First Principles

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

The subject of Thomas Ricks’s extraordinarily timely book is, in his words, “what our first four presidents learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge.”

. . . .

John Adams attended Harvard; Thomas Jefferson, William and Mary; James Madison, the College of New Jersey (subsequently renamed Princeton). Of the first four presidents only George Washington had not received a university education: he spoke no foreign or ancient languages and was not much of a reader. Yet even he was steeped in the classicism of the Enlightenment era, and as he matured into his role as the father of his country he came to be seen as the personification of ancient Roman virtue—his country’s Cato, its Fabius, its Cincinnatus.

“Virtue” had a somewhat different meaning in the 18th century than it does today: in Mr. Ricks’s brief formulation, “it meant putting the common good before one’s own interests,” and looked specifically back to ancient exemplars like Cato, Cicero and Socrates. Adams modeled himself on Cicero as Washington did on Cato. Montesquieu, the Enlightenment theorist who had a greater influence on the founders than any other, famously stated in his “Spirit of Laws” (1748) that virtue was the one indispensable quality in a republic. Washington and Adams, at any rate, heartily agreed with him.

Jefferson brought the architecture of ancient Rome to our shores: Monticello, the University of Virginia campus and, finally, the distinctly Roman look given to Washington, D.C. “Almost single-handedly,” wrote the historian Gordon Wood, “he became responsible for making America’s public buildings resemble Roman temples.”

But as Mr. Ricks proves, Jefferson was always “more Greek than Roman, more Epicurean than Ciceronian.” Indeed, he openly admitted to being an Epicurean, a philosophy he called the “most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients,” and Mr. Ricks points out that his replacement of John Locke’s “life, liberty, and estate” (that is, property) with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” indicates a specifically Epicurean outlook.

Madison, who more than any other founder was responsible for the shape that the U.S. Constitution would finally take, immersed himself in the history of ancient republics and confederations to see what good ideas they could bring to ours. The Roman Republic, which lasted almost five centuries, was of particular interest, but so too were the various Greek confederations, such as the Amphictyonic League, in which the states had the same number of votes (like our Senate today), and the Lycian confederacy, which had proportional votes (like our House of Representatives). Twenty-three of the 85 Federalist Papers cite classical authorities; interestingly, they are more often Greek than Roman.

But Madison took a crucial step to lead the country away from the most important classical precept: he decided that public virtue couldn’t be counted on, and looked for an alternative. The failure of the Articles of Confederation had made it painfully obvious that self-interest usually trumps disinterested virtue. “The present System,” complained Madison, “neither has nor deserves advocates; and if some very strong props are not applied will quickly tumble to the ground. No money is paid into the public Treasury; no respect is paid to the federal authority.”

Now Madison took inspiration from Enlightenment ideas, most memorably formulated in Bernard Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees” and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” that private vices might, when taken together, positively benefit the public.

In Federalist 10 he attacked the classical republican idea that the pursuit of self-interest necessarily violates the public trust: “The causes of faction cannot be removed . . . relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” This must be done by involving “the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government.”

Here Madison departed from Montesquieu by claiming that a large republic would be more durable than a small one; the more individual interests in play, he claimed, the smaller the chance that any one will prevail. (Of course he could not have dreamed of the possibilities opened by mass communications and social media!) Washington still thought the new republic could not exist without public virtue, and said as much in his Farewell Address; but, writes Mr. Ricks, that was “old think.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

2 thoughts on “First Principles”

  1. Thanks for this PG, it sounds a very interesting read, but I think I’ll wait for the e-book (if only because reports of the hardback that “this title is not currently available for purchase”, whilst the reviews suggest quality problems with the books production).

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