington, D.C., just like the U.S. Capitol, displays the founders’ reverence for historic Greece and Rome.
So the query lurking within the shadows all through this participating political peregrination is the one the writer asks within the epilogue: “Did the founders anticipate Donald Trump?”
Madison did, in keeping with Ricks, who quotes the important thing architect of the U.S. Structure thusly: “Enlightened statesmen is not going to at all times be on the helm.” The founders had one such instance proper earlier than their eyes: Aaron Burr, who virtually turned president when, as Thomas Jefferson’s working mate, he acquired the identical variety of electoral votes however didn’t do the honorable factor and concede the election to the pinnacle of the ticket.
It’s price noting that Burr, a prolific philanderer, was the one vice chairman in American historical past to serve whereas being below indictment for homicide — he may by no means go residence once more, to New York, the place he would have been arrested for killing Hamilton. In 1807, Burr went on trial for treason.
However Ricks factors out that even iconic political figures oftentimes behaved in disturbing methods, identical to politicians do at this time. For instance, he writes of America’s third president: “[T]hough raised by my dad and mom to revere Thomas Jefferson, I more and more discovered myself disturbed by his routine avoidance of actuality.” Sound acquainted?
The writer totally explores the traditional definition of “advantage,” initially denoting inserting the frequent good forward of 1’s personal pursuits. George Washington, who had the least formal training of the first 4 presidents, had it, however different founders struggled with residing as much as his instance. Faction, or what is understood at this time as partisanship, quickly overtook advantage within the embryonic days of the nation.
For instance, Hamilton and Madison, who collectively had teamed as much as persuade the unique 13 states to undertake the Structure, subsequently went at each other each bit as vehemently — arguably extra so — than senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer do at this time. It appears the doc was eminently extra excellent than the boys who created it.