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First Impressions: How Greek and Roman writers influenced our founding

Written By | Mar 15, 2021
First Principles, Ricks, Founding, Greek, Roman, Philosophers

To understand the thinking of the Founding Fathers and the political philosophy which molded the new country and the writing of the Constitution it is essential that we become aware of what they learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country.

That is the subject of an important book, “First Impressions,” by Thomas E. Ricks, who won two Pulitzer Prizes working with teams at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Ricks is a visiting fellow in history at Bowdoin College.

To understand the thinking of the founders, Ricks decided to go back and read the philosophy and literature that shaped their worldview

Ricks also read the letters they wrote to one another debating these crucial works, among them the Iliad, Plutarch’s Lives, the works of Xenophon,  Epicurus, Aristotle, Cato, and Cicero.  For though much attention has been paid to the influence of English political philosophers closer to their own era, like John Locke, Ricks notes that the Founders were far more immersed in the literature of the ancient world.

The first four American presidents came by their classical knowledge in different ways.  

Washington absorbed it mainly from the culture of his day.  Adams learned it through the laws and rhetoric of Rome.  Jefferson immersed himself in classical philosophy and Madison spent years studying the ancient world like a political scientist.  Each of their experiences played an essential role in the formation of the United States.

This important book follows these four members of the Revolutionary generation from youth to adulthood as they grappled with questions of independence and with forming and keeping a new nation.  In doing so, Ricks not only interprets the effect of the ancient world on each man and how their classical education shaped our Constitution and government but also offers new insights into these early leaders.

“The classical world,” Ricks points out, “was far closer to the makers of the American Revolution and the founders of the United States than it is to us today.  Nowadays the Greeks and Romans are remote to us, their works studied by a few in college and then largely forgotten even by most of those readers.  But Greco-Roman antiquity was not distant to the leaders of the American Revolution.  It was present in their lives, as part of their political vocabulary and as the foundation of their personal values.  In short, it shaped their view of the world in a way that most Americans now are not taught and so don’t see.”

Americans today do not recognize the presence of the ancient world in our political life.  People tend to not notice that our “Senate” meets in “The Capitol,” both references to Ancient Rome.  Most of its members are either “Republicans,” a name derived from Latin, or “Democrats,” a word of Greek origin. Just east of the Capitol building, our Supreme Court convenes in a marble 1935 imitation of a Roman temple.  To the west stands the Lincoln Memorial, which resembles the Parthenon of Athens turned sideways.

In Ricks’ view,

“The best place to begin to understand the views of the Revolutionary generation is with a look at the word ‘virtue.’  This word was powerfully meaningful during the eighteenth century…It meant putting the common good before one’s own interests.  Virtue, writes the historian Joyce Appleby, was the ‘lynchpin’ of public life—-that is, the fastener that held together the structure…The word ‘virtue’ appears about six thousand times in the collected correspondence and other writings of the Revolutionary generation…The practice of virtue was paramount, which is one reason George Washington, not an articulate man, loomed large over the post-revolutionary era.”

The colleges the Founders attended are described by Ricks as “tiny outposts of learning, having more in common with medieval seminaries.”

In the early eighteenth century, there were just three: William and Mary in Virginia, Harvard in Massachusetts, and Yale in Connecticut.  In 1746 they were joined by the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton, and then in 1754 by New York’s King’s College, better known as Columbia.  At William and Mary, Jefferson wrote, they lived in brick buildings, “rude, misshapen piles” that provided “an indifferent accommodation.”  Their academic diet consisted mainly of the best-known works of Latin literature, history, and philosophy, with some Greek works thrown in.

The dominant political narrative of colonial American elites, Ricks notes,

“…was the story of how the Roman Cicero put down the Catiline conspiracy to take over Rome.”   John Adams, writes Ricks, “aspired to be the Cicero of his time—-that is, the key political figure in late eighteenth-century America.”  

While a student at Harvard, Adams often went to hear the young preacher Jonathan Mayhew, who had graduated from Harvard and then went to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland where he earned a divinity degree.

