A Presidents Day Reflection

On this Presidents Day, I’d like to honor some of the men who filled that post with integrity. Let’s forget, for this one day at least, those who degraded the office and focus instead on those who gave it a degree of eminence.

One must always begin with the man who set all the precedents for what a president should be: George Washington.

At the end of the Revolutionary Era, in the midst of economic chaos and a woefully weak central government, Washington came out of a long-deserved respite from public affairs to preside over what we now call the Constitutional Convention, knowing full well that the improved government structure that would emerge would undoubtedly place him at its head.

With humility, he undertook this new responsibility even though he would have preferred to remain at Mt. Vernon. No one else commanded the respect he had earned, and no one else could have kept the nation as united as he did during these shaky years.

Washington had to navigate the rough waters of the effects of the French Revolution and had to ensure the government survived its infancy. He did both superbly. He then left us with his Farewell Address, a document of wisdom that we would do well to heed: avoid a party spirit; maintain the religious foundation of our society.

Our fourth president, James Madison, made his mark on the new nation long before he assumed the presidency. He was the greatest student of government among all the Founders.

At the Constitutional Convention, he was the one who brought with him a plan for the new government. That plan became the basis for the debate; most of what he wanted came to fruition.

During his tenure, the nation went to war again with Britain. There were some missteps during that war, and he did have to leave Washington, DC, in a hurry as the British invaded. Yet, when it was over, American nationhood was secure.

In my view, Madison’s too-close association with Jefferson led him astray for some years before becoming president, but his later life showed a return to his former principles.

One of his legacies is the notes he took at the Constitutional Convention. They are now published and give us an insight into all the debates. More than merely a historical document, those notes are a window into the early American soul. Madison gave us a great gift.

I cannot omit Abraham Lincoln in this list of worthies. Yes, I know the unreconstructed among us think he was a tyrant. In my earlier years, I tended in that direction as well. Then I did research.

Lincoln faced a national emergency that has dwarfed all the others, before and after. How does one maintain constitutional integrity in a circumstance where the Constitution offers little guidance? Lincoln tackled it with a rare combination of firmness and mercy.

His view that the states could not just leave arbitrarily was accurate. He took on the burden of trying to preserve the union without becoming bitter toward those who tried to disrupt it. His Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural are testimonies of his character: government of the people, by the people, and for the people is the catchphrase of the first. The second ends with these stirring words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s tragic assassination ended that hope, as the next decade was filled with the bitterness and resentment that he sought to avoid. To those who don’t like Lincoln, I urge a second look. This was a man of integrity.

Liberals love to make fun of Calvin Coolidge. They don’t really know the man. Thrust into the office by the untimely death of Warren Harding, Coolidge took over with a quiet and calm demeanor. His first action when hearing of Harding’s death was to kneel with his wife by their bed and pray for wisdom.

The scandals of the Harding administration might have doomed the Republican party if a man of lesser character had inherited the office. Coolidge, though, made sure that all who were guilty were exposed.

He also believed firmly in constitutional limitations on the federal government, restoring a limited-government approach that had been shoved aside in the Woodrow Wilson years. The economy flourished during his administration as he sought to reduce the tax burden on individuals.

Many want to blame him for the Great Depression that followed, but that was the result of many other decisions, some of which can be laid at the feet of the Federal Reserve actions during the decade of the 1920s.

Coolidge could have run again in 1928 and would have won easily, but he chose to step down. One of my favorite presidential quotes comes from Coolidge’s autobiography when he disclosed why he chose to return to private life:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

If only more presidents had that perspective.

Finally, I come to the president I consider to be the best of the twentieth century: Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written so much about him in this blog already that I probably can’t come up with anything new. Yet it’s worth repeating that Reagan did see the world through the Christian framework and wanted to make sure his actions were right before God.

He took over the office at a time when we were pretty despondent as a people. Historian Paul Johnson calls the 1970s “America’s Suicide Attempt.” That is an accurate description, in my view.

Reagan restored confidence, but not in the superficial manner of Franklin Roosevelt. He actually promoted policies that made a difference, bringing us out of the doldrums. It’s instructive that he looked back to Coolidge for inspiration with regard to tax cuts and getting the federal government out of people’s lives.

