On Tuesday, the Acton Institute, along with our friends from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, welcomed F.H. Buckley, Foundation Professor at George Mason University School of Law and author of The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Goverment in America, for a lecture presentation in the Acton Building’s Mark Murray Auditorium. Buckley addressed the topic of his book, describing the increase in presidential that has occurred since the time of the founders, and which has reached its fullest flowering in the Obama Administration. You can watch the video below; if you haven’t listened already, you might be interested in the latest edition of Radio Free Acton which features an interview with Buckley.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Declaration of Independence is that it sought to overturn the long abuses and powers of tyrants. It revealed the truth of self-government and that power is inherent in the people. In the second introduction of the document, Jefferson declared:
…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Jefferson, always the philosopher, reminds the reader that governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of man, to preserve their freedom above all else. Government is not intended to serve the bureaucracy, rulers, or an elite class.
Sometimes I recoil a little when somebody declares that there can be an American president greater than George Washington. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee declared Washington, “First in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington is great for many things, but perhaps he is greatest for the manner in which he surrendered power not once but twice.
One of the best recent commentaries written on Washington is David Boaz’s, “The Man Who Would Not Be King.” In the piece from 2006, Boaz wonderfully sums up the depth of Washington’s immense character and what that means for liberty and America. The entire commentary is worth reading but the conclusion is especially poignant:
From his republican values Washington derived his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself. The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice – at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.
Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington’s moral model of leadership is timeless. In everything he said and did, he affirmed the spirit of the American Revolution. His fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson noted, Washington would “rather be in his grave than in his present situation [the presidency]; that he had rather be on his farm than to be made Emperor of the world.” All Americans should study Washington because he is the embodiment the principles of liberty. His peers would all argue and did, that in America there was no leader who possessed greater virtue. Charles Francis Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams, declared of Washington:
More than all, and above all, Washington was master of himself. If there be one quality more than another in his character which may exercise a useful control over the men of the present hour, it is the total disregard of self when in the most elevated positions for influence and example.
Today, career politicians are out of fashion. In light of Washington’s dysfunction and a hyper partisan culture, the words of politicians offer little reassurances. Their deeds even less. One career public servant is finding his popularity on an upswing exactly eighty years after his death. I asked my grandfather, who turns 97 in July, to rank America’s great presidents? He immediately answered Ronald Reagan, almost reflexively. And then paused for a few moments and declared, “That Calvin Coolidge fellow was good too.”
To remember Coolidge is to remember an altogether different America. One that was rapidly modernizing but still deeply connected to rural life and its foundations. But even for his era, John Calvin Coolidge was a throw back, a man who emerged deep from within Vermont’s rugged hills. The symbols of his humble origins were magnified after the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Coolidge, awakened in Vermont, was immediately sworn in to the greatest office in the world by kerosene lamp by his father, a public notary.
Oft forgotten or lampooned as a “simpleton,” there are no grand monuments for America’s 30th president. He certainly wouldn’t have sought such recognition. But in Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, she offers a kind of monument not just to Coolidge’s economic heroism, but his character.
Coolidge governed and taught from the deep well of America’s Founding and eschewed the material for the spiritual, declaring, “The things of the Spirit come first.” He was leery of progressive schemes saying, “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them.” He added, “If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations.”
Coolidge was the last president to oversee federal budget surpluses for every year in office. He cut taxes and government while preaching the wisdom of the American Founders. He was dismissed by many intellectual contemporaries and most historians ignored him or discounted him as some sort of throwback that came to power by luck. A mere placeholder in between the more important Progressive and New Deal eras. But as our spending and debt crisis continues to spiral out of control, America is starving for economic heroes. There is so little courage in Washington to make the tough choices and address the crisis directly. The spending binge has become a mockery of America’s foundations and ideals.
However, This fiscal insanity, debt, and rapid centralization of power is magnifying Coolidge’s heroics. His words and deeds are really timeless though, and deeply rooted in America’s Founding. The principles and lessons only need to be put into practice. Below is a great excerpt from the introduction of Shlaes’s biography:
Our great presidential heroes have often been war leaders, generals, and commanders. That seems natural to us. The big personalities of some presidents have drawn attention, hostile or friendly: Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt. There are plenty of personal events in Coolidge’s life, many of them sad, but he was principally a man of work. Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate.
Is Christianity and the Christian worldview the path to a free society? Chinese bloggers are asking that question. Many believe the fascination with American politics and democracy is at an all time high in China. Technology and internet access is surely responsible for much of the trend. From one report,
Obama’s inauguration was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging site, with over 25 million posts on Jan. 21. Of these, one comment by a Weibo user by the name Wugou1975 was forwarded over 2,000 times, garnering over 500 comments. The blogger posted a photo of Obama taking the presidential oath with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts:
‘Some Chinese find it unbelievable that this secular country’s democratically elected president was sworn in with his hand on a Bible, not the Constitution, and facing a court justice, not Congress. But actually, this is the secret of America’s constitutional democracy: It’s not just the Constitution or the government’s “separation of powers.” Above that is natural law, guarded by a grand justice. And below is a community of Christians, unified by their belief.’
Undeniably, there has been and continues to be a systematic attack upon the Christian roots of the West and this nation. Marcello Pera, who teaches at the Pontifical Council in Rome, sums it up well:
“With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into license, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.”
There is a level of irony in Chinese bloggers recognizing the significance of the religious foundations of democracy, while many Western scholars have abandoned or even attacked such notions. America’s religious heritage is vibrant and was a unifying factor promoting shared values and purpose throughout its history. The American framers knew religious vibrancy was required for ordered liberty and virtue to reign and prosper throughout society. Alexis de Tocqueville praised these characteristics and noted it was the foundations of America’s freedom and strength of its people. When it comes to the basis of our rights and foundations of government, Jefferson asked,
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
I met thoughtful and reflective people who crave authenticity. You can tell a transformation had occurred and honestly the realness of many of the inmates I met was convicting for my own faith and life. Angola can’t but help change you and a big reason for that is Warden Burl Cain. I interview him in this issue of R&L. Cain is helping to encourage and foster the growth of men the rest of the world have long given up on.
There is a lot of great content in this issue. Wesley Gant contributes an essay titled “The Perfectibility Thesis — Still the Great Political Divide.” It’s an excellent overview of ideological divides and the aim and purpose of government. Dylan Pahman offers a review of Ronald J. Sider’s Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement. I review Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood.
The “In the Liberal Tradition” tribute honor this issue belongs to President Calvin Coolidge. During his inaugural address today, President Obama challenged Americans to live up to the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. A great study of those meaning and ideals was offered by Coolidge on the 150th anniversary of the founding document. There is more content in this issue, and the next issue will feature an interview with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk.