BOOKS: First Principles: Thomas E. Ricks | New

For a quick understanding of what Thomas E. Ricks’ book “First Principles” is all about, readers need look no further than the subtitle.

“What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How It Shaped Our Country.”

Although the subtitle is long, it provides a concise overview of the themes of “First Principles.”

Ricks reviews these themes, taking readers on walks through the lives and founding times of America’s first four presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

The men who shaped the nation before America was a nation through the movement for independence from Great Britain to the Revolutionary War to the creation of the Constitution and the establishment of the first governmental and presidential administrations .

As each mini-era progresses, Ricks reveals how these men and other American founders built on lessons learned from the Greeks and specifically the Romans.

In the case of the more academically prepared Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, some of these comparisons can be found literally in their speeches, writings, and books in their libraries as well as in the ideas they championed in everything from speeches on the floor of the Continental Congress to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.

Although less educated by books than his contemporaries, Washington was equally familiar with Roman thought, characters, and events in history. Popular plays of the time centering on historical Roman figures and Roman philosophy on public virtue, history, and example were commonplace in 18th-century conversation, classrooms, and topical essays .

While the others discussed and expounded on these themes, Washington, according to Ricks, personified Roman ideals. He lived the Roman ideals of his admiration for Cato, a latter-day senator of the Roman republic. Like Cincinnatus, who returned to his fields after saving Rome, General Washington relinquished military power after gaining American independence during the Revolutionary War.

As with his book “Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Ricks delves into his themes but writes in a clear style that explains lofty concepts well while laying solid foundations for his stated themes.

He also shares interesting details throughout his books.

“First Principles” is not a series of traditional biographies on its four principles but rather a set of biographical profiles on their connection to Roman and some Greek ideas in their lives and the events they shaped.

And a solid guide to how these “first principles” have shaped the documents, ideals, history, and government of the United States of America.

Colin L. Johnson