As I watch the current primary political spectacle, and await, with more than a modicum of trepidation, the coming presidential election of 2012, I long for the emergence of a “citizen politician” like those that founded, what once was, this great nation. Where have they gone? What has happened to our national values, that we no longer can produce such remarkable and dedicated individuals? Have we so corrupted the elegant system, designed by the framers, that we simply cannot find those truly fit to serve the nation, instead of serving their own, or some subgroups desires and wishes. Has the process been so corrupted that the simple citizens we most desire, and who would best serve, will not stand up to our current infinite scrutiny, or will not run because they do not want such public ablation of their character? We once had a collection of people, who felt that it was either their destiny, or their obligation, to serve their neighbors to build a better life for all, and to develop systems to assure that character, integrity, and nobles oblige, were the justifications for their fitness.
Recently, I have wondered, what were the characteristics that defined this group of remarkable men, those who risked and sacrificed so much to build this nation? Over the past year I have read a number of biographies of our founding fathers; men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. Each in its own way revealed bits of what united these men in such a grand and ambitious undertaking. In another way, it has led me to wonder if we still have the tools in place to create others like these men, or if the circumstances of our modern world, our changed mores, faith, family, values, and education system have been altered so profoundly that we no longer build the necessary combinations of character, strength, conviction, patriotism, and dedication to generate leaders with a sense of purpose, responsibility, and faith in something grander than themselves with unshakeable and selfless commitment to their country and fellow citizens. I guess the real question is, are we lost?
Our First President
George Washington was a complicated and interesting man. All of us, who have studied history in modern schools, have read about Washington as the father of our nation, but the image of Washington that I learned in school both understates his contribution to the birth of this nation and fills our head with minor and false facts (like the story of the cherry tree) that do not provide a true measure of the man. To the continental colonists at the end of the revolution, George Washington, was more than any other, the father of this nation.
As the country was being forged, Washington, and many others just like him, felt a profound sense of duty to the rest of Americans to fight to the death against tyranny and eventually to build a great form of government to perpetually protect the nation’s people from the resurgence of tyranny from both abroad and within. Today, we often hear as to what the framers felt was the role of faith and God in the creation, prosperity, and future of our nation. Today, in our modern world of agenda based spin, we hear polar opposite views. On the one hand, it is stated that the founders believed there is no role for religion in government. Religion was not to have any part in the governance of the nation. And at the fringe, there are those that profess that it is a violation of the constitution to even allow and discussion, mention, or intimation of religion in any public venue, action, or event. On another hand, we hear that religion is a clear part of our government, and became the basis for the governing system we chose. Further, at the fringe of this side, we hear that this, or that, religious view was inculcated into the constitution to promote this or that moral value. Like everything else today, the truth is much more complicated than a sound-bite, and lies somewhere, nuanced, in the middle of the argument.
President Washington felt that National Policy needed to be rooted in private morality, which relied on “the eternal rules of order and right . . . ordained by heaven itself.” It was in consideration of the grand opportunity wrested by the sacrifice of the American people, through the providential victory of the revolution against England, that Washington’s held the view that this opportunity was granted by the unknown machinations of an almighty God. Washington wrote, “The sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly and considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Washington and many of the other founders were big believers in the hands of some higher power guiding them to their destiny. They also felt that only good and just men could reap the benefit of these grants from some higher power. They believed in strength, justice, and the power of courage and conviction. They were humanists, who felt it was their duty to help the downtrodden and the weak. But, we should not confuse this humanistic view with their additional view that people were also individually responsible for their own destiny and lot in life. As an example, Washington also wrote,
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity; religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Washington also wrote,
“Let no one go hungry away . . . provided it does not encourage in them idleness.”
The New Constitution
In 1787, as the continental congress was meeting to establish the foundation for a new and necessary form of government to control this new nation, there was significant controversy. Read either of the recent biographies of George Washington, Washington, by Ron Chernow, or of John and Abigail Adams, First Family, by Joseph Ellis and you will see that the current level of histrionics, division, diatribe, and intrigue are nothing new. Further, most of America had no knowledge of what was transpiring inside the State House in Philadelphia, in 1787, or what kind of government was being developed by the men who had assembled to compose our new nation. The mystery was so complete that after the vote by the members of the congress in approval of the new constitution, Benjamin Franklin reportedly was approached by Elizabeth Powell as he left the State House. When she saw Franklin, she is reported to have inquired as to what form of government had been produced by the members inside the convention. Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it!”
Like politics today, this new constitution was not immediately revered by all.
George Mason, a friend of George Washington, declared that the new form of government “. . . would end either, in a monarchy, or a tyrannical aristocracy.”
Looking at the current state of America and its politics I think many would argue it has met Mason’s fate. It just depends on which side of the political spectrum one is, as to whether or not it is now ended as monarchy or tyrannical aristocracy—Occupy Anywhere anyone?