The Scottish influence in colonial America was significant,

Ricks points out:

“Scottish philosophers long had maintained that it is natural and right for there to be limits to the power of monarchs.  In 1750, George Buchanan, a humanist Scottish philosopher who taught in Scotland, Portugal and France (where the great essayist  Michel de Montaigne was one of his students), stated emphatically that kings must earn and retain the consent of the governed:  ‘’It is right that the people confer the political authority upon whomsoever they will.’”

James Madison decided against attending William and Mary, which would have been the normal choice for a young Virginian, and chose Princeton. Founded in 1746, like the Scottish universities, it was religiously tolerant.  The college’s founders stating “that those of every religious denomination may have free and equal liberty and Advantage of Education…any different sentiments in religion notwithstanding.”  

The Princeton faculty included recent graduates of Scottish universities who were committed to transmitting the history of the ancient world and to learn lessons from the fall of Greece and Rome.

In the case of Washington, Ricks writes:

 “Washington’s last Roman role would become his finest.  He had rejected becoming a Caesar.  Instead, he would become another Cincinnatus, that is, the Roman soldier who, according to legend, served his country in 458 BC.  Roman tradition states that he was plowing his fields when he was called to lead the rescue of a Roman army that was besieged…He was given the temporary title of dictator.  He triumphed in just sixteen days, then resigned his office and returned to his waiting ploughing.  The story of Cincinnatus is  a reassuring one, because the revolutionary generation had an abiding fear of the power of generals…Washington’s decision to step down…was a magnificent deed of renunciation….For him, it was always about virtue.”

Later, when the Articles of Confederation seemed inadequate, Ricks writes that James Madison:

“Began to contemplate the problems of Ancient Greek confederacies.  He had several questions on his mind, all relating to the fragile condition of the United States. What had brought down ancient republics?  What made them so fragile?  Were their gaps between their theory and practice?  Did they have inherent flaws that caused them to fail?

Could American government be structured in a different way that would make it more sustainable?  Here he could begin by revisiting his college readings of Thucydides and Xenophon…He embarked on a multi-year study of these issues.”

The founders sought to protect against the possibility that an overly ambitious and unprincipled individual might one day come to power.  In The Federalist Papers, Madison writes that,

“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”  Just after Aaron Burr nearly became president, Jefferson wrote that “bad men will sometimes get in and with such an immense patronage may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles.  This is a subject with which wisdom and patriotism should be occupied.”

The founders tried to learn from the fates of Ancient Greece and Rome.

“Fortunately,” writes Ricks, “the founders built a durable system. Over the past several years we have seen Madison’s checks and balances operate robustly.  Madison designed a structure that could accommodate people acting unethically and venally…We should appreciate how strong and flexible our Constitution is.”

To be true to the intent of the founders, Ricks argues, we should re-focus on the public good:

“The coronavirus pandemic reminded America of a lesson it had forgotten about the public good—-a phrase that occurs over 1,300 times in Founders Online.  Health is a public good—-which is one reason everyone should have access to health care.  In the longer term, so are education, transportation infrastructure, the environment, and public safety.  These are the things that come under ‘the general welfare of the people that is mentioned twice in the Constitution—-the preamble and Article 1, Section 8.  The idea has its roots in Cicero that ‘sales populi supremacy lex esto’—-that is, ‘Welfare of the public is the supreme Law.’  Salus was the Roman goddess of ‘health, prosperity and the public welfare.’  John Adams wrote in 1766, ‘The public Good, the salus Populi,  is the professed end of all government.’  With that in mind, Americans need to put less emphasis on the property rights of the individual and more on the rights of the people as a whole.  The market should not always be the ultimate determinant of how we live or always allowed to shape our society.”

The social philosopher Michael Sandel is quoted as declaring that,

“To be free is more than a matter of pursuing my interests unimpeded, or satisfying my desires, whatever they happen to be.  It is to share in self-government, to deliberate about the common good to have a meaningful voice in shaping the forces that govern our lives.”

This book is an erudite look at how Greek and Roman writers influenced members of the founding generation.

The founders looked to the classical world to answer important questions about the nature of power and the nature of government.  The fact that ours is now the longest-lasting system of government in the world today indicates that their careful study was precisely the right course.  Thomas Ricks has done all of us a great service in writing this book.

Ironically, it appears just when the teaching of classics is coming under attack in some circles, as is Western Civilization itself.  It serves as an important rejoinder to such critics.


Read more from Allan Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.