Right from the get go Professor Thomas Ricks’ Pulitizer Prize winning book FIRST PRINCIPLES moves to change your thinking about history. He begins with the bald and bold statement that “I have chosen to use the term “First Peoples” rather than “Indian” or “Native American” because they were here well before this land was called the Americas. He proceeds from there to note that although there have been numerous studies of the lives of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, none of them have emphasized “what they learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge” He also admits up front that he has a definite concern for the “faults of our founders” because, as he puts it, we have had a system from the very beginning that has always had at least one political party or faction that offered a home for white supremacy.
Let me also warn you that this is a challenging read and asks perhaps more familiarity with the works of classical Greece and Rome than is possessed by the average person. Notwithstanding that it still does add to the perspective needed in order to face and understand the challenges the country faces in the third century of our governmental journey.
Our first four presidents had different educational backgrounds. Washington was not a learned man, but became educated more by experience. President Adams graduated from Harvard, Jefferson from William and Mary, and Madison from Princeton. Ricks outlines each institution’s educational mindset, and concludes that The Scottish enlightenment and Calvinist Reformation had a tremendous impact on all of them. As someone who taught at a Scottish Presbyterian college for almost forty years, I found this most interesting.
Each reader will, I am sure, find items like this throughout the book that will resonate with their own experiences. My expanded list includes the continual reminder that three of the four first presidents were slaveholders and that the horror of the Civil War was literally sown into the fabric of the Constitution. We see Jefferson at his best in the Declaration and Madison at his best in the Constitution. We are reminded of the Jeffersonian anomaly that a man who never ventured west of the Shenandoah Valley shepherded the largest territorial acquisition in the country’s history. We see Washington becoming a successful general by way of several defeats. We see John Adams as the eternal curmudgeon. We find out that Madison was sickly but had a healthy impact on the country and that Jefferson loved the plays of Euripides and was single handedly responsible for the Classical look for our governmental buildings.
The middle of the book takes us from the founding of the country into a look at how the Classical models receded as we approached the 19th century. Washington warns early on that the young Republic should steer clear of foreign entanglements and the next years see the rise of more vicious partisanship, factionalism, and political parties. As the country expands geographically and commercially more attention is given to free enterprise and the importance of individual freedom and decision making. A hierarchy is less important if you are on your own and trying to make it in the wild west. Becoming more dominant, however, is the hardening of the opposition to slavery and the building forces that would culminate in the Civil War.
That war continues to this day as once again we find that the truest test of democratic republic is the ability of the old leadership to turn over power peacefully without a war. The closing chapter starts with the assertion that all of the founders would be appalled by how money has come to dominate politics as well as enterprise. None of them, says Ricks, wanted a country ruled only by the few and the rich. In spite of all the challenges they still did manage to build a “durable system” of checks and balances that has withstood a lot of trauma over the years.
His final observations and recommendations come in list form.
We must drop the idea that corporations are people and enjoy the same rights as citizens. We must refocus on things that contribute to the public good rather than policies that seem only to encourage private wealth. The government should focus on health care, education, infrastructure, the environment, public safety, civic duty, and respect for our core institutions.
The government must protect our freedom of speech but must not protect violence in the name of freedom. It is difficult to pursue “happiness” while looking down the barrel of a gun.
Congress, he feels, has been the most disheartening failure of all. It has become hog tied into passivity and unable to legislate or assert itself as a co-equal branch.
Above all we must know and respect history. We must acknowledge mistakes and realize that they can be fixed if we see them as a way station along the path toward a more perfect union. The country’s biggest and most tragic mistake was to build slavery into its original genetic imprint. Now, although we no longer have slavery, the belief system that set it in motion still lives on and it is still to our peril.jdy 1/26/21