In his inaugural address, President Biden invoked the words of former presidents, St. Augustine and the Bible. In so doing, he reminded us that presidents – well, most presidents – draw upon leading thinkers from previous eras to help them navigate the challenges of the job.

Cover courtesy of Harper

This tradition goes back to the founding leaders of our country: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were profoundly influenced by philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as their intellectual progeny in Scotland, England and France.

In “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped our Country,” Thomas E. Ricks, a visiting fellow at Bowdoin College, describes the impact these philosophers had on our country’s founders. While writing the book, Ricks lived in rural Maine in a home built in 1812, a situation he said this made the “mental time travel” back to the founding of our country easier to accomplish.

One of book’s key themes is the extent to which “virtue,” or public mindedness, “was the essential element of public life” for the Revolutionary War generation and a sustaining value for them. To illustrate the point, Ricks conducted a database search of the collected writings of the Revolutionary generation and found that the word “virtue” appeared 6.000 times – far more than the word “freedom.”

Yet for all their talk and writing about virtue, the founding leaders of our country failed to address the issue of race-based chattel slavery, and their failure to do so perpetuated massive human rights violations, led to a devastating civil war and reverberates to this day.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, which begins with exhortations of equality, life and liberty, criticized slavery but “never did much to end it,” according to Ricks. To the contrary, Ricks notes that Jefferson owned slaves and designed his mansion at Monticello “to conceal the face of slavery as much as possible” from visitors. Yet Jefferson recognized that slavery was a catastrophe, writing from Paris, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

James Madison, the primary author of the United States Constitution, “gave constitutional protections to the institution of slavery” to “placate the South and keep it part of the country,” and to ensure adoption of the constitution.

In his will, George Washington “tried to free as many of the enslaved people on his plantation as legally possible,” Ricks notes, but the larger point is that our first president was also a slave owner.

John Adams, the second president, was the only founding leader of our country who did not own slaves.

Throughout the book, Ricks tries mightily to explain the cognitive dissonance of our founders who, on the one hand, spoke of equality, freedom and liberty and on the other (except for Adams), owned slaves and institutionalized slavery in the Constitution. Ultimately, it defies explanation: “The republic had built into it a fatal contradiction: It was founded on a faith in freedom yet on the fact of slavery. The founders had made a deal with the devil….,” he writes. Ricks concludes that slavery “was the greatest failing of the founders” one that it is “hardly explainable even today.”

Maine’s pathway to statehood is also implicated in the institution of slavery. The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri to join the union as a slave state to be balanced by allowing Maine to split from Massachusetts in 1820, and join the union as a free state. The compromise had the effect of ratifying slavery by extending the geographical line below which slavery would be permitted. This prospect “horrified” Jefferson, who called it an “act of suicide” that “filled (him) with terror,” even though, paradoxically, he himself owned slaves.

Although the specter of slavery weaves a searing path throughout the book, “First Principles” is primarily a book about American history and political philosophy. It is meticulously researched, and Ricks uses vivid examples and stories to bring the narrative to life and give the book page-turning momentum. Moreover, by incorporating the writings of the founding leaders and their contemporaries, giving us the Revolutionary generation in their own words, Ricks fully engages readers.

Ricks concludes “First Principles” with 10 suggestions for “what we can do” to repair the current political environment of discord in the United States. He rounds out the list with the suggestion that Americans should “know their history,” observing that “the founders made huge errors and decisions with catastrophic results, as is the case with slavery.”  The American experiment is an ongoing, fluid process, according to Ricks, and knowledge of history can help guide us “clear-eyed” into the future.

Dave Canarie is an attorney from South Portland and adjunct faculty member at University of Southern Maine.

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