I was walking through the Ghent district of Norfolk, Virginia, the other day. Ghent is one of Norfolk’s most affluent sections of town. The streets are lined with old brick homes with stately looking facades and shrubberied lawns. Mixed among the homes are beautiful old churches, small gardens, and parks. It was a nice summer day. Not too humid and there was a nice gentle breeze. The only sounds in the air were birds chirping. It was a nice place and the perfect day to be alone with your thoughts and take in the scenery.
As I was walking up one sidewalk I saw what appeared to be, from a distance, a big birdhouse of sorts. But it wasn’t. Much to my surprise it was part of the neighborhood’s “Little Free Library.” A young lady sitting on some steps nearby saw me take the pictures and could see I was fascinated by what I’d found. She said, “Those Little Free Library boxes are all over the neighborhood.”
It’s hard not to find some humor and fascination in a man who is confident enough—and then some—to criticize his boss with such oblique candor.
Here is an extract from a letter written by Wellington in Spain around 1810 to the Secretary of War, Lord Bradford:
My lord, if I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence that surrounds me, I should be debarred from all serious business of campaigning.
So long as I retain an independent position I shall see to it that no officer under my command is debarred, by attending to the futile drivelling of mere quil driving in your lordship’s officer, from attending to his first duty – which is, as always, to train the private men under his command.
The young William and Mary college student stood in the doorway of the Virginia legislative chamber and watched the renown man speak. The year was 1765. With the cadences and imagery and power of his words the speaker seized the spirit of the young man. Reflecting on that moment many years later Thomas Jefferson wrote “He spoke as Homer wrote.” The speaker was Patrick Henry.
Homer was the great epic poet of ancient Greece and many of the lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized by many young colonial American boys. Jefferson and Henry could, no doubt, quote large sections of the texts from memory. Ancient Greek authors wrote their poems and histories specifically to be read aloud. The words and imagery were chosen carefully for the emotive purpose of getting the audience to “move with” the author. The success of the writer, or any artist really, is when the power of his or her words (or whatever art form they use) takes you along, imaginatively, to the place that he or she intends. We’re storytelling beings who find our purpose and meaning in the stories we tell ourselves. The world and our experience are the canvas; words are the paint.
The power of great words, especially the spoken, for good or for ill, can move people to do things they might not have done otherwise. That day Jefferson could feel the seductive force of Henry’s words. The men of that chamber, at the time, were debating the one of the most consequential things you can: treason. Henry added great persuasive force to the cause.
The younger Jefferson was a great admirer of Henry and his skill as a speaker, but the later, the older and more experienced Jefferson, found Henry’s power of oratory could also pose a tremendous problem. Breaking things up is much easier than building things up. And so while Henry was an asset in bringing about the revolution and a new nation, he was a serious liability when Virginia was trying to form a new state constitution. It worried Jefferson a lot. So much so that in a letter to James Madison we find some rather candid lines about the content of Jefferson’s prayers:
“While Mr. Henry lives another bad [state] constitution would be formed, and saddled for ever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.”
When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move the Canada? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.
Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? Of course the Founders were men whose educations were mostly built around classical literature. And so in First Principles Ricks examines what the American founders learned from the [ancient] Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country.
This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.
For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.
Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.