First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

Harper. Nov. 2020. 416p. ISBN 9780062997456. $29.99. HIST
Ricks (Churchill and Orwell) does something quite remarkable: he takes a seemingly academic topic—the Greco-Roman education of the Founding Fathers—and makes it resonate with grand relevance. Readers get to meet young Jefferson, the Epicurean romantic; James Madison, a free-thinking student at Princeton; and John Adams, the Ciceronian. The education of the Founders, so often relegated to a sentence or two, is the theme of this book, which makes it unique among the plethora of works on them. The Roman Republic, and the lessons of its fall, were prime themes in the student lives of the Founding Fathers. Colonial collegiate politics, including the divergence between radical Princeton and conservative King’s College (Columbia) is discussed. Scotland’s contribution to the American Revolution is also highlighted. Ricks further explores the descent of classicism in the new republic, and explains Aristotle’s thoughts on the concept of “natural slavery.” The author comments on current politics in the beginning and end of the work, which, on the one hand, apply to classical principles discussed within, but on the other may date this edition in a few years.
VERDICT Offering a look at the Founders rarely glimpsed, Ricks successfully argues that America needs to rediscover its classical roots.

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