First Principles Book Summary By Thomas E. Ricks

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First Principles (2020) is an incredibly interesting book that takes a deep dive into the ways in which Greek and Roman history and philosophy have influenced America’s first four presidents.

This book examines the ways in which classical ideas are embedded in our nation to this day and provides an interesting look into how those who led our nation centuries ago thought about some issues we face today.

It also explores the personalities of our founding fathers, shedding light on why they chose certain principles over others and allowing readers to gain insight into their beliefs.

With its unique approach, First Principles seeks to provide readers with deeper understanding into the origins of modern America.

First Principles Book

Book Name: First Principles (What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country)

Author(s): Thomas E. Ricks

Rating: 4.3/5

Reading Time: 23 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

Thomas E.

Ricks is an experienced journalist, who served as the Washington Post’s military correspondent from 2000 to 2008 and currently writes an award-winning blog for Foreign Policy magazine.

His expertise in national security has led him to become an adviser on the subject to New America.

This was furthered by his two-time Pulitzer Prize and best-selling book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, which delves into his insights and deep understanding of the matter.

Rediscovering Ancient Rome And Greece: How The Classics Influenced The Founding Of America

Ancient Rome

When looking at the United States of America today, it is easy to forget about the influence of ancient Greece and Rome on our modern society.

But for America’s founding fathers, these civilizations were essential when creating a new nation.

They would use the writings of the ancient world to inform their views on many aspects of life – from esthetic choices to decision making and linguistics.

George Washington’s favorite play was rooted in a classical style, while John Adams and Roman politician Cicero shared similar opinions.

Even the Constitution has been described by some as an Epicurean document full of first principles inspired by ancient thought.

The founders looked to Greece and Rome for guidance, and revisiting those influences can help Americans today gain greater understanding about political issues in our current climate.

By seeing America through the eyes of its founding fathers who drew much inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome, we can learn vital lessons from history that will help us build a better future.

How Rome Influenced The Founding Fathers And Their Ideas Of Liberty And Virtue

When you talk about America’s founding fathers, you have to acknowledge their reverence for the ancient Roman Republic.

To them, it was a model of successful republican government.

They viewed virtue in terms of public-mindedness, or the quality of putting the common good before one’s own interests.

In fact, virtue was used more often than freedom in the Revolutionary-era writings found in the US National Archives!

In addition to its values, America’s founders also looked toward Rome for great thinkers to model themselves after.

In modern times, Greek authors like Homer and Plato are as respected if not more than Rome’s authors like Cicero.

But back then Cicero was an idolized leader and master orator that many of America’s founders looked up to.

Alexander Hamilton even wrote that the Roman Republic had achieved the “utmost height of human greatness” and wondered what could have caused its downfall.

The ancient Roman Republic certainly served as an inspiration to America’s founders; however, their fascination with this era did lead them astray in some areas, particularly when it came to slavery.

Many believed that slavery was acceptable based on classical theories they’d been exposed to throughout history—a troubling conclusion and one which contradicted their ideas of liberty and justice for all.

George Washington Learned From Defeat To Become A Virtuous Statesman And Military General

George Washington sought to become something beyond what most would imagine, a virtuous statesman and military general.

His path to becoming one of the most venerated leaders in the United States began with his self-education and experience on the battlefield during the French and Indian War.

Washington held no formal education, yet that did not deter him from pursuing his goals with determination.

Washington’s first major combat experience was at age 22, when he led a successful ambush of French forces during the conflict.

That success’s momentum was quickly diminished however when the French retaliated shortly afterward and inflicted heavy casualties on Washington’s troops while sustaining only three deaths themselves.

One year later, Washington again endured humiliation and defeat when serving under British General Edward Braddock whose hubris led to a devastating loss of 1,200 soldiers leaving only one survivor; Washington himself.

Riding through camp post battle, Washington encountered men who were both dead and dying around him.

The tragedy left an indelible mark upon him that would shape his future as leader of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War thirteen years later.

After having witnessed firsthand brash actions leading to disastrous consequences; Washington strived for discipline, moderation and virtue in everything he did from then onwards, qualities embraced by true Roman leaders of old which gave him more strength than any degree ever could have done.

Washington Displayed A Reverence For Public Virtue By Emulating Both Fabius’ And Cincinnatus’ Strategies As Well As By Resigning From The Army After Leading America To Victory In The Revolutionary War


When it came to the Revolutionary War, General George Washington was a man of two strategies: Fabius and Cincinnatus.

We know Washington as a gifted military commander, but at the start of the war he hadn’t formulated a strategy.

Initially, Washington had unsuccessfully tried to engage the British head-on.

When this failed after over a year, Washington changed tactics and adopted a “war of posts” strategy suggested by his best general Nathaniel Greene – an idea borrowed from the Roman general Fabius.

In this approach, an army retreats into fortifications for defensive purposes.

This too proved unsuccessful and expensive setbacks occurred when thousands of troops surrendered to the British forces.

So Washington turned to another strategy –modeled after Fabian’s successful model in earlier times– to defeat Hannibal in 200 BC.

In this war between Fabian and Hannibal, winning battles wasn’t important.

Fabian focused instead on denying Hannibal decisive victories.

To do so consistently depleted their resources while avoiding costly head-on confrontations.

This is exactly what Washington also did during his campaigns against Britain –rather than directly engaging opponents, he tired them out by depleting their resources and slowing them down which ultimately lead him to victory.

And unlike Julius Caesar who seized power during that period, both Fabian and Washington showed enormous respect for public virtue –they renounced dictatorship titles even after achieving victories through their respective wars!

After the Revolution was won in late 1783 Congress threw celebratory parties for Washington before he immediately resigned from his post as Commander of the Continental Army – further demonstrating how much reverence he had for national values!

John Adams’ Admiration For Cicero Pushed Him Towards Revolution

John Adams was a huge admirer of the famous Roman orator Cicero, and it’s no wonder why – the two had unexpected similarities.

Both came from unremarkable backgrounds and rose to prominence through their hard work and eloquence.

John even went so far as to read Cicero’s speeches out loud to himself at night – a testament to his admiration for the famed politician.

But he also shared some of Cicero’s flaws: like him, he was fond of praise but extremely vulnerable to criticism.

Adams kept a close eye on what others said about him and wasn’t one for brushing off negative press.

He even famously jailed editors who wrote ill of him during his presidency.

It was clear that John Adams viewed himself as an American version of Cicero.

He was proud of his own achievements, as well as those of the Roman politician before him, and wanted to do justice to both legacies by making sure that America’s freedoms were preserved by any means necessary.

And in 1765, he published a pamphlet in which he argued that Americans had rights endowing them with liberty, taken not from the King but directly from God – kicking off an important discussion which would ultimately pave the way for revolution.

Thomas Jefferson’S Epicurean Values Are Reflected In The Declaration Of Independence

Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks, particularly Epicurus, as he developed his own philosophy.

During his education, Jefferson kept a diary called a commonplace book which featured quotations from several Greek authors such as Euripides.

However, Epicurus’s name wasn’t anywhere to be found in the diary– until later on in life when the Greek philosopher would have a profound impact on his thinking.

Little is known about Epicurus’s life aside from the fact that he established The Garden in Athens.

His philosophy of seeking tranquility and pleasure in life became one that inspired Thomas Jefferson’s iconic Declaration of Independence.

In its second paragraph, he declared that all men were equal and had the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This formulation suggests a vision of optimism rather than mere private property as Locke had once suggested – to emphasize this view of an optimistic future for all Americans, Thomas Jefferson also invoked prudence and justice which he deeply associated with Epicureanism philosophy.

Today, many Americans still recognize Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece but may not be aware that it began with Epicurean values at its core– ideas that still resonate today across virtually any line drawn between different individuals.

The Scottish Enlightenment Helped To Shape James Madison’s Views On The Necessity For Systems Of Checks And Balances In Government

James Madison's

The renowned Scottish Enlightenment and its influence in North America gave rise to the founding of the United States.

One of the main figures it had a profound impact on was James Madison, the fourth president and one of those responsible for creating America’s first constitution.

James Madison was especially influenced by the ideas of classical civilisations and their legacy as reflected in philosophy and narratives regarding Greece and Rome.

This particular area was something he was exposed to when attending Princeton University, where he heard lectures from professors who taught logic, morality as well as moral philosophy.

He also became familiar with writings by a French philosopher Montesquieu who discussed matters regarding checks and balances within governments.

His widely known work The Spirit of Laws examined how certain principles be seen in both Greek and Roman civilisations were still relevant today.

Madison saw these points as applicable to his own times; hence references towards them have featured heavily in some of his most famous works such as The Federalist Papers, which provided justification for why his proposed republican government should be adopted.

Through his writing based on these classic sources, Madison ultimately concluded that due to the constant risk of regional conflicts between different states, there needed to be a strong all-encompassing federal system, one where different branches could check each other from becoming dominant powers or facing implosions due to partisanship.

It can thus be said that James Madison viewed the classics through an Enlightenment lens thinking about how best modern society could apply concepts already learned from antiquity in order to meet their ever-changing needs.

Virtue Is Not Absolutely Necessary For A Successful Democracy

At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, American classicism saw its beginning stages of decline.

This was mainly due to the fact that the Federalists – led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton – were unable to understand how their nation would function without classicism as a guiding light.

This way of thinking, rooted in Roman ideals, viewed those who opposed them – mainly, the anti-Federalists – as reflections of ‘Catiline’, or traitors who threatened their government.

This rigid view did not provide a space for healthy competition or partisanship which meant that it could not survive in this new environment.

It was only after Washington’s rule during which his strong moral compass managed to bring together opposing views that made room for more tolerant approaches such as Thomas Jefferson’s when he became president.

It was during Jefferson’s presidency, and later Madison’s, when Americans began to accept an alternative way of looking at government – one that does not require virtue to exist but rather emphasizing on freedom for all regardless of one’s belief or views.

In other words, although classicism still existed within America at this time it was no longer held in high regard but instead thought of as something outdated and foolishly elitist; especially when it came to slavery.

Ultimately, through this process reason and emotion ultimately took over and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

Wrap Up

The final summary of the First Principles book is clear and concise; Americans should strive to implement the ancient principles of virtue and public good into their modern lives.

James Madison, who helped create the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, started to move away from classical models when he was drafting those documents.

Today, we need to revive this original concept of virtue that is at the core of American democracy.

This can be done by actively participating in community activities, engaging in civil discourse, pushing back against those who would compromise America’s founding values, and redirecting discussion towards what is best for the general welfare –⁠ not just for a single person or special interest group.

We must focus our efforts on fulfilling these courageous goals in order to uphold our republic’s ideals for generations to come.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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