He dealt wisely with the Soviet Union, declaring it would soon be on the ash heap of history. The know-it-alls called him stupid for saying this, but he turned out to be right.

When he died in 2004, after a decade-long bout with Alzheimer’s, his passing brought out the best in our country. The respect shown at that time probably won’t be equaled by the passing of any future president.

Ronald Reagan always brought out the best in us.

So, as you go about your everyday activities, give a thought or two to those who have held the presidential office in high esteem and who gave it the kind of respect it deserves.

Rule of Law & the Constitutional Convention

In our era, when the rule of law seems to be weakening, it’s instructive to look back at how our cornerstone document, the Constitution, came into being. The 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, saw a loose-knit assemblage of states that were in danger of splitting apart permanently. Those with concern for the rule of law and who had a vision for a better system urged a meeting of all the states to address the governmental crisis.

Twelve of the thirteen states responded to that call—tiny Rhode Island excepted due to fear of being overwhelmed by any change in the government—and sent delegates to Philadelphia. They met in this building in the summer of 1787, newly called Independence Hall, the place where they also debated and passed the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier.

Of the thirty-nine individuals who eventually signed off on the new Constitution, over half had some training in the law. Lawyer jokes aside, that’s rather important, and was doubly so at that time, since all of them perceived of law as emanating from God ultimately, and not man.

They held to the conviction that man’s laws had to be in concert with God’s laws; otherwise, they would be invalid.

Half of the delegates had either attended or graduated from college. While that might seem to be a low percentage from the perspective of the twenty-first century, that was a high percentage in that era.

Further, thirty-three had served in the Continental Congress during the Revolution, a mark of stability and experience in governmental affairs. This was not to be an assembly of radicals who wanted to change everything.

Then, by choosing George Washington to preside over the convention, they provided its deliberations a respectability that all Americans would have to take seriously.

One delegate showed up with a plan: James Madison, probably the best researcher in the nation on the issue of good and effective government, offered his Virginia Plan, which became the basis for the debate as the convention went forward.

Madison’s influence was strong throughout that summer. He spoke frequently (second-highest number of speeches) and kept a record of what everyone said. Later, after all the delegates had died, his notes were published, and that book is now considered one of the most valuable of all American historical documents.

Another man, too infirm to be a delegate at this time, nevertheless made his mark on the Constitution because he was Madison’s mentor. Rev. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, guided all of Madison’s intellectual pursuits. They had even worked together in the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon is credited, during his time at the college (later to be renamed Princeton) with graduating, along with the expected ministers, many men who later became governmental leaders. Four others at the convention, besides Madison, had studied under Witherspoon. Overall, the graduates during his tenure account for a future president (Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr, but don’t hold that against Witherspoon), nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three US Supreme Court justices, and twelve state governors.

There is ample reason to accept the title many have bestowed on Witherspoon as “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America.”

Some of what occurred at the Constitutional Convention will be the subject of a future post. Sufficient for today is the result: a system of government that gave precedence to the rule of law for a fledgling nation and that has helped that nation survive many tumultuous episodes. Regardless of our concerns with how our government may be functioning now, we can still feel some measure of confidence in its stability due to the wisdom of those who constructed it.

How About a Display of Gratitude Instead?

What does this flag mean? Why do we salute it? Is it appropriate to do so or should we hold it in contempt because not everything that has happened under this banner has been perfect?

american-flag

A Christian knows that citizenship in any nation is a temporary condition. We are, as the Scripture famously affirms, strangers and pilgrims on this earth. Yet we are also told to pray for whatever nation we live in and do all we can to help it conform to Biblical principles, in society at large and in the government.

This flag, and the national anthem that accompanies it in public venues, is now being disparaged in an unprecedented manner. I hold up no nation nor any of its symbols as sacred in the same sense as I revere God and His ways. However, I am to appreciate the good that has been done in a nation and honor its symbols.

The United States, despite its manifold problems throughout its history (and I know something about that history), has been one of the greatest forces for good that the world has ever witnessed.

The current controversy centers on slavery. Let’s review.

When has slavery never existed in the history of the human race? You have to search hard and long to find any place that has never had this institution, in one way or another. Why not, instead, acknowledge that the English-speaking world, both Britain and America, led the way in the banning of slavery?

