What America's Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans

Thomas E. Ricks, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, talks about his new book, "First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country."

This week, I had Thomas Ricks on the podcast to talk about his new book, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: I want to talk a lot about the history, because I love it. And I love talking about the Founders. But I do want to cut to the chase. It strikes me that Donald Trump is exactly the kind of person that the Founders feared based on what they learn from history.

Tom: Well, they'd seen a lot of bad of human nature during the revolution. And they had seen scoundrels and rogues and traders. And they knew they had to write a Constitution that would somehow be able to survive people like, as Thomas Jefferson said, “bad men will sometimes get into office.” And as his friend James Madison said, “If men were angels, we wouldn't need a government.” So they wrote the Constitution very much with the notion that you have to get through bad times as well as good times, because you're going to have times when rogues hold power. So what do you do about it? And the fundamental answer they came up with, which is James Madison's answer, is we are going to disperse power so broadly across this country, that no one person can impose their will on everybody else. So you have this real dispersion of power between states and the federal government, between the three branches of the federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial)—and within the legislative branch, we have two different houses of government. I was thinking about this just this week, something I had never thought about in my life: Isn't it interesting that the federal government doesn't run federal elections? You’d think that would make sense. Instead, state governments run the elections for the federal government. Think how different this historical moment would be if Donald Trump, on his own, could say, I'm the chief of the executive branch, and I decertify this presidential election. He can't. He has no power over certifying this election. I’ve just got to say, “Thank you, James Madison and your comrades coming up with that solution.”

Matt: The great minds think alike, because I made that same point on CNN this week. We are blessed. I know there's a lot of criticism about things like the Electoral College and gridlock, but the Founders pit ambition against ambition, and they created this system that it—you know, it's dinged up, I have to admit, but it did withstand the last four years.

Tom: It turns out, it's a very resilient system. And James Madison would say, by the way, “gridlock, that's not a bug, that's a feature.” Power is dispersed so broadly, that if you can't make alliances, cut deals, or arrive at compromises, you're not going to get anywhere. He was worried about whether a big republic was sustainable. Can it live? You've got to have this wide dispersal of power that forces people to somehow engage in some wrangling to come out with any progress at all.

Matt: Your book references Montesquieu, who was a French philosopher who studied antiquity—the classical period. He believed that that big Republic's couldn't endure. What was that based on? And did that cause the Founders to take any steps?

Tom: Quite a lot. The Founders said this Articles of Confederation contraption we had in the 1780s…that's not working. So we're gonna have to make a new design. And they look around and they want a government of the people, but there's not a whole lot of examples to look for. Most governments, most of the time in history, have been run by kings, or emperors, or tribal chiefs, or something. And there's precious few [republican] examples. One is the Roman Republic. And the two lessons they took away from the Roman Republic were that it was brought down by factionalism and by corruption. Montesquieu, himself, was deeply devoted to writing about Roman history. He writes a whole book on the decline, and then his masterwork, the Spirit of the Laws, is probably one-third about Roman history. Montesquieu adds two more problems, as you said. Montesquieu says only city-states—small republic's—last. The second is that he says republic's are generally not sustainable. So Madison and his peers, writing the Constitution are trying to figure out how to deal with factionalism, and how to deal with corruption. How do we make a sustainable Republic? And how do we handle a big Republic and dispersal of power, dividing it across the country, in different branches of government. That is their first solution. And second is, as you said, pitting ambition against ambition. We can't get by on people's selflessness alone, you can't count on people to do the right thing. So instead pit ambition against ambition, and let people fight it out. They expected a fairly contentious system of government, and we got it.

Matt: When the Founders crafted these compromises, the difference between small states and big states weren't as great as they are today. Right now, North Dakota has two senators, but that state has just a fraction of the population of New York or California. There are a lot of people out there who think the Electoral College is a horrible idea, and it's obviously undemocratic. They want to get rid of it. It sounds like you might say, “well, let's hold on a second, maybe there's an argument for this”—

