Did the Donald Trump presidency create a constitutional crisis? Will it continue to do so until Inauguration Day, or even after? For the most part, questions like that are best left to legal scholars (and Bloomberg Opinion has three of the best: Noah Feldman, Stephen Carter and Cass R. Sunstein).
But there are other people to turn to, some of them dead for more than two milleniums. That’s the view of Tom Ricks, anyway. Ricks is best known as a military correspondent, part of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and as the author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005.”
But his latest book involves a much older war, the American Revolution, and how the founding fathers used ancient thinking to forge a new kind of nation. It’s called “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I had with Ricks, who currently teaches history at Bowdoin College in Maine.
TOBIN HARSHAW: Where do we start? With the founders, I guess. In the book, you explain a bit about why you wanted to go back to classical sources that you hadn’t read since school. Did current events give you some impetus?
TOM RICKS: Sure, it goes back to the day after the presidential election of 2016. I woke up in the morning and said to myself, “I don’t understand what happened last night. I don’t understand why people would put a person like Donald Trump in the presidency. Clearly, some people have a different conception of this country, and Donald Trump has a different sense of the presidency, than I do.”
So, you go back to first principles. I went downstairs and took my old copy of Aristotle’s “Politics” off the shelf, and reread it in the context of the election. Immediately, I found it interesting. For example, as an aside, Aristotle says that oligarchies are the least stable form of government — and that intrigued me, because it cast a new light on the Trump administration.
That led me to other ancient Greek philosophy and history, and then I found myself turning more and more toward Rome, because I saw that’s where the founding fathers had gone.
That then led me to the Enlightenment’s interpretations of Roman history. Montesquieu invented the idea of the liberal democratic state — tolerant, with the rule of law and with civil liberties such as freedom of opinion, and a division of power, and trying to balance equality and liberty — and he was hugely influenced by studying the Romans. And that led me to the Scottish Enlightenment, and its role in the founding of America.
TH: I think if your book had a different name, it would be one word: “Virtue.” What was the concept of virtue at the time of the founders?
TR: Virtue was incredibly important to them, but it doesn’t mean to them what it means to us. When we talk about virtue, it’s usually in the context of female sexuality — a woman of “easy virtue.” Virtue for them was being public-minded, putting the interest of the people, the common good, before one’s own interest.
George Washington, not often thought of as a political philosopher, early on in the revolution begins to question the reliance on virtue, basically thinking, “Virtue alone is not going to get us through this thing.”
And Madison picks up on that in the 1780s after the Revolutionary War, when they’re living under the Articles of Confederation, a very weak structure that relies on people to do the right thing. Madison is saying to people, this isn’t working. So he begins beating the drum for a Constitutional Convention that will turn the whole concept of virtue on its head and say: Virtue is nice to have, but it’s insufficient. So, we’re going to come up with a structure that pits ambition against ambition, vice against vice, and balances interests so that power is dispersed so greatly that the only way to make progress is to reach compromises.
TH: So, of the first four presidents, who was the most virtuous?
TR: The most virtuous president is George Washington, because he built his life around the notion of virtue as embodied by the Roman statesman Cato. Cato is honest, wise, prudent, reserved, frugal. This is what Washington tries to be as a young man who doesn’t really have a way forward in society, and who also has a volcanic temper. Later, Washington takes on other roles, such as Cincinnatus, the general who voluntarily gives up power, but Cato is the model, really, for his whole life.
John Adams is less virtuous — his role model is Cicero, who has a downside: He’s a great patriot, but he’s also incredibly vain. Adams is not quite the teddy bear that Paul Giamatti portrays in that HBO miniseries about John Adams.
TH: Thomas Jefferson?
TR: Jefferson doesn’t really pursue the virtues, and of the first four presidents, he stands out as the exception. He’s Greek much more than Roman. He’s an Epicurean, explicitly dedicating his life to the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain in a prudent, just, wise way.
And then Madison comes along in a new generation. He is much more academic in his examination of the ancient world. He spent four years at Princeton studying the ancient Greek and Roman political structures. Madison, I think, is the second-most-important founder. George Washington wins the war. It gives us the nation, and I think a lot of other generals would not have won that war. Madison is the guy who comes along and says, “OK, now, let’s design the house that is going to make this nation run, this machine of the Constitution.”
For an encore, in the 1790s, Madison and Jefferson together invent the first opposition party. Ten years later, Jefferson wins the presidency, and we have the first transfer of power to the opposition, which is the real test of a democracy.
