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

First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
by Thomas E. Ricks

Thomas Ricks book First Principles garnered lots of positive press when it came out last fall. It has a 4.6 out of 5 rating on Amazon, and a 4.18 out of 5 on Goodreads. So I came at the book with high expectations.

I found it to be an entertaining read. Ricks takes a unique approach to understanding the motivations of our founding fathers. Yet, in the end, I can't say that I took away a significantly new, or profoundly impacted understanding of our nation's founding.

Ricks' unique approach is through the classical learning -or lack thereof - of the first four of our US Presidents. In his words he wanted to explore, “what our first four presidents learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge.” He does a great job telling that story, and it was an interesting story to read.

A couple of the things that were let downs to my high expectations -

The heart of the answer to Ricks' quest is with Madison and the drafting of the Constitution. Here I wish he had spent more time and done more analysis to address the subtitle of his book. Instead the Constitution is covered in a single chapter, and much of that chapter relates to the politics of ratifying the Constitution rather than the basis of Madison's ideas in the Constitution.

The first two thirds of the book build the argument for how the ideas of the Greeks and Romans were instrumental to the thinking of the Founding Fathers and influenced the shape of the US government. In the final third of the book Ricks tries to explain why that classical thinking disappeared with the next generation. This to me was the weakest part of the book, and I don't know that the question was answered satisfactorily.

Despite these things I do recommend this book. If you are a fan of American history and particularly of the history of the nation's founding, you will find much to like in this book, and hopefully feel as I did that it is an entertaining read and a good refresher. Just don't go at it with high expectations thinking it will be revelatory and re-align your thinking about our Founding Fathers. I rate First Principles Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐.

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