You say that prejudice continued even after slavery was banned? Again, I ask this: where, in the history of the world—and even today—has prejudice not reared its head? It’s part of the human condition called sinfulness. Why not, instead, look at the efforts of this country, in particular, to minimize the natural prejudices that arise?

francis-scott-key-on-shipThe Star Spangled Banner is now under attack as racist. Why? Consider the history of the anthem. The author, Francis Scott Key, was on a ship in Baltimore’s harbor attempting to arrange a prisoner exchange. He had to wait through the night to continue the negotiations. He feared that Ft. McHenry, which blocked the British entry into the city, would fall. When he awoke the next morning and saw the flag still waving over the fort, he was inspired to write.

The third verse, in context, speaks of how the British have sought to wipe out the land of the free and the brave by the use of hirelings (remember the Hessians in the War for Independence?) and slaves. The latter were promised their freedom if they would come over to the British side and fight. The exact words are these:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, that the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion a home and a country shall leave us no more? Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, and the Star – Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I see nothing obviously racist in those words when taken in context. It’s a simple statement of fact at that moment in our history.

francis-scott-keyKey himself is also being attacked because he was a slaveholder. Yes, he was, as were George Washington and many other luminaries in those early years. Those who disparage all the Founders overlook the desire most of them expressed to find a way to wipe out slavery once and for all. They also overlook the possibility that some slaveholders were kind to their slaves and even freed some of them when they had the opportunity to do so.

Francis Scott Key was one of those. Key was a committed Christian who despised the slave system he was born into. He believed slavery was wrong in principle and did free some of his slaves. As a lawyer, he took cases on behalf of slaves seeking their freedom. One of his contemporaries even said he was “ready to brave odium or even personal danger in their behalf.”

Key didn’t advocate for mass emancipation all at once because he didn’t see how that would work. As with many of his fellow citizens at the time who worked to end slavery, he favored a gradual merging of freed slaves into the culture and the economy.

Some fault Key for his support for the colonization movement, which sought to send freed blacks to Africa to set up their own government there. That did happen, by the way. That nation is known as Liberia. Many prominent Americans joined that movement. Some did so for racist reasons, hoping to create an America with a wholly white population. Others, though, such as James Madison (The Father of the Constitution) and Abraham Lincoln, lent their support because they thought it would be best for blacks who might find it difficult to enter successfully into a society dominated by those with a British/European heritage.

Calling all supporters of the colonization movement racists is a gross stereotype that doesn’t stand historical scrutiny.

America, throughout its short history, by comparison with other empires, has demonstrated to the world that representative government can work, even when it is messy.

America has come to the aid of the world by standing up to the tyrannies of fascism and communism.

America has, by law, thrown out ancient prejudices and attempted to place all citizens on an even playing field.

America has offered opportunities to the descendants of slaves that few nations have ever achieved. Does a racist society elect a black president? Does it pay black football players millions of dollars for athletic skills because it is racist?

Then those same individuals who have been so blessed decide to make a public protest over what they consider to be a racist society?

Colin Kaepernick and others on the various NFL teams will make more money this year than I will make in my lifetime.

Should I protest? Should I reject my nation because I’m being treated unfairly? I mean, I can make a case that what I do as a university professor is far more valuable than what they do when they play their games.

We need more historical common sense and less manufactured outrage. Displays such as these public protests only help bring us down as a nation. We need to pull together and show gratitude for what the blood and toil of previous generations have handed to us.

Madison’s Montpelier

James Madison 1Having toured Jefferson’s Monticello on Tuesday, it only made sense to visit the home of his compatriot, James Madison, which he called Montpelier. There are many accomplishments to attribute to Madison and, in my opinion, he holds a higher place of honor than Jefferson in the saga of the Founding.

