Choosing Virtuous and Moral Leaders
Several years ago I was to drive from Phoenix to Tucson to attend a political meeting. Just before I left, a young man phoned and asked if he could ride with me to the meeting. As we became acquainted during the drive, I found he was a student at the university and majoring in political science. I asked him what he wanted to do with such a degree when he finished school and he replied: I want to have a career in politics.
My mind immediately reflected on the words of Samuel Adams who said:
“But neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man.”
Sam Adams went on to say that public officials should not be chosen if they are lacking in experience, training, proven virtue, and demonstrated wisdom. He said the task of the electorate is to choose those whose “fidelity has been tried in the nicest and tenderest manner, and has been ever firm and unshaken.”
While this young man had the best of intentions, I am sure, and we did have an enjoyable visit the rest of the way, I couldn’t help asking myself, Where is this young man’s experience? His training? His proven virtue? His demonstrated wisdom? How has his fidelity to principle been proven to be firm and unshaken? According to Adams, these qualities should be developed before seeking public office.
Building a Natural Aristocracy
Jefferson said in America we reject the artificial aristocracy of Europe, wherein political office is gained through inheritance, wealth, or birth. He said that under American liberty and equality, a natural aristocracy would develop based on virtue and talents. This natural process will come about without force, almost silently, like cream rising to the top of a gallon of raw milk. As people seek to develop themselves and their life’s work, they will become wise. