Reviews for First Principles

by Thomas E Ricks

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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 © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.