Statesmanship vs. Politicking

This post was written by Isaac Woodward, a graduate of Rutgers University who now works for the U.S. House of Representatives.

One of the greatest blessings we have as a nation is a history of a representative democracy in which we can take for granted the fact that we have peaceful transitions of power every four years. In the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C., there stand eight paintings from colonial and revolutionary American History. While each one has significance to the later history of our nation, one stands far above the others in my estimation.

Painted by John Trumbull in 1826, “General Washington Resigning His Commission” represents an enormously significant precedent for our republic. The other scenes depicted in the artwork of the rotunda are important, to be sure. The discovery of the West Indies by Columbus, the Pilgrims sailing to the new world, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence—among other works—all represent fundamental events in American history. Yet, the resigning of Washington’s commissions towers above the others in its uniqueness in the history of revolutions. Many nations in the new world had brave explorers risk life and limb to find them. Many revolutions and coup d’états had inspirational documents which claimed to bind the signers in mutual bonds of liberty and a common noble purpose.

However, a far rarer event following a political upheaval involving military force was for the popular general who holds sole military power to voluntarily lay down his control in favor of elected representatives. Rome had one such man, immortalized in history ever since as the citizen-statesman Cincinnatus. A farmer and landowner who served in politics earlier in life, he was called upon to take sole political and military authority during one of the Roman Republic’s many military conflicts. After defeating Rome’s foe, he famously laid down his power and returned to his plough. Washington was so enamored by this example of selfless public service that he founded the Society of the Cincinnati for the American revolutionary military officers and their descendants.

“A statesman sees the political enterprise as more than the satisfaction of his desires for fame.”

You may be wondering what the significance of Washington’s voluntary release of sole military power in the early American Republic is for us today. Of course we are glad that Washington did not seek to monopolize power. We are glad that he nobly sacrificed his happiness to serve his nation for a time in military and political office, but does that mean a good statesman is someone who doesn’t want to be in office? Does the mere desire to be in office demonstrate one’s unfitness to serve? Not necessarily. Just as money does not corrupt, but the love of money does, the holding of elected office does not necessarily mean that one has an unhealthy love of it. The test should be this question: is the political leader willing to make a politically dangerous decision for the good of the people he serves even when it may cost him his career in government? The difference between a demagogue and a statesman, between a power hungry politician and a self-sacrificing leader turns upon the answer to that question.

Consider, as an example, the political dynasty of the Adams family. John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, were both one term presidents in part due to their commitment to principle over the maintenance of their political popularity. There is a lot more to the story of their losses than that, of course. Both had rather prickly New England temperaments which played badly in an increasingly boisterous frontier America. Their opponents, Jefferson and Jackson, were both charismatic and inspirational rhetoricians. Yet, those explanations were not sufficient to defeat these great men of towering intellect and statesmanlike ability. They both stuck to their principles in the face of overwhelming popular opposition. In the case of John Adams, he chose to favor the British over the French in the tense conflicts of the 1790s despite a great deal of sympathy which existed for the revolutionary French who had so recently sided with the Americans against the British in the Revolutionary War. Adams, like Edmund Burke, saw through the superficial resemblance of the French Revolution to that of the American. While both used the language of liberation, one sought a liberty from tyrannical abuses of power (the Americans) while the other sought liberation from Christianity and virtually all the past traditions of their nation (the French).

In standing with the British, John Adams demonstrated enormous courage which resulted in his ousting from office in 1800. In the case of John Quincy Adams, he stood as a stubborn thorn in the side of Congress and the half of the country on the issue of slavery. He was a strident opponent of the “Gag Rule” which reigned in Congress for years during his time in Congress and the presidency. This rule prevented any legislation on the question of slavery from even being debated for fear that open debate would demonstrate the immoral and contradictory nature of a nation conceived in liberty permitting such a barbarous and illiberal mistreatment of millions of people. But in the 1830s, the nation did not want to confront the issue and so, after one term, they thrust John Quincy Adams from office in favor of the dashing war hero Andrew Jackson. In large part, Jackson stood for all that was wrong with the new era of popular democracy—including bribery, oppression, abuse of law, and the trampling of the separation of powers, but he gave the people what they wanted. In one particularly brazen example of pandering to the people, he opened up the White House for a party which flowed generously with rum and ended in brawls and massive destruction of property.

What is so important about these two juxtapositions is not necessarily that the Adamses were morally correct on the issue of slavery and the French Revolution while their opponents were not. A true statesman is not deserving of the name merely through the fact that he has been vindicated in the eyes of later generations on a particular moral question. A statesman may be wrong on a given issue, but what makes him admirable and worthy of emulation is the fact that he sees the political enterprise as consisting of more than the satisfaction of his desires for fame and adulation from the masses or his peers. There are many drawbacks to aristocracy and royal dynasties, but one advantage they bestow when they operate effectively is the expansion of the political time horizon of leaders. However, since we long ago rejected monarchy and aristocracy, how are we to cultivate men and women who put their love of country above their love of self?

Check back soon for more on the character of a statesman and how we can create more of them in our republic.

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