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Author And Journalist Tom Ricks: Founding Fathers Expected Today's Political State

<em>First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country,</em> by Thomas Ricks
First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, by Thomas Ricks

Tom Ricks spent decades as a journalist, including covering the U.S. military for newspapers and writing books about the war in Iraq.

Then he decided to take a step back, moving to an island in Maine where he's been reading the words of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others.

He says it's important to read the works of these founders, "because we still live in the house they designed."

Ricks has written a book called First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.

Interview Highlights

On principles the Founding Fathers took from the Greeks and the Romans

James Madison spends about four years before the Constitutional Convention reading up in a very rigorous academic way on ancient Greek history and especially how the republics of ancient Greece worked — how the city states worked with each other in leagues or confederations, as they called them. So, for example, the most prominent of the ancient Greek leagues the Amphictyonic League, had a system under which it didn't matter whether you were a big city or a small city in this confederation, this league of theirs. Each city had two votes. So when they're designing the U.S. Senate, they say, well ... whether you're big or small, let's equalize that by giving each state two senators. And that means, of course, the Electoral College is partly based on that — how many senators you have. The problem is the difference between big and small back then wasn't as big. The smallest state coming in was Delaware. The biggest was Virginia. Virginia was about 12 times the population of Delaware. Nowadays, the biggest state population is California. The smallest is Wyoming. And the difference in citizens and in voters is about 50 to one.

On Joe Biden being ahead by millions in the popular vote in the 2020 election but having to wait for a few states to be called by relatively close margins in the electoral vote to know who won

But this goes partly to Madison's genius. It's not entirely a bad thing. They wanted to have balance between the small states and the big states. They didn't want the big states like Virginia to overwhelm and dominate the other states. So, this was a compromise that they cooked up. And the entire Constitution is, in many ways, a peace treaty between different states. A series of compromises in this goes to the genius of James Madison. He said: We're going to have to have a series of balances; we're going to disperse power so broadly among three branches of the federal government and two houses within the legislative branch, between the federal government and state government — spread the power out so that if you're going to try to do anything in this country, you're going to have to make deals and compromises. And if you can't, you're going to get gridlock. In the way Madison designs it, gridlock is not a bug. It's a feature. It says we don't trust power because we saw in the ancient world that when one person or one group becomes too powerful, it throws things out of whack. So we're going to force people to try to put power together through a series of deals and compromises. So, I think Madison, especially, would be very proud to see that when America deeply disagrees, as it does now, that things grind to a halt.

On whether the founders anticipated the sort of political circumstances we've had the last several years

Absolutely. Thomas Jefferson, at one point, said bad men will get into power. And Madison says himself he's not a memorable writer, Madison, but he has one memorable phrase I can think of, which is that if men were angels, we would not need government. Government is intended to restrain the bad impulses of people, so, yes, they saw that one day we'd have a president like Donald Trump. The Donald Trump of their day was Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr very nearly became president in 1800, 1801. In just a few years later, he goes on and he shoots Alexander Hamilton and then he is indicted for treason against the United States, for a murky conspiracy he was involved in. He was a bad guy, Aaron Burr. And the system was designed to check and balance people. And check is not an easy thing. Think of a hockey check. That's a rough hit. Well, they wanted those checks to happen.

On what he thinks about the divided overall election result

It's not a country I'm happy with right now. I think there's much more white supremacy in this country than I believed a few years ago. But, yes, I think the election results you saw are a real expression of where a lot of Americans are at. ...I actually think all the social media stuff is profoundly democratic, the means of information are being taken up by the hands of the people. Basically, everybody these days is a publisher. Everybody has their own private newspaper, kind of what they put on Facebook, what they put on Twitter. And it becomes a public newspaper. And elites in America have always been afraid of that. John Adams, who I think has been heavily overrated in recent years — especially because of the David McCullough book and this cute, you know, Paul Giamatti miniseries on HBO — John Adams freaked out when he was president and being criticized. He thought it should be illegal to criticize the president – [that] it was almost an act of treason — and he acted on that. Twenty-five newspaper editors get indicted and a bunch of them thrown in jail simply for criticizing John Adams or the Congress when Adams was president. So that's always been a problem for American elites, is the democratization of information. And the people around it. The people have harsh voices sometimes. That's not entirely a bad thing. It's a lot better than taking up arms and shooting at each other.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 10, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of these interview highlights misquoted Tom Ricks as saying, "Aaron Burr very nearly became president in 1880, 1881." The years in that quote are "1800, 1801."
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.