TH: Alexander Hamilton isn’t really a main topic of the book, but given the Broadway musical, he’s maybe the most familiar character to many Americans today. How virtuous was he?
TR: Hamilton is a lot of fun. Hamilton is the best writer of the revolutionary generation. Unfortunately, he’s also crazy in a lot of ways. He’s conspiracy-minded. He’s manipulative. He’s Machiavellian sometimes in not very clever ways. Such as with the Newburgh Conspiracy at the end of the war, where Hamilton, behind the scenes, is encouraging officers to utter mutinous thoughts and push Washington around. Washington pushes back pretty hard, then later tells Hamilton that you really don’t want to toy with an army, that it’s a dangerous thing to trifle with.
TH: You talked about Jefferson and Madison forging the first opposition party. But the bipartisan system isn’t really a classical model, is it?
TR: No, it’s very much not the classical model. A lesson the founders took away from the decline of the Roman republic was that it was brought down by two things: corruption, the love of money, and faction, which we would call partisan politics. So when Jefferson and Madison in the 1790s began developing a genuine opposition, with political newspapers taking their views, the Federalists are shocked. President Adams sees this opposition as basically treason, and thinks it is illegal to criticize a president under the Sedition Act, and he throws editors in jail. In his Ciceronian view of the world, he sees partisanship as a threat to the republic rather than as the way forward, which is how Madison sees it.
And when Jefferson succeeds Adams in March 1801, he says two very important things in his first inaugural. Number one, every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle — that just because somebody disagrees with you on a political question doesn’t mean they’re treasonous or even just a bad person. The second thing is that he’s not going to throw the Federalist opposition into jail, which also establishes norms in American politics.
TH: This is the toughie, I think. How can we describe as virtuous people who held other people in bondage?
TR: Yeah, I think the first thing is that there are real differences between American slavery and ancient slavery — something that the founders obscured. American slavery tended to be more vicious and was race-based, while ancient slavery was not. Slavery is not a stain on the American fabric. It is part of the American fabric, and we are still trying to pull it out of the American fabric.
Slavery was the great failing of the Constitution. In the Constitution, they lit the fuse that blows up into the Civil War. It is the great problem in America even now. I think American history consists of the lead-in to the Civil War and then Reconstruction, and I think we’re still in the Reconstruction.
TH: So how can these three American slaveholders — Adams of course had none — be considered people of virtue?
TR: The way I look at history is, What is a person most significant for? And Thomas Jefferson is an enormous hypocrite, the one with the greatest gap between his words and his actions. He talks a great game on slavery. He doesn’t do anything about it. Nonetheless, Jefferson gave us his first inaugural address, which is important, and the Declaration of Independence, which is the single most important document in American history.
TH: Let’s jump to the present day. You write that the founders anticipated a Donald Trump.
TR: Yeah, I think if you brought the founders back today, number one, they’d be quite embarrassed by what a mess they made of slavery; but, number two, they would be pleased by the resiliency of the Constitution. Remember Madison is working on the Constitution with the notion that you’re not going to have sufficient virtue — there will be self-interest. There will be bad men. As Madison said, “If men were angels, we wouldn’t need a government.”
Looking at Trump, they’d see he very effectively steps on norms, such as the norm that you have a peaceful and graceful transition of power to your successor as president. But where Trump has really stubbed his toe is when he has gone up against the Constitution. He’s found out to his chagrin that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t work for him, nor does the Supreme Court, even though he appointed so many of its members. So, the Constitution has been a real frustration for Trump, and the founders would say that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.
TH: In your epilogue, you describe some steps that could help the nation get back on the course intended by the Revolutionary generation. One is, “Promote, cultivate and reward virtue in public life.” Along those lines, there has been some momentum toward bringing civics classes back into high school. What writers would you recommend that they bring back?
TR: Probably the best would be Montesquieu. He summarizes the ancient lessons well, but he also provides a bridge from them to the world that we live in now. Montesquieu, like Madison, is one of the designers of the world we live in now, the whole structure of the people deciding.
I want to say one other thing I was just thinking about this week.
TR: The genius of the Constitution continually unfolds. I was thinking about the odd fact that the states run elections for federal government, when the logical thing would be for the federal government to run elections for the federal government. If that were the case, though, Trump would have had his hands on the lever of power, and would have been able to declare the presidential election invalid. So, there is a brilliance there.
This is why we can fiddle with the Constitution, change the Electoral College maybe, but we should be very careful about unintended consequences.