Even for George Washington, whose education took place outside of libraries or classrooms, figures such as Cicero and Cato were familiar examples of visionary statesmanship or fatal madness.
In colonial America, the classics were integrated into everyday life. Farmyards can accommodate a horse named Arcturus or a chicken called Cleopatra. For some white households, this remarkable classicism manifested itself in yet another way: in the identities of human beings, families claimed as chattel. Monticello and Mount Vernon only flourished because of the forced labor of people who had been forcibly transformed into Jupiter, Caesar, Hercules, and Cupid.
Pulitzer Prize-winning national security journalist Thomas E. Ricks turned to this story with a sense of bewilderment. Election night 2016 seemed to call for a return to first things. He spent the next few years immersed not only in the founders’ biographies but also in their reading lists. His goal was to understand what they perceived as their cultural heritage and what warnings they might have in the age of Trump: about the paths of democratic decadence, the seductions of tyranny, the damage caused by venal politicians, perils of factionalism.
The result, Ricks’ new book, “First principles”, is a rich compendium of the ancient wisdom that Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison believed to glean from Aristotle or Tacitus, and of the formation of “classical form behavior” in the early republic. The book is a critical study of the allegories that Americans have lived by for more than two centuries and how they continue to enlighten and mislead us. Ricks traces the predominance of classical allusions in the founding generation and their rapid decline in the 19th century, as educational systems evolved and the demands of practical politics proved less receptive to models derived from the Athenians or Romans.
For educated individuals in the late 18th century, a certain image of Greece and Rome was a commonplace of poetry, performance, and the built environment. Antiquity was important, Ricks suggests, because it provided the intellectual foundation of the revolutionary generation. Knowing the origins of the values they claimed to espouse and the historical comparisons they took to be self-evident, we can learn more about the founders themselves – and perhaps how the country we have today lives up to the one they envisioned.
In addition to extensive reading of the original texts and the research of specialist historians, Ricks used Founders Online, a free database of all the writings of the founding generation, maintained by the US National Archives and Records Administration (and a shining example of publicly funded digital humanities). A simple word search reveals precisely how many times Revolutionary-era figures mentioned “virtue”—a sense of the common good or respect for the public good, as Ricks defines it—as a fundamental principle of civic life. In their writings, the word appears more often than “republic” or “democracy”. Without virtue, institutions have failed. Civilization has withered. Tyrants reigned.
But “First Principles” also reminds us that all kinship systems are, in their own way, fictional. The Greece and Rome of the founders were not ours. Since the ancient world is also available to us today – Capitol Hill, marathons, the Socratic method and at least 30 American cities named Troy – it takes some effort to understand how bizarre it was for a Virginia planter or a printer from Boston to think of himself as heir to this bygone world.
To claim this cultural ancestry, he had to ignore the millennium when Rome resided not on the Tiber but on the Bosporus, ruling an increasingly Asian empire from Constantinople. He must have neglected the centuries when Greek texts were preserved and reworked in the great centers of Islamic learning, from Cordoba to Baghdad. In an era that was just beginning to define “race” as the fundamental form of human difference, he had to reimagine Mediterranean and North African civilizations as racially white. And he must have seen his own prejudices – women as primarily suited to domestic life, homosexual love as immoral, hereditary slavery as part of the natural order – as timeless and universal. This whole process, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, was not so much about the resurrection of the ancient world as its transfiguration, a centuries-old habit of making the ancients comprehensible to northern Europeans.
“First Principles” ends with some regrets about “the end of American classicism” and a set of practical lessons that, while laudable, seem disconnected from the rest of the book, such as reducing campaign spending. However, we shouldn’t mourn the passing of a version of America’s cultural heritage that was always based on a pretty bad history. Ricks doesn’t rave about the oldies, but many do, often in grotesquely ignorant ways. “Our mission is to uphold the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” President Trump said on September 17, announcing the creation of a new Commission 1776 to promote “patriotic education.” He then called the U.S. Constitution “the accomplishment of a thousand years of Western civilization.”
As a field, classics is doing well without contorting it to serve nationalism. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available from the Modern Language Association, university courses in Greek and Latin had around 36,000 students, compared to around 50,000 for Chinese – hardly a sign of dead languages. In 2017, according to the American Council of Learned Societies, Latin ranked fourth in number of K-12 programs, behind Spanish, French, and German, but ahead of Chinese and American Sign Language.
New studies have invigorated – and complicated – our understanding of the classical era. Today’s scholars know Greece best because it provincialized it, placing its texts and iconography alongside those of contemporary Persia, India, and China. Archaeologists and historians such as Mary Beard have made Rome more familiar by making it stranger: less togas and speeches, more filth, violence, sex and angst. (It turns out that Roman virtue was not exactly what the Enlightenment believed.) Translators and critics such as Emily Wilson and Daniel Mendelsohn remade the great texts from scratch, emphasizing a point that had been overlooked. to Jefferson and Madison: that the classical world was also populated by women.
The dead are not our employees, as novelist Hilary Mantel once pointed out. The classical world becomes more intelligible when we give up demanding that its inhabitants play an extra role in our own stories. This is why WEB Du Bois could say, in “The souls of black people“, that it was an act of liberation to “summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I want, and they all come graciously, without contempt or condescension.” As Ricks’s in-depth account shows, what feels truly elegiac is remembering a time in American history when political leaders, for all their faults, valued scholarship and, yes, a certain virtue as ideal qualities in public life.
What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How It Shaped Our Country