The subject of Thomas Ricks’s extraordinarily timely book is, in his words, “a study of what our first four presidents learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge.” Mr. Ricks, a military journalist and historian who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work at the Washington Post and at this paper, began brooding on the subject at the outset of the Trump presidency. “On that gray Wednesday morning after the presidential election of 2016,” he writes, “I woke up with a series of questions: What just happened? What kind of nation do we now have? Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” He chose to pursue answers by examining the classical culture that bound together the educated (and self-educated) leaders of our nascent republic.
John Adams attended Harvard; Thomas Jefferson, William and Mary; James Madison, the College of New Jersey (subsequently renamed Princeton). Of the first four presidents only George Washington had not received a university education: he spoke no foreign or ancient languages and was not much of a reader. Yet even he was steeped in the classicism of the Enlightenment era, and as he matured into his role as the father of his country he came to be seen as the personification of ancient Roman virtue—his country’s Cato, its Fabius, its Cincinnatus.