Taking an audience back in time or close to an experience most people will never have is the objective of many of the best storytellers. Steven Spielberg said his quest to get Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln was driven by his desire to create “an out-of-body experience that would put us in a real-time encounter with the man, his legacy and that century.” Director Tom Hooper did the same with actor Paul Giamatti in the HBO series “John Adams.” For a few hours, we are transported back in time.
Ricks has now directed his powers on the Framers and what shaped those men. They were products of the Enlightenment and students of ancient history. They worked at learning. They read deeply and spoke seriously to each other and, through their writings, to the world. In “First Principles,” Ricks provides us the reading list we would have to undertake to get close to the Framers’ worldview. Ricks is not squeamish about their collective blindness to the evil of slavery, or its cruelty and brutality. He describes their acceptance of this evil but does not ask for a pardon. Nor should he. Quaker abolitionist John Woolman had spent a lifetime preaching about the evil. The Framers knew. Of course they knew.
They also knew Aristotle’s six forms of government. They knew the cycle of recorded human history: crisis, revolution, counterrevolution, restoration, reform, stability — and then crisis. They reached for enduring stability. They achieved it — but at the great moral cost of accepting slavery. Visit Monticello, as I did this month, and see how the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has presented the genius along with the blindness, the soaring visions and the awful, hypocritical realities of the man, and of his Virginia neighbors James Madison and James Monroe.
They built the Republic for which we stand and which we will celebrate again in January, whether by a second swearing-in for Donald Trump or a first as president for Joe Biden. We have arrived here, at a tense moment, by paths far more treacherous than this devastating pandemic and with far worse than even our superheated political rhetoric. Ricks reminds us that the original patriots, deeply flawed as they were, worked with what they had, compromised when they were obliged to, accepted defeats and moved on, celebrated victories but with an understanding that they were transient.
We are not on the brink of civil war. We aren’t near the levels of violence that marked 1966-1968. It is not a revolutionary moment, though we are in the midst of the Trump counterrevolution to the “Obama revolution,” which followed the crisis years that began on 9/11 and climaxed in the 2008 financial collapse. Next year or in four or eight years, a restoration will happen. Then there will be reforms and stability.
And then another crisis, or series of crises. It is not our first pandemic or our last. There will be booms and busts and, inevitably, more wars. We have not reached the “end of history,” any more than we had when political scientist Francis Fukuyama suggested as much in 1992.
What the flawed Framers gifted us was a blueprint of genius that we have since improved upon greatly because of Lincoln, the suffragists, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the many other civil rights leaders of that era. Others will come along and make improvements. Great presidents have defended the design and sometimes had to bend it to save it, but never surrendered its soul. We will endure.
We are in a crisis because of the virus, indeed the whole world is, but it one from which we will emerge, though with terrible loss and suffering. And we will survive this election, no matter who wins. The “danger, nay, the defeat, even the destruction of the West would not necessarily prove that the West is in a crisis,” philosopher Leo Strauss wrote in 1964. “The West could go down in honor, certain of its purpose. The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose. “
Ricks reminds us of our purpose. We are a free people, and we will remain that next year, in 10 years and 100 more after that if we just trust the guide that nature and nature’s God gave us.