On Presidential Character
From George Washington to...
The current presidential contenders considered in the context of American history.
“No compact among men … can be pronounced everlasting and inviolable, and … no mound of parchment can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.” —George Washington (1789)
In 1944, as World War II was turning in favor of the Allies, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was steadfast in his historically informed understanding of how to prosecute tyranny, observed, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
That insight into the value of historical context is as timeless as history itself.
In 1764, as historian Edward Gibbon “sat musing amidst the ruins” of Rome, he was inspired to document the decline of this once-great republic. His seminal work, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” was published in 1776 — as our Patriot Founders were preparing to defend the “unalienable rights” of man and form our own Republic. Gibbon’s historic case study of the rise and fall of republican governments provides some remarkable context for the state of our own Republic.
One can deduce that the rise and decline of republics, the “Cycle of Democracy,” follows this sequence: from bondage to faith; from faith to courage; from courage to Liberty; from Liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back into bondage.
Thomas Jefferson observed: “History by apprising [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”
But only if they know enough history to be insightful judges of the future.
Philosopher George Santayana, in his 20th century treatise, “The Life of Reason,” concluded, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Or, as dystopian novelist Aldous Huxley wrote, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
Or, as that esteemed savant Forrest Gump observed, “Stupid is as stupid does.”
So we should ponder where in the cycle of democracy is our American Republic today — understanding, however, that we are not condemned to that cycle.
It can be both a blessing and curse, understanding the present in the context of the past — particularly when observing the witless demolition of Liberty in the absence of the wisdom that attends such context. Occasionally I experience that combined blessing and curse, and this quadrennial presidential campaign cycle is one such occasion.
As we seek to understand the historic implications of the characters and rhetoric in the current Republican primary, it is worth returning to the context of our great history, and particularly the character of those Patriots who defended the first generation of American Liberty, as embodied by generations of American Patriots since.
It is providential that our nation’s finest example of presidential character, temperament and humility is embodied in the very first American to hold that executive office, George Washington. He understood that “a good moral character is the first essential in a man.” He was not only the model of presidential character, but also the character of our nation.
On the subject of character, Washington also observed, "The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.”
For insight into Washington as president, it would be sufficient to read his First Inaugural Address, delivered on April 30, 1789, and his Farewell Address of September 17, 1796. These two speeches embody the real George Washington and the true spirit of a Patriot. Each was written by his hand alone, not by cynical speechwriters and fickle focus groups.
In the former, he stated, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”
In the latter, he wrote: “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. … Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Other Founders wrote at length about character, both of those who seek high office (or, rather, those that high office seeks), and those who elect them. Here are a few excerpts from those Founders for whom I hold the greatest reverence.
John Adams: “Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom. … If we suffer [the minds of young people] to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives. … We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. … We should be unfaithful to ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections.”
Thomas Jefferson: “It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution. … If a nation expects to be ignorant — and free — in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. … The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. … An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens.”
Samuel Adams: “The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men. … Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a State than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters. … [N]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. … Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual — or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”
At the end of the Revolution, when our Founders endeavored “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” Founding brothers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, and our Constitution’s author, James Madison, wrote The Federalist Papers, the most authentic and comprehensive explication of our Constitution.
In Federalist No. 1, Hamilton warned, “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”
In No. 10, Madison cautioned, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” He insisted in No. 57, “The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
Madison’s Supreme Court nominee, Justice Joseph Story, wrote, “Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from the public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded, because they flatter the people, in order to betray them.”
Are they, in the words of Sam Adams, models “of wisdom and knowledge, of moderation and temperance, of patience, fortitude and perseverance, of sobriety and true republican simplicity of manners, of zeal for the honour of the Supreme Being and the welfare of the commonwealth”?
George Washington, and every president since, has taken a sacred oath “to Support and Defend” our Constitution. Are the current Republican and Democrat frontrunners any more likely to abide by that oath than Barack Hussein Obama, who wholly betrayed his oath, and in doing so betrayed our country?
At this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, it would appear that a plurality of voters are making the most perilous gamble on the future of Liberty that has been wagered in my lifetime.
If Donald Trump is the nominee, I hope he will demolish Hillary Clinton, and carry enough crossover votes to retain the Senate majority needed to shape the next Supreme Court. I hope he will surround himself with “the best” people and actually listen to their counsel. I hope, for the sake of my son and the sons and daughters of other families who are serving our nation in uniform, that Trump’s careless and flippant arrogance does not result in the wanton bloodshed of our young Patriots.
That is a lot for which to hope…
On October 27, 1964, long before he became president, Ronald Reagan challenged his countrymen thusly: “I think it’s time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers.” He emphasized the importance of that question, declaring, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
In the context of the historical contest between Liberty and tyranny, our generation is perilously close to becoming that which carelessly smothers the flame of freedom. We are an exceptional and resilient nation, but that resilience has its limits. In an era when a third of Americans can’t even name the first president, much less do they have any understanding of historical context, how long will the Republic stand?
Pro Deo et Constitutione — Libertas aut Mors
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis