Reversing the Venality of American Politics

In Gordon Wood’s elegant little summary of the lives of the Framers, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (2006), the greatest of living American historians laments that those who created the United States put in place a structure that made it impossible for people like them ever to exist again.

Most of the Founders—in particular, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams—had an elevated sense of politics and believed that it was necessary for this nation to be governed by those dedicated to the good of the commonwealth. In short, they were men who thought character counted, that disinterested virtue was necessary in those trusted with power over their fellow citizens.

The greatest of the Founders according to Wood, Washington showed that a proper politician should not seek to profit from his office. In fact, one of the most virtuous things Washington did—setting a model for all following presidents until Franklin Delano Roosevelt—was to leave office after two terms, going back to his farm in Virginia, following the example of the great Roman, Cincinnatus.

Public service, in the minds of these men, was not to be one’s only pursuit, but something one did selflessly and temporarily, giving the country the benefit of one’s talent, but, more likely than not, leaving office not only having given one’s time, but quite possibly finding oneself financially worse off than when one began.

In the view of the Founders, the professional politician, the time-server, the profiteer, the party hack, the demagogue, was a character to be avoided, and Wood offers one contrasting figure and contemporary to the greats, Aaron Burr, a person of near-aristocratic background, but one whose personal failings and lack of probity are now legendary. Burr was out only for himself, and the fact that Hamilton publicly challenged him on that score cost that great American his life in an infamous duel.

The irony, writes Wood, is that because the framers gave us a government founded on popular sovereignty, they created a situation where untutored public opinion would come to be the driving force in American life, and, as Alexis de Tocqueville was later to note in his magisterial Democracy in America, this had the tendency, after the passing of the Founders, to elevate legions of the unfit to positions of political power.

When, in the 19th century, appeal to the basest parts of human nature replaced virtue—when flattery, demagoguery, and chicanery (again Burr is a harbinger of things to come) became more characteristic of the state, local, and federal governments—the corruption the framers feared took hold.

Tocqueville was still pretty sanguine about the United States, however, because he thought that even if American politicians were out for themselves they would still be forced to serve the interests of the people, and the morality and virtue of the American people, if not their leaders, would ensure democracy’s success.

Tocqueville, however, might have despaired at early 21st-century America, when the framers’ notion of disinterested virtue has deteriorated, and when their maxim, that there can be no order without law, no law without morality, and no morality without religion has lost its appeal in at least one of our political parties.

One can imagine how Washington might have reacted, for example, to former Vice President Joe Biden’s recent assertion that his son, Hunter, did nothing wrong in accepting lucrative financial arrangements with Ukraine and Chinese businesses, for which he was profoundly and obviously unqualified, at a time when his father was influencing U.S. policy with respect to those nations.

The Founders, as men who valued their reputations above all (again Burr is the exception that proves the rule), instinctively would have understood that the appearance of impropriety is as dangerous as impropriety itself, but, apparently, such concerns do not trouble the former vice president.

The crassness of our current president might well have offended the aristocratic sensibilities of some of the Founders, but if, as Donald Trump maintains, he is sacrificing a considerable part of his fortune to serve as president, they might find much to admire in him. He is the antithesis of the professional politician they feared, as our first president not to have served in prior political office or the military.

The Trump Organization’s recent consideration of selling its Washington Hotel property, if carried out, will demonstrate that this president has begun to awaken to the notion that he must do more to avoid the appearance of profiting from his office, a development of which the Founders would have approved.

Madison, who objected to using the impeachment process as a means for Congress to remove an executive at whim, would react with ire at the current secretive and nakedly partisan effort underway to reverse the result of the 2016 election on the basis of the allegation that President Trump sought to enlist foreign cooperation in rooting out the corruption of the Bidens.

We are about to discover, as a result of the work of Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Attorney General William Barr, and U.S. Attorney John Durham, whether, in the worst political scandal in our history, partisans in the Obama administration, and perhaps even the former president himself, instead of manifesting disinterested virtue, perverted the levers of power for their own selfish ends to seek to destroy Donald Trump.

If this is what happened, and increasingly it appears that it was, then what we do next will demonstrate whether Wood was right—whether the virtue of the framers is now extinct—or whether, indeed, it is possible to have a restoration of the rule of law over and against mere partisan politics.

If one reads President Trump’s speeches, one is struck by the manner in which the framers’ themes of the importance of piety and morality are sounded. This man, dismissed as a liar and a buffoon by his enemies, is actually capable of the most touching rhetoric we have heard in decades. He’s an amateur, not a professional at politics, but he may well be the unlikely instrument that proves Gordon Wood wrong.

Bringing to light and punishing the miscreants in the shameful Russia Collusion hoax, exposing the fundamental danger and hypocrisy in the current impeachment effort, and securing the reelection of Donald Trump offer an opportunity to reject the current venality of our politics, and, even to a modest extent, to come closer to the founders’ vision.

About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

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