Madison attended the College of New Jersey—now Princeton—and studied under its president, John Witherspoon, a clergyman who arrived from Scotland prior to the Revolution. Witherspoon is called by some “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America” because he tutored so many early political leaders as well as ministers. They include one president [Madison], one vice president, thirteen governors, three Supreme Court justices, twenty senators, and thirty-three congressmen. Witherspoon also was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Madison learned much from his mentor and applied it to the science of government. As a result, when he showed up at what we now call the Constitutional Convention, he had thoroughly studied the history of representative governments and came prepared to offer his plan for the reformation of the Articles of Confederation, which weren’t workable. The heart of his plan became the new Constitution, thereby earning him the title of “Father of the Constitution.” He even kept detailed notes on the debates, writing in shorthand, then later transcribing the notes into fuller accounts. Those were eventually published as Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention, a foundational piece of American history.

He engineered the Bill of Rights through the Congress and then out to the states for ratification. During Jefferson’s presidency he served as the secretary of state, and succeeded Jefferson as president for two terms. The greatest challenge of his tenure was the War of 1812, which, although there were a number of problems and a humiliating sacking of Washington, DC, by British troops, the nation emerged stronger than before and Madison still popular. Later, he worked alongside Jefferson to establish the University of Virginia, becoming its second rector.

A few years after his death, his wife, Dolley, had to sell Montpelier. It changed hands multiple times before the DuPont family bought it in 1901. Throughout the twentieth century, the DuPonts made alterations to the original mansion. It looked like this only a decade or so ago:

Montpelier 1

While beautiful, it was not the Montpelier of Madison. A complete renovation began in 2000, dedicated to returning it to how it looked when Madison lived there. That renovation is complete now, so this was the first time I was able to visit it as Madison saw it. It has the classic early Virginia architecture once again:

Montpelier

It was a delight to walk through the rooms knowing this was now the genuine Madison home. I wish I could share some photos of the interior, but photography wasn’t allowed inside, as with most historic homes. But I definitely felt the spirit of Madison in the place. Now that it has been returned to its pristine condition, I urge everyone who can to visit. If you have a love for or fascination with America’s early history, you won’t be disappointed.

Presidents, Polls, Professors, & the Public

Young America’s Foundation is an organization devoted to conservative principles in culture and government. While it doesn’t claim to be openly Christian—other conservatives are welcome—the concepts it promotes are consistent with Biblical principles. In the last few years, it has established the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, where it holds a number of significant seminars and conferences. The organization also bought the Reagan Ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, and is keeping it as Ronald Reagan had it when he lived there. I’ve visited with some of the leaders, both in Virginia and Santa Barbara, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to Reagan’s ranch. The last time I was there, I was told to just let them know ahead of time, and on my next trip, they would arrange a visit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since; not sure when I’ll be able to go again.

Recently, the Foundation commissioned a poll of college and university professors. They took the opinions of 284 professors on the ranking of presidents. Which presidents did they consider to be the most influential and/or most effective? What grade would they give each president? The answers may not surprise you.

Not one of these professors considered Reagan as his/her top choice. Sixty percent didn’t even put him in the top ten of all presidents. Overall, they gave him a C+ for his achievements, apparently overlooking the tremendous economic resurgence during the 1980s, his pivotal meetings with Gorbachev, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, stemming from the combined efforts of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. In fact, when they were asked to state what they considered to be Reagan’s greatest accomplishment, nearly 1/5 of them could come up with nothing.

Here are some other indicators of how college professors view American presidents:

  • When asked to list their picks for the three greatest presidents, they mentioned FDR more times than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
  • They mentioned FDR four times as often as Reagan.
  • FDR ranked in the top three presidents for 54% of these professors.
  • Overall, Bill Clinton received six times as many favorable mentions as James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

From where does this stem? Well, three times as many professors identified themselves as liberal than as conservative. The review of this poll that I read doesn’t break down the professors by discipline, but I would suspect that most of them were history or political science professors, and the fact that there were three times as many liberals as conservatives only surprises me in the sense that I thought the divergence might be even greater, given the stance taken by national leadership for these disciplines.

Now for a counterpoint. In February of 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans nationwide to determine their idea of who should be considered the greatest presidents. In that poll, Reagan came in first, 5 points ahead of Lincoln. Reagan also topped the list in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and ranked first or second in eight of the ten “Greatest President” polls conducted by Gallup since 1999.

