The Founding Fathers Didn’t See This Coming

The U.S. Constitution is breaking down in ways that its designers recognized from history—and thought they had guarded against.

A protester holds a Trump flag inside the U.S. Capitol building near the Senate chamber in Washington on Jan. 6.
A protester holds a Trump flag inside the U.S. Capitol building near the Senate chamber in Washington on Jan. 6. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In an extraordinary op-ed this past Sunday, all 10 living former secretaries of defense wrote that elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the “hallmarks of our democracy.” Attempting to use the U.S. armed forces to undermine either, they added, would take the country “into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.” This was meant as an explicit rebuke—and warning—to a president attempting to overturn the election, undermine constitutional order, and cling to power. They concluded by appealing to America’s long history of democratic transitions.

The turn to the past to illuminate the present is a recurring American impulse. Thomas Ricks opens his latest book by quoting from Ralph Ellison, who, upon accepting the 1953 National Book Award for Invisible Man, stated that “whenever we as Americans have faced serious crises we have returned to fundamentals; this, in brief, is what I have tried to do.” Facing a similar crisis after the 2016 presidential election, Ricks, a journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several works on contemporary national security affairs, attempted to do the same. Feeling bewildered by the country he thought he had understood, Ricks wondered, in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, what kind of nation he was living in, and whether he truly understood its founding principles or its subsequent trajectory.

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, Thomas E. Ricks, Harper, 416 pp., .99, November 2020

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, Thomas E. Ricks, Harper, 416 pp., $29.99, November 2020

For answers, he looked to the origins of American political thought. The result is his fascinating new book, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. An examination of how classical antiquity gave the United States its shape, names, institutions, and values, the book is meant as an intellectual history that seeks to explain the founders’ hopes and fears for the United States—and question whether they still make sense for the country.

Today, both the nature and viability of American democracy are being tested. If Ricks’s instinct to revisit the country’s first principles was warranted in 2016, it seems even more so at this extraordinary moment in U.S. history. For the founding generation of Americans, first principles meant an ideological commitment to democracy and a deep aversion to tyranny. The great virtue of Ricks’s book is its demonstration that, from the very start, those principles were contested, aspirational, and deeply significant to subsequent generations.

At first glance, using the classics to understand the United States seems like an unusual approach. After all, the story of both Greece and Rome was of states fighting to gain their liberty only to have it undercut by internal division and foreign aggression. The Greeks and the Romans might have possessed virtues worthy of emulation, but their experiences highlighted the precarious nature of liberty and republican government. And yet, this was the very reason they were studied so intently by America’s founders. So pervasive was the historical narrative of the downfall of the Greek democracies and the Roman republic that it became the model for what the founders hoped to prevent from taking place in the United States.

This was a purposeful, and often highly selective, reading of history as the founders sought to understand what had made the ancient republics so vulnerable. They examined what structural flaws, and what particular circumstances, had led to their demise. And they wondered if the United States could be structured in a way to make it stronger, more resilient, and less susceptible to internal decay than its classical antecedents.

Their reading of history, they believed, suggested that they must stand continual watch over their sovereignty and liberties. And it told them to be particularly fearful of rulers who accumulated too much power, of internal divisions that left them susceptible to foreign interference, and of individual rights beholden to a leader’s whims. The system of government they devised, the location of sovereignty they imagined, and the values they attempted to model were their response. The result: a government whose legitimacy emanated from the people, whose power was constrained by laws, and whose strength was checked and balanced. Liberties that emanated not from men, but from mankind’s maker. And leaders who exercised their power as a public trust, understood the limitations of their powers, and would remain beholden to the people. In short, they attempted to construct a system of government in which individual rights and liberties were recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power was limited by the rule of law. Taken together, they envisioned the system as safeguarding their democratic experiment.

