Author Tom Ricks: Founding Fathers Expected Today's Political State "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," Ricks, author of a new book, First Principles, tells NPR.

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

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It has been a big few days. Americans elected a new president, Joe Biden. They also reelected a lot of Republican senators. Next comes a transfer of power, which has been required by the Constitution since the 1790s. A writer who explored the background of that document talk to our co-host, Steve.


Tom Ricks spent decades as a journalist. He covered the U.S. military for newspapers and wrote books about the war in Iraq. He then took a step back, moving to an island in Maine where he's been reading the words of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others.

TOM RICKS: Why should we be thinking about these guys? Because we still live in the house they designed.

INSKEEP: Ricks has written a book called "First Principles." He says the founders of the American republic read up on republics in ancient Greece and Rome.

RICKS: James Madison spent 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, 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, let's give - 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 in population is California, the smallest is Wyoming. And the difference in citizens and in voters is about 50 to one.

INSKEEP: We've just seen a dramatic illustration of what you're talking about in the election just past where in the popular vote, Joe Biden is clearly ahead by millions. But in the electoral vote, we had to wait for a few states to be called by relatively close margins to know who won.

RICKS: 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, and this goes again 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 the state government. Spread the power out so that if you're going to try to do anything to this country, you're going to have to make deals and compromises. And if you can't, you're going to get gridlock.

And 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 how 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.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that the founders anticipated the sort of political circumstances we've had the last several years?

RICKS: 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. And 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.

INSKEEP: Do you look at this election result with Joe Biden having claimed the presidency - he's the president-elect. Republicans perhaps will keep control of the Senate or at best for Democrats, it'll be a 50-50 Senate where they can break it with the tie-breaking vice presidential vote. Do you look at that divided result and say, yeah, that's about right, that's the reflection of the country that I know?

RICKS: Yes. 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.

INSKEEP: Does the prevalence of misinformation or disinformation change your thinking at all?

RICKS: No. I actually think all the social media stuff is profoundly democratic. The 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. 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 are rowdy. 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.

INSKEEP: Thomas E. Ricks is one of this country's most distinguished journalists and is now author of the book "First Principles: What America's Founders Learned From The Greeks And Romans And How That Shaped Our Country." Mr. Ricks, good to talk with you.

RICKS: Thank you for having me.


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