I think we need to find a way to alter the current political selection process, and fundamentally eliminate the position of professional politician from our culture and revert to the original concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The “by the people” part was not designed to be rule by a professional political class as we are today. Just what was the concept of citizen politicians at the time of the founding?
Many of the founders regarded any open interest in power as unbecoming of a gentleman. As a result, people like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson preferred to be drawn reluctantly from private life by the irresistible summons of public service. Ron Chernow writes in his book, Washington, “George Washington felt even to say the word, president, or to merely broach the topic, even in the strictest confidence with friends would seem to betray some secret craving for the office on his part.” Chernow reports that Washington confessed his quandary to Alexander Hamilton in a letter where he said,
“For situated as I am, I could hardly bring the question into the slightest discussion, or ask an opinion, even in the most confidential manner, without betraying, in my judgment, some impropriety of conduct.”
John Adams and most of the founding presidents, all felt that nobles oblige, should be the guiding sentiment for their service. As such, they did not believe that a candidate should campaign for the office. They felt that people should be elected because their prior contributions and actions were so remarkable, as to render the populace unable to see any another as capable of assuming and performing in the office. As such, it was the fact that they had to go and actively campaign for such a position of power innately under-scored their lack of suitability for the job in the first place.
The solemn and grave nature of properly taking this almighty gift of independence and effectively creating and implementing a new government, worthy of the people who had sacrificed so much for this opportunity, led James Madison to create a strong metaphor for Washington to use to captivate the populace. Madison wrote,
“. . . to be shipwrecked in sight of the port would be the severest of all possible aggravations to our misery.”
Meaning, that after we had collectively sacrificed so much, cut our ties to England, and now were left with such difficulty and strife if we fail to provide a just form of government for the people would just be the worst sort of failure and pain. Madison’s view was predicated on the sacrifices and misery suffered by the new Americans in 1787. How much more has been sacrificed and suffered in this quest to live up to our potential, and love of country and its promise in the past 225 years? Are our current politicians living up to the sacrifice of those who have gone before?
Nobles Oblige Often Led to Financial Hardship and Ruin.
For most of the first 152 years, elected public service was a significant economic burden. Many left political office with their business and personal financial interests in significant disarray. These individuals accepted the service to their nation as a patriotic duty or to establish a historical place for their family name. As an example, at the time Washington became our first president, his prior service in obligation to the needs of his forming country had left is estate on the edge of financial ruin. As he was being elected president, he was left with no choice but to put his extensive land holdings in Ohio up for sale and to seek a loan of 500 pounds from Captain Richard Conway of Alexandria Va. Shortly after he made this initial request, he had to ask for an additional 100 pounds from Conway, to defray the cost of moving to New York and the cost of lodging so he could assume the new presidency. So committed to the service to his nation, Washington still felt it was his duty, as he had throughout the Revolutionary war, to forgo any salary. Despite his dire fiscal situation, Washington informed congress of his intent. Luckily for Washington, congress insisted that he accept his salary, so in some small measure, the fiscal burden was somewhat ameliorated. Once again, when Washington left office, his personal fortunes had continued to suffer as a result of the demands of service to his country.
The Coming Storm
As I look at this year’s presidential primary election, and listen to both sides of the debates, I wonder if we have, in Madison’s words, been left shipwrecked in sight of our port. I find myself more and more longing for a Washington, an Adams, a Jefferson, a Madison, a Monroe, a Jackson, or a Lincoln to emerge. I yearn for some citizen politician, motivated by their love of country, their own nobles oblige, some sense of destiny to arise from the depths and steer us from the fate of the looming rocky shore. I desire the rise of a true citizen politician, one who feels it is unbecoming of the character of a gentleman to seek power or political office. I know there are those who believe that in this larger and more expansive world, politicians must campaign actively and very extensively and obtrusively be in our face to gain election. I wonder, is this really and sadly the case?
We have had a few this political cycle whose names have been floated for office, individuals apparently not overtly seeking election—people like: Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio. Each of them to date has rebuffed the invitation to lead their party in this election for various reasons. Despite their apparent reticence, there are some who are still actively interested in wresting them as candidates to the national stage. Despite their resistance, feigned or real, sadly, they are also firmly entrenched as members of the professional political class. Where are the real citizen politicians? The ones who would be dragged to this lofty, powerful perch as a result of their sense of duty and obligation? Can we not find some method to identify them and bring them to the national attention without the need for a popularity contest composed of little more than national character assassination? Though I do which this is not the case, perhaps it is simply a pipe dream to believe once again we have and can find such men.
I now most fervently hope that we will not soon be laying plans for all of our children to be reading Daniel Defoe’s, 1919 work, Robinson Caruso, as our new national survival guide!