In Ricks’s telling, there was an arc to the relevance and impact of the classics in the United States, with its high point occurring during the Revolutionary and early Republican period and then dissipating afterwards. As such, he divides the book into three parts: acquisition of knowledge about the classical world, application of those ideas to a revolutionary moment, and the subsequent Americanization of those ideas. The first part explores George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison’s formative experiences and education as a way to trace the ideas they acquired from the Greeks and Romans—often transmitted through the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment. The middle section discusses how they attempted to take those ideas and use them to fight a war and build a new type of government. The final section charts the limits to the founders’ model and sketches how the subsequent development of the American political system departed from its earlier veneration of the classical model.

Throughout, Ricks highlights the most important points that the founders drew from the classics and their contemporary relevance. But for all the ways that the classics proved a useful model for the United States, Ricks notes several limitations that it posed and failures that it engendered. The founders’ obsession with virtue made it difficult for them to understand that institutions were just as important in upholding liberal norms and restraining authoritarian impulses. It was only once the classical ideal of disinterested statesmen guiding the country was abandoned in favor of a system where laws restrained people that a functioning government would begin to emerge.

The classical model also fell short in anticipating the emergence of party politics. According to the Greeks and Roman writers, contending political factions were a sign of moral decay, corruption, and impending national ruin. This served the country poorly, Ricks argues, writing that “those in power viewed those who opposed them as enemies of the state.” This was because in the 1790s, “there was not yet a vocabulary, or psychological space, for political competition.” That only began to emerge once political reality began shaping political theory. Madison, deeply schooled in the classics, was the first to realize they needed adjusting to be useful in the U.S. context and did so by arguing that while partisanship could not be eradicated, its more harmful effects could be mitigated.

Finally, and most conspicuously, the classical model failed by providing fodder for those looking to condone slavery. Citing ancient Greece and looking to Rome, Southern delegates could argue that “in all ages one half mankind had been slaves.” This might have been true. But it also did nothing to help the young republic deal with the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the nation’s aspirations. As with most of the points in this book, the issues raised are not only historical, but rather contemporary, and they speak to the pertinent questions confronting us today: whether U.S. institutions are sufficiently resilient to authoritarianism, whether the country’s political parties remain sufficiently committed to democracy, and whether American society is capable of confronting its long history of systemic racism.

At times the book loses its focus, veering off from the formative influence that ancient Greece and Rome had on shaping the country’s trajectory and jumping from subject to subject in a series of non sequiturs. (Ricks is at his best in the most tangential chapter of book, which discusses the evolution of Washington’s generalship during the American Revolution. The chapter is an excellent assessment of the war and of the evolution of military strategy even if seems a stretch to say that Washington drew much from his cursory familiarity with Roman warfare.) The book’s final third speeds up and zooms out the narrative so much that it begins to have the feel of an overly broad summary of U.S. history. These are the perhaps the necessary costs of exploring the degree to which the classical foundations of the founders’ thinking influenced subsequent American history. Moreover, by demonstrating how many of their insights, and failures, remain relevant Ricks provides a working definition of what liberal democracy is and what it should mean.

According to this version, public-mindedness—virtue to the founders—was the essential element of political life, mentioned much more frequently than freedom or liberty. Washington’s most lasting contribution might have been forcibly asserting civilian control of the military. A democratic government invited foreign aggression through internal division, he argued, and Americans had to perpetually be on guard against “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” Foreign influence worked by corrupting popular leaders to moderate their views and accommodate the preferences of a foreign power. Without checks and balances, power would be abused. And for democracy to function properly, power needed to be transferred peacefully.

America’s founding generation of statesmen saw their primary task as combating tyranny—both at home and abroad. Their legacy was, of course, a mixed one that established both liberty and oppression, freedom and slavery, as twin strands of U.S. history. Looking at their legacy can help us understand what they were attempting to do and where they fell short. More importantly, for those who believe that the defining feature of contemporary American statecraft is a competition of systems between democracy and authoritarianism, the first challenge is defining what, exactly, it means to be a democracy in the first place. As Ricks suggests, the United States is overdue for a return to its first principles.

Charles Edel is senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and co-author of The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.

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