What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks

What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks

When America’s Founders looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration, they were engaging in “rather bad history,” said Charles King in The Washington Post. But what our first four presidents thought they knew about those distant civilizations shaped the republic they created, and author Thomas Ricks has spent most of the past four years examining those beliefs to better understand the nation that cohort aspired to build. 

The result is a rich compendium of the ancient teachings that the Founders responded to and that have informed the American experiment ever since. They lived in a world where it was routine to name both farm animals and slaves after figures from Greek and Roman history. Given how often we’re told of the Founders’ obsession, “it takes some effort to realize how bizarre it was.” “When Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29, a doctor told him he would be lucky to work for 10 more years,” said Christina Schoellkopf in the Los Angeles Times. 

“Thirty years and eight Emmy nominations (including a 2009 win) later, the joke’s on that guy.” Fox not only kept working into the new century but also took on a new role by creating a foundation for Parkinson’s research that has raised more than $1 billion. But then came 2018, a year of medical calamities that made acting unthinkable. In his new memoir, Fox’s usual indefatigability “has given way to a more sober and realistic vision.” Fox hasn’t suddenly turned morose, but his resolve “has been burnished by adversity,” said Danette Chavez in AVClub.com. 

His friends and loved ones, including his wife and former Family Ties castmate Tracy Book of the week “Today’s America is not at all what the Founders hoped the nation would be,” said Virginia DeJohn Anderson in The New York Times. The word “virtue,” which to the ancients meant putting the common good ahead of self, appeared more often in the writings of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison than “republic” did. They considered their project doomed absent virtue, and Washington modeled the ideal when he twice stepped away from power, knowingly following the example of the revered Roman general Cincinnatus. 

Adams idolized Cicero instead, while Jefferson sneaked Epicurean philosophy into the Declaration of Independence. Madison, the youngest of the four, “proved the most intellectually dynamic.” He rejected the naïveté of a belief in virtue when he devised a government of checks and balances. “Madison’s departure from classical precedent marked a turning point,” said Brooke Allen in The Wall Street Journal. “The 1780s saw the high-water mark of American classicism; the 1790s would be, in Ricks’ phrase, ‘the decade when the classical model ran out of steam.’” The country by then was already more dynamic and democratic than the benevolent top-down society Washington and Adams had imagined, and faction politics was rising. All four early presidents, if they could see America today, would have been both pleased that the republic endures and appalled by money’s effect on politics. Virtue has virtually disappeared, as Madison might have predicted. Still, “he probably could not have imagined a political world in which it doesn’t even receive lip service.”