FIRST Principles/THOMAS E. RICKS

As readers of this blog may know I am a fan of John Adams and have within these pages questioned historian Gordon Wood and others regarding objectivity concerning Adams, in particular in comparison’s to Jefferson. Thomas E. Rick’s new book FiRST Principals, WHAT AMERICA’S FOUNDERS LEARNED from the GREEKS and ROMANS AND HOW THAT SHAPED OUR COUNTRY makes a herculean effort to connect the thinking of the Founding Fathers with that of the ancient Greeks and Romans as they organized their governments and laws.

Ricks authors an in depth analysis of the political and ruling organizations of those ancient times and attempts to connect them to the thinking of those who founded the fledging America. You will need to judge whether or not he succeeded.

In addition to the ancient perspective, throughout the book Ricks finds ways to circle back to his passion of comparing the thinking of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during America’s daybreak. Like historian Gordon Wood his writing becomes clouded with his reverence for Jefferson and I think disdain for Adams. So often, Ricks seems to go out of his way to demean Adams’s thinking while praising, and in this readers view, making excuses for Jefferson’s shortcomings. He brushes past Jefferson’s slaveholding, his virtual disappearance during the Revolutionary War and his relationship with fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings. The book does not recognize the depth of Jefferson’s disdain for Federalism and his advancement of the superiority of states rights over a strong federal government. ( The continuation of the “Plantation” economy and expansion of slavery.)

In fairness, I think Ricks is himself conflicted about John Adams. On the one hand he references Adam’s best known work A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America as, The sole piece of writing he finished that is longer than an essay. However just two paragraphs later Ricks writes, Adams in turn wrote , there can be no government of laws without a balance and there can be no balance without the three orders. Sounds like executive, judicial and legislative to me. No surprise here because John Adams is credited with authoring the Massachusetts Constitution which in 1788 became the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution.

With regard to what the founders learned from the Greeks and Romans I must confess that Ricks gives Adams his due. Quoting from a famous John Adams essay in the Boston Gazette in 1765 titled Let Us Dare , Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British Constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome.

This essay was written just as the Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament which many consider to be the final spark that ignited the American Revolution. This is Adam’s prescient thought in the opening lines of Let Us Dare. Liberty. . .which has never been enjoyed, in its full perfection, by more than ten or twelve millions of men at any Time, since the Creation, will reign in America, over hundreds and thousands of millions at a Time.

Getting past my defense of Adams, Rick’s book creates a superior condensed history of the Revolutionary War, the rise of George Washington, the telling of the Adams, Jefferson, Burr election of 1800, the impact of James Madison and the evolution of political parties in America. His epilogue ” What We Can Do” is filled with positive responses to what America has learned from history and the founding fathers.

First Principles is a great read for those who are looking for a deep dive into a slice on early American history.

THE CITY- STATE OF BOSTON by MARK PETERSON

Boston, a city unlike any other in the annals of American history.  ” A City On a Hill,” The Athens of America, ” The Cradle of Liberty.”   Each appellation has been appropriately tested over centuries.  Mark Peterson’s THE C ITY-STATE OF BOSTON is nothing short of remarkable and an important unfolding of the fundamental role this city and its colonial inhabitants played in America from the 1630’s through the onset of the Civil War.

Look not in these pages for the” Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” The Boston Tea Party, or for “One if by land, two if by sea.”  No. This scholarly work is about Boston’s era of enormous influence through the prism of religion, colonial government, social norms, economics, trade, regional influence, slavery and the utopian ideals that the Puritans of the Great Migration brought with them to the New World.  Peterson’s history unfolds upon American shores beginning in the 1630s as British Immigrants establish a largely independent entity called Boston, virtually free from the influence of the mother country. Boston, through the ingenuity and common purpose of its people, established an ethical  culture whose influence spread to the evolving New England Region. Boston became the undisputed mercantile center of the worldwide Atlantic trade, and the dominant force of culture and ideals that lead to the American Revolution.

You will learn of the New England influence upon the Articles of Confederation, of John Adam’s conflicts with Thomas Jefferson in the framing of the Constitution, and of how the slave states ultimately dominated the direction of the nation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  The southern block influence became so great under Jefferson that in the period of the War of 1812, Massachusetts considered becoming the first state to succeed from the fragile Union.

I hope these brief references will stimulate you to  absorb Peterson’s  incredible insight into this period of colonial history.  It ranks at the very top of the books I have selected on the subject because it journeys deeply below the surface of the famous named historical events and creates an understanding of how the most important city of the period came into dominance and then faded.  You will be introduced to new individuals whose names never have appeared on the,” marquee of history,”  but  the influence of whom was enormous.

Mark Peterson is the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England.   Search gordonsgoodreads.com for two suggested companion reads to BostonAmerican Dialogue by Joseph Ellis, The Barbarous Years by Bernard Bailyn, John Adams by David McCullough.