I have my own critique of public opinion polls, and how they seem to fluctuate based on the public’s feelings rather than facts. I don’t always consider the majority viewpoint to be the most accurate. Yet I find this poll fascinating. What it indicates is that as time has gone by, people are looking back at the Reagan years with increasing fondness. I think they remember them, when compared to today, as solid, strong, and patriotic. They believe that America came back from the brink in the 1980s, after the disastrous events of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan was the antidote to LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. He called us back to our roots, and that led to revitalization.

I believe America can be called back again, and I believe we can overcome the national disgrace of the Obama years. The only question is: will we do so this November? The future is not fixed; our decisions can redirect the ship of state as well as the drift of the culture. One more thing: Christians need to take the lead in this redirection. Now is the time to call us back to a humble dependence on the One who will bless if we come to Him in genuine repentance and a sincere desire to do His will.

Being Constitutional

The Supreme Court has made its decision on Obamacare. What, you didn’t hear about that? Well, that’s because it’s not public yet, and won’t be until June, I understand. But behind closed doors, the result is in. The justices are now busy writing their opinions; I predict we’ll have a number of those opinions offered since the Court will be split in its reasoning. Some of that reasoning will be sharp and constitutional; the rest will be shallow and political. Hopefully, constitutionalism will prevail and the entire law will be overturned, not just the individual mandate.

President Obama yesterday lectured the Court from afar by stating categorically that the attempt to set up a government-controlled healthcare system was undeniably constitutional, and that any decision to the contrary was judicial activism. He said conservatives should understand this since they are always decrying judicial activism.

Let me get this straight: declaring a law unconstitutional that took over 1/6 of the American economy and forced people to buy a product is judicial activism? No, Mr. President, that’s the proper role of the Court—reining in an extension of government power into an area where it has no authority to act.

That’s called being constitutional.

But I wouldn’t expect the president to understand that concept. He’s no James Madison.

Presidents take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not to ignore it.

Honesty, Integrity, & Spurious Quotations

Those who read this blog regularly know that I believe America had a strong Biblical basis at its founding. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. Those of us who believe that, though, need to be careful in passing along quotations we have read in secondary sources to back up our belief. Let me give a few examples of spurious quotations we should avoid using.

George Washington was an Episcopalian who had his own family pew at the Pohick church near his Mount Vernon home. He served as a vestryman. I’ve read minutes of the vestry that show he even purchased the communion plates for the church. There are also a number of solid quotes that indicate his faith was genuine. There is one, however, that always comes to the forefront, but has no original source. He is often quoted as saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world [other sources say “a nation”] without God and the Bible.” Just the fact that there is a discrepancy in the exact wording should be a tipoff that something is amiss. While this is a wonderful statement, unfortunately, it cannot be traced back to anything Washington either spoke or wrote.

Then there’s this supposed quote from Patrick Henry: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was not founded by religionists but by Christians. . . not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” As it turns out, this is actually a statement from the author of an article about Henry, and wrongly attributed to the Virginian of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame.

James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, allegedly commented, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” This one fooled me for some time as it was just so perfect for the principle of self-government that I teach in class. I even used it in my book about Biblical principles and civil government until I had to face the reality that this statement doesn’t appear anywhere in Madison’s writings. Consequently, I removed the quote when it came time for a second edition.

We need to be honest. When I authored my book on the Clinton impeachment, I said the following in its preface:

My presuppositions are first and foremost Biblical in orientation. The grid through which I see the world—my basic worldview—is grounded upon Biblical principles. These principles form the basis for my values, my decisions, and my analysis of right and wrong. These principles also inform my understanding of the role of civil government, placing me on the conservative side of the political spectrum. . . .

But I am also an academic. The training I receive in academia requires that I follow the evidence wherever it may lead. I must be honest and cannot, in good conscience, misrepresent the facts. Properly understood, there is no dichotomy here. My Christianity and my academic training require the same standard. Academic integrity rests upon moral integrity, which I believe flows from Biblical faith. Consequently, when I undertake any research and writing project, I must be true to that faith.

That is my practice, and that is why I thought it important to shed some light on those false quotations. We undermine our position when we latch on to falsehoods to prove a point.

I have another one I want to highlight tomorrow. This one is actually a genuine quote, but it has been twisted out of context. It involves Thomas Jefferson.

See you back here tomorrow?