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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.
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,andthe 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.
"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
"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
"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."
— 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
"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." — Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello
“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.” — Joe Scarborough
"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." — Publishers Weekly(starred review)