A burden of being a serious and honest student of American history is living with an oppressive sense of decline. In integrity, wisdom, and achievement there is a chasm between even the lowest rank of Founding Fathers and our own crop of Presidential candidates, Congresspersons, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries, and generals.
The Founders thought a lot about responsibility in government. They wanted the government to be the servant of the people rather than, as in the general pattern of history, the people be servants of the rulers. Able, accomplished, and responsible men, they resented an aristocracy of blood rather than merit. They had a long experience of dealing with colonial officials who often were lesser British politicians with no sympathy for the people they governed.
Both State and federal constitutions of the Founding called for frequent elections so that politicians could not own offices. They knew they would return to the people and live under the laws they had passed. In the early House districts, Representatives could be known, at least by reputation, to the few thousands of citizens. They frequently published letters explaining their votes to their constituents. At the next election they might have to face rivals in debate before mass gatherings.
The Founders knew that self-government by the people was a rare and vulnerable thing. It required “republican virtue” (strength of character and unselfish patriotism) to survive. Self-seeking of office was a suspicious ambition. One waited till called upon by the esteem of the people.
This principle was true even in indirect elections like those for Senators and Presidential Electors. They could not conceive of a Senator who was not a widely and highly esteemed citizen and a valiant defender of his sovereign State. It was not until the 1830s that political party organisations gradually began to take control of candidates and elections, beginning in the more populous Northern States. In 1860 Lincoln proved that one could in some circumstances become President without achievement but by being a clever speaker and a shrewd handler of party machinery. Yet a degree of esteem and worthwhile public service was long still generally required for top positions. I can remember when candidates were expected to have wholesome family life and military service.
Until the recent past, top officials were usually supposed to have some earned esteem based on genuine public service or private distinction of some kind. Look over the list of recent Presidential candidates and see who rises to that measure. Joe Biden may be the next president. What distinction or service does he have, other than being elected and re-elected from a rotten borough and appointed Vice-President. (One suspects that Obama appointed the weakest white man he could find as Vice-President to eliminate competition for future minority candidates.)
What accomplishment graces the career of Hillary Clinton, who was almost elected President, other than marrying a previous President? Her medical plan in the first Bill Clinton administration was repudiated and her service as Secretary of State was disastrous. She has publicly expressed contempt and disdain for half the citizens of our country. Consider why more than half the same people voted for her.
Can you imagine George W. Bush or any of his accomplices and handlers surviving five-minutes in a British House of Commons question session that requires real knowledge and competence? Yet Bush has not lost much standing for starting an illegal and disastrous war. Trump is said to be notably accomplished in business, but his standing seems to be based on his personality and promising anti-establishment policies that he had no hope and probably no intention of carrying out.
In a genuine republic one is chosen for high office because he is esteemed. We are now in a position in which people are esteemed only because they held high offices. Take the case of General Colin Powell, the affirmative action appointee to every high office in the executive branch. This man lied to the public and the world to facilitate war crimes. Yet there is no loss of status but sympathy that he may have suffered in esteem from serving George W. Bush’s evil.
You see what I mean?
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews