Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I sometimes wonder what the Forefathers would have thought of this twenty-first century incarnation of America. How far we’ve come, how much we have stayed the same, how much we have left to do.

As we approach yet another peaceful transition to a new President and his attendant administration, which we so naturally take for granted, I can’t help but reflect on how often and how close it all came to collapse. How precarious it still is. And how each generation of Americans had a chance to see their country spiral into the dustbin of history, give into the impulses of security at the hands of faction and self-interest. Yet here we stand, as divided, and united, as ever.

Our first President chose to leave office after eight years, establishing an unwritten precedent of two terms in office. He could have stayed on longer. He could have made himself dictator for life, or return America to a nation that followed in the path of every other government at the time and revert to monarchy. John Adams, his Vice President and undeniably ardent supporter of democracy, even for a time wanted the President to be referred to as “His Majesty, the President.”

Washington is regarded by many as the best President we have ever had. We all say this, but why? Do we truly understand the significance of his abdication of power? I’ve been reading the 46 Laws of Power, and the lengths and strategies people go to in order to obtain this elusive, yet seductive and addicting aspiration. The ability to influence and manipulate those around us with insinuation, deception, feints. Yet here stood a man, offered lifetime power, who recognized the futility of short-term individual ambition for the good of not only his generation, but those that followed. Fathom that for an instant. The ability to let it all go, and in doing so, gain a lasting fame and influence that resonates far beyond any other political leader. And planting a psychological seed that has blossomed into the rolling over of authority we are frequent witness to.

John Adams was then elected with 71 out of more than 200 electoral ballots cast. Less than forty percent support. He in turn, after being defeated for re-election by his political adversary, yet close friend Thomas Jefferson in one of the most bitter elections in American history (including charges of infidelity, secret children, outrageous slanders put forth by both parties that make our elections look civilized by comparison), handed over the reins of power without a fight. Jefferson received little more than 33 percent of the ballots cast, and only won after the 36th round of voting in the House of Representatives. Democracy in action. Yet for the first time in world history, political power had changed hands from one ideology to another without bloody conflict.

And far from setting a precedent, other now liberalized nations took generations more to realize the benefit of peaceful transition. The French Revolution that proclaimed Fraternity, Liberty and Equality through the guillotine was replaced less than a decade after the Bourbon removal by the scourge of Europe, the Emperor Bonaparte. Our brethrens in revolution spent most of the nineteenth century bloodily waffling between Empire and Monarchy. Even in the midst of a Civil War, we had an election, and the rightful victor remained.

I wonder what they would say to the splendor of the central parts of our Capital. A former swamp bought for a pittance lined with Classically-inspired marble structures, spires reaching high into the sky, cherry blossoms bursting forth every spring. And the motorcades – how different to be surrounded by armed men in black suits than to greet neighbors knocking on the unfinished White House doors as Jefferson did.

Though we live in a time of national plenty, we still face the same dilemmas, and the same historical foibles of human nature. What foreign entanglements to align ourselves with, regional interests in constant competition, political manipulations and transformations. A brutal and merciless press proclaiming the evils of the current administration, publicizing up every sordid detail and twisting every public pronouncement. Blowhard Senators wasting time and money, power hungry staffers salivating at the downfall of a once rising superior. These things have never, nor will they ever, be absent in the field of human political interaction.

And at the very top, the loneliness of command. The fate of the world, literally, laid upon your shoulders. Across generations and party ideologies, there is undoubtedly a bond that these leaders all share, and though their solutions often differ drastically, they alone bear the burden, together. One of the more remarkable photos I had during college was of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton all together. Some villains, some incompetents, some transformational, some charmers, but all men charged, for a time, with upholding the tenants of American democracy and the perpetuation of the experiment forcefully designed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.

It is sometimes good to look at where we have come from to see where we are going. Our roots and our evolution from them define the national culture. I think our Founding Fathers would be proud to see what we have accomplished, but fight dearly for what they believed in, aligning against each other with every ounce of their being as they did previously. And from that cacophony of infuriating chaos ensure the continuation of domestic Tranquility, promote the General welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity.

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