Tom: I wouldn't say absolutely get rid of the Electoral College. I would say, first of all, there are a lot of things in the Constitution that are shock absorbers and the Electoral College is one of them. Be careful before you get rid of something. But also we might ask, “Is there a way to tinker with the electoral college? Could we improve it?” Remember, they designed the entire Constitution to be improved. When you make a change to it, it's not called a change, it’s called an amendment—to amend it… to make it better. One thing you could do that would immediately change the Electoral College is say, “When they designed the country, Virginia, the biggest state, was 12 times the population of Delaware, the smallest state. But now, California is 25 or 50 times actually the size of Wyoming. So let's give the big states three senators, the middle third, two senators, and the smallest states, one senator.” That would immediately make it more democratic without getting rid of the Electoral College. What I like is once you get into this sort of mindset of realizing, you know, they were sitting around making this up, and then they went out for a beer on these hot evenings in Philadelphia, it's easier to tinker with it. So one of the discussions they had one day was, “should the presidency be one person, two people or three people?” And they pretty quickly said, “you know, when the Romans had three people that didn't work out real well.” So they made it one person. Another question they confronted was "who should impeach the president?” They knew they wanted to have a limit on executive power. So who should impeach the president? Should it be the Supreme Court? Or should it be the Congress? Ultimately, they decide the Congress. But this opens up things like “okay, maybe the Supreme Court should simply have 18 year terms?” I know that's been discussed in a recent academic study as a possible solution. I think we should be much more open to amending the Constitution, than we have been.

Matt: One takeaway from the book was the degree to which the Founders’ vocabulary and worldview was so shaped by Rome and Greece the way that anytime people start criticizing Donald Trump, the immediate reference point is Hitler. Like, right now he's in the bunker, right? Like our only reference point is Hitler, and I feel like maybe for the Founders it was Caesar? Is that a good analogy?

Tom: It is very much because this was their political vocabulary. Remember, they didn't have sports stars, they didn't have other heroes, basically, their celebrity culture almost was Roman culture. And so they look to Rome, not just for historical evidence and examples, they really look for role models. What's interesting to me is they pick different ones for George Washington. As a young man, it's very much Cato, Cato, being the Roman statesman, who opposed the rise of Julius Caesar, who ultimately commits suicide rather than surrender to Caesar. And he is known for his characteristics of stoicism, a frugality, a reserve, a prudence, and a wisdom, that George Washington, struggling to contain a volcanic temper, as a young man, tries to emulate. And that's his first great role model. By contrast, John Adams tries to become like Cicero, another Roman politician, known as a great orator. And interestingly Plutarch says that Cicero was a great patriot, but also incredibly vain. And John Adams may have managed to emulate both the good and the bad.

Matt: Early on in our discussion, it struck me that you were talking a lot about Madison and the Constitution—and pitting ambition against ambition and gridlock. But Madison almost didn't make the cut for your book—or, at least, initially you didn't think of Madison. Talk about the decision to include him?

Tom: Well, one of the things I've learned in life is talk to smart people before you start a big project. So, as I was contemplating this book, I drove down to Providence, Rhode Island, and had lunch with a great American historian Gordon Wood. And I said, “Here’s the people I'm thinking of writing about, here's the themes of so on.” And he instantly said, “Drop Benjamin Franklin, and add Madison.” And he makes the argument that Madison is the second most important person in the founding of the country after George Washington. George Washington wins the war that gives us the country. But James Madison is the man who gives us the design of the country we now live in 250 years later. There's also a saying among American historians that “the more you know about George Washington, the more you admire him,” and I think the same is true of James Madison. I really became to be fond of Madison. I think they called him little Jimmy Madison. He was about five foot five foot one 110 pounds, kind of sickly, suffered from some form of epilepsy, we're not quite sure what it was, and did not have a good speaking voice. And not a particularly great writer. There's not a whole lot of phrases we remember from Madison, yet through his intellect and his willpower, Madison shapes this country. He decides during the Articles of Confederation period that this thing isn't working, and a lot of people agree with him, including George Washington. He starts beating the drum for holding a Constitutional Convention. He spends years doing research for it, really approaching the ancient world as a political scientist, looking at how Greek city states worked, how their confederations work, how the republic worked. What do you want to copy from that? What do you want to avoid? Then he goes off to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention and gives one of the first big speeches that lays out his thinking and what he's learned. Then, he and Alexander Hamilton, after the convention, lead the campaign to ratify the thing. And then on top of it, in the 1790s, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson basically invent the first form of American politics. They start up political newspapers, and they drive John Adams nuts when John Adams is president, because these newspapers criticize the president. And John Adams, drawing on Roman history says, “Well, that's factionalism to criticize the leader. This is like treason.” And so he starts throwing newspaper editors in jail. He has a disastrous presidency. He is voted out after one term, he becomes our first one-term president. He's pretty angry and bitter about it. He doesn't show up at the inauguration of a successor, Thomas Jefferson, and I think there's a good chance Donald Trump won't show up at the inauguration of his successor. Nonetheless, John Adams did turn over power to the opposition. And they're just saying, among political scientists that “anybody can hold an election and elect a president, but the test of a democracy is whether the opposition can win an election and have power turned over to them.” And John Adams, to his credit, does turn power over to Thomas Jefferson, the first transfer to the opposition in American history—and one that I wish Donald Trump understood better.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.