November 5, 2002

November 5, 2002 | WebMemo on Political Thought

Electing Leaders, Teaching Statesmanship

"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."
-- President John Adams, Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1797.

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On Tuesday, 36 of our fellow citizens earned the right to be called "governor," 34 fellow citizens earned the right to be called "senator," and 435 fellow Americans earned the right to be called "representative."

Now how do they earn the right to be called "statesmen"? These newly elected leaders face the task of dealing with America's toughest policy problems such as terrorism, taxes, health care, Social Security, missile defense and education.

For our nation to continue to thrive, citizens and statesmen need to constantly renew a civic literacy about the principles of the American Founding, which is why The Heritage Foundation has created The Founders' Almanac.

Information about America's origins is vital for our day. The Founders' Almanac is an essential reference tool for anyone interested in conserving the principles of the American Founding and rekindling its spirit in the public life of our nation.

At The Heritage Foundation, we believe the values and ideas that motivated our Founding Fathers are worth conserving. Our team of policy entrepreneurs delivers the most effective solutions to today's difficult policy questions, consistent with those ideas and values.

For inspiration and guidance on the road to becoming a statesman, today's newly elected leaders need to look no further than our nation's first President, George Washington.

"For Washington, the most important opinion to encourage was a common understanding of the rights and responsibilities of constitutional government," writes Dr. Matthew Spalding in his introduction to Washington's Farewell Address (pdf). "Thus, in one of the most succinct paragraphs of the Address, he encouraged education as a requirement of good citizenship: 'Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.' By enlightened, Washington meant not only the basic parameters of liberal education but also knowledge of the rights of man and the obligations of citizenship."

Washington also delivered what is known as his last wishes in the Address, "I shall carry ... to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence [Constitutional government]; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its Administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and Virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete, by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it."

Before today's leaders forget that their powers are derived from the consent of the governed, they should be reminded of the consequences that the citizens of Lebanon, Maine, unleashed on their local government: In June, the town's citizens rejected their municipal budget, closing their government for a good part of the summer.

Spalding documents the events and their meaning in a recent column, Who Needs a Government? A Declaration of Independence:

From the beginning, Americans have had a love-hate relationship with government. According to the Declaration of Independence, government is instituted to secure our fundamental rights, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. And while prudence tells us it should not be changed for trivial reasons, we reserve the right to alter or abolish government when it becomes destructive of these ends.

King George III learned this lesson the hard way. Among his many repeated usurpations against the colonists, he "erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance."

Nowadays we call these people bureaucrats. The good citizens of Lebanon follow in the footsteps of the patriots of 1776. They are not anarchists who reject the idea of government, root and branch. They just think they can govern themselves better than the local bureaucrats now calling the shots for most of the rest of us.

The American Founders went to great lengths to assure liberty and prevent tyranny, the twin prerequisites of free government. To do so, they carefully designed a constitutional system that enumerated and divvied up various powers among three separate branches of government. And since they remained distrustful of government in general and of a centralized federal government in particular, the federal government was to exercise only delegated powers, the remainder being reserved to the states or the people. ...

By refusing to approve the transformation of their part-time city representatives into salaried employees, the citizens of Lebanon have rebelled in their own small way against the growing bureaucratization of American politics. And in shutting down their government rather than accepting a budget they think frivolous, they remind us that government is the servant and we are the masters.

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"The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, 'till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People is sacredly obligatory upon all."
-- President George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

"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."
-- James Madison, Federalist No. 57, February 19, 1788.

"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting ... correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private charter gave effulgence to his public virtues... . Such was the man for whom our nation morns.
-- Richard Henry Lee, delivering the official eulogy of George Washington, December 26, 1799.

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