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First Principles
Cover of First Principles
First Principles
What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
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New York Times Bestseller
Editors' Choice
—New York Times Book Review

"Ricks knocks it out of the park with this jewel of a book. On every page I learned something new. Read it every night if you want to restore your faith in our country." —James Mattis, General, U.S. Marines (ret.) & 26th Secretary of Defense

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author offers a revelatory new book about the founding fathers, examining their educations and, in particular, their devotion to the ancient Greek and Roman classics—and how that influence would shape their ideals and the new American nation.
On the morning after the 2016 presidential election, Thomas Ricks awoke with a few questions on his mind: What kind of nation did we now have? Is it what was designed or intended by the nation's founders? Trying to get as close to the source as he could, Ricks decided to go back and read the philosophy and literature that shaped the founders' thinking, and the letters they wrote to each other debating these crucial works—among them the Iliad, Plutarch's Lives, and the works of Xenophon, Epicurus, Aristotle, Cato, and Cicero. For though much attention has been paid the influence of English political philosophers, like John Locke, closer to their own era, the founders were far more immersed in the literature of the ancient world.

The first four American presidents came to their classical knowledge differently. Washington absorbed it mainly from the elite culture of his day; Adams from the laws and rhetoric of Rome; Jefferson immersed himself in classical philosophy, especially Epicureanism; and Madison, both a groundbreaking researcher and a deft politician, spent years studying the ancient world like a political scientist. Each of their experiences, and distinctive learning, played an essential role in the formation of the United States. In examining how and what they studied, looking at them in the unusual light of the classical world, Ricks is able to draw arresting and fresh portraits of men we thought we knew.

First Principles follows these four members of the Revolutionary generation from their youths to their adult lives, as they grappled with questions of independence, and forming and keeping a new nation. In doing so, Ricks interprets not only the effect of the ancient world on each man, and how that shaped our constitution and government, but offers startling new insights into these legendary leaders.

New York Times Bestseller
Editors' Choice
—New York Times Book Review

"Ricks knocks it out of the park with this jewel of a book. On every page I learned something new. Read it every night if you want to restore your faith in our country." —James Mattis, General, U.S. Marines (ret.) & 26th Secretary of Defense

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author offers a revelatory new book about the founding fathers, examining their educations and, in particular, their devotion to the ancient Greek and Roman classics—and how that influence would shape their ideals and the new American nation.
On the morning after the 2016 presidential election, Thomas Ricks awoke with a few questions on his mind: What kind of nation did we now have? Is it what was designed or intended by the nation's founders? Trying to get as close to the source as he could, Ricks decided to go back and read the philosophy and literature that shaped the founders' thinking, and the letters they wrote to each other debating these crucial works—among them the Iliad, Plutarch's Lives, and the works of Xenophon, Epicurus, Aristotle, Cato, and Cicero. For though much attention has been paid the influence of English political philosophers, like John Locke, closer to their own era, the founders were far more immersed in the literature of the ancient world.

The first four American presidents came to their classical knowledge differently. Washington absorbed it mainly from the elite culture of his day; Adams from the laws and rhetoric of Rome; Jefferson immersed himself in classical philosophy, especially Epicureanism; and Madison, both a groundbreaking researcher and a deft politician, spent years studying the ancient world like a political scientist. Each of their experiences, and distinctive learning, played an essential role in the formation of the United States. In examining how and what they studied, looking at them in the unusual light of the classical world, Ricks is able to draw arresting and fresh portraits of men we thought we knew.

First Principles follows these four members of the Revolutionary generation from their youths to their adult lives, as they grappled with questions of independence, and forming and keeping a new nation. In doing so, Ricks interprets not only the effect of the ancient world on each man, and how that shaped our constitution and government, but offers startling new insights into these legendary leaders.

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About the Author-
  • Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008 and was on the staff of the Wall Street Journal for seventeen years before that. He reported on American military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, he is also the author of several books, including The Generals, The Gamble, Churchill & Orwell, and the number-one New York Times bestseller Fiasco, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He wrote First Principles while a visiting fellow in history at Bowdoin College.

Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    June 1, 2020

    After the 2016 election, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist and No. 1 New York Times best-selling author Ricks (Fiasco) sought to understand what the Founding Fathers really had in mind. So he looked at their main reading materials, which comprised not so much the political thinkers of the era but the classics, from Xenophon and Aristotle to Cicero and the Epicureans. With a 150,000-copy first printing.

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from September 21, 2020
    Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks (Churchill and Orwell) delivers an immersive and enlightening look at how the classical educations of the first four U.S. presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) influenced their thinking and the shape of American democracy. According to Ricks, the evolution of Washington’s military strategy during the Revolutionary War drew from Roman general Fabius’s defeat of Hannibal in 203 BCE. Ricks also documents classical antecedents in the construction of the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s architectural plans for government buildings in Washington, D.C., and analyzes 18th-century opinions on the ancient world expressed in Robert Dodsley’s textbook The Preceptor (“a blueprint for the Declaration of Independence”) and Joseph Addison’s play Cato (which inspired Patrick Henry’s famous line “Give me liberty—or give me death”). The Amphictyonic League, a confederation of early Greek cities, is partly responsible for the U.S. Senate’s equalized representation regardless of state size, Ricks points out. The book closes with suggested steps for returning America “to the course intended by the Revolutionary generation,” including “don’t panic,” “re-focus on the public good,” and “wake up Congress.” With incisive selections from primary sources and astute cultural and political analysis, this lucid and entertaining account is a valuable take on American history.

  • Kirkus

    November 1, 2020
    An exploration of the major influences of America's first four presidents. "What just happened?" That was the question that Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks--along with tens of millions of Americans--asked after the 2016 presidential election. The author also asked, "What kind of nation do we now have? Is this what was designed or intended by the nation's founders?" He proceeded to study their writings, which turned out to pay some attention to the British Constitution and French Enlightenment but more to the ancients. According to Ricks, George Washington soaked up classic Roman values of honor, self-control, and, above all, "virtue," by which the Romans "meant public-mindedness." John Adams considered himself a modern Cicero, raging against tyranny. Jefferson preferred the Greeks, a more philosophical culture but also (unlike Rome) a fractious confederation during its golden age. This may explain why he, unlike his colleagues, felt no great need for the Constitution. The scholarly Madison spent years in a methodical study of ancient political systems, enabling him to steer the Constitutional Convention through sheer expertise. Ricks admits that by the time Washington assumed office in 1789, the classical model was running out of steam. Both he and Adams raged against "faction," an evil during the Roman Republic. Jefferson was angry, as well, but proceeded to found the first political party. No one foresaw the Industrial Revolution, the arrival of democracy ("mob rule" to the Founding Fathers), or a civil war, but the U.S. adapted. However, Ricks emphasizes that the Founders' reluctance to confront slavery embedded a racism that continues to poison the American political system. The author reassures readers that the durable Constitutional order can handle a Donald Trump, and he concludes with 10 strategies for putting the nation back on course. All are admirable, although several--e.g., campaign finance reform, congressional reform, mutual tolerance--regularly fail in practice. Penetrating history with a modest dollop of optimism.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Virginia, coauthor of Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination "Thomas Ricks's deeply personal, patriotic quest to recover and renew the principles that animated America's founders testifies eloquently to the value of historical understanding in these troubled times. Steeped in the classics, the founders could not have imagined our world and we are now, more than ever, acutely conscious of their failure to engage with the fundamental problem of racial slavery and its enduring legacies. But Ricks offers us a timely reminder of what the first four, nation-making presidents could imagine and did struggle to achieve."
  • New York Times Book Review "In this instructive new book, [Ricks] offers a judicious account of the equivocal inheritance left to modern Americans by their 18th-century forebears...[He] urges Americans to fix their government so that it protects citizens from the inevitable lapses of a fallible people and, perhaps, even more fallible leaders."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review) "An immersive and enlightening look at how the classical educations of the first four U.S. presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) influenced their thinking and the shape of American democracy....With incisive selections from primary sources and astute cultural and political analysis, this lucid and entertaining account is a valuable take on American history."
  • Psychology Today "Ricks knows his subject well, and, equally important, he writes about it lucidly."
  • Gordon Wood, University Professor at Brown University, and author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic "An exploration of the major influences of America's first four presidents...[In 2016 Ricks asked,] 'What kind of nation do we now have? Is this what was designed or intended by the nation's founders?'...[He] reassures readers that the durable Constitutional order can handle a Donald Trump, and he concludes with 10 strategies for putting the nation back on course...Penetrating history with a modest dollop of optimism."
  • Detroit Free Press "A rich compendium of the ancient wisdom that Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison believed they were gleaning from Aristotle or Tacitus, and the formation of 'classically shaped behavior' in the early republic...Antiquity mattered, Ricks suggests, because it formed the intellectual foundation for the revolutionary generation. Knowing the source of the values they claimed to espouse and the historical comparisons they took as obvious, we can know more about the founders themselves — and perhaps something of how the country we now have measures up to the one they envisioned."
  • Kirkus Reviews "Ricks knocks it out of the park with this jewel of a book. On every page I learned something new. Read it every night if you want to restore your faith in our country."
  • Washington Post "One of my favorite works of history in a very long time. I grew up revering Jefferson. I found him loathsome here, but still recognize that like Churchill in 1940, a flawed man can move future events dramatically. Madison's reach was remarkable. Poor Adams remained as miserable as I had always viewed him. But Washington was my revelation here. I have never been able to put flesh on those bones, but Ricks has done it."
  • James Mattis, General, U.S. Marines (ret.) & 26th Secretary of Defense  "First Principles is a fascinating and erudite look at how Greek and Roman writers influenced members of the Founding Generation. From the Harvard-educated John Adams to the largely self-taught George Washington, the most well-known of American Revolutionaries, turned statesmen, looked to the classical world to answer critical questions about the nature of power and the nature of government."
  • Wall Street Journal "Ricks does something quite remarkable: he takes...
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First Principles
First Principles
What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
Thomas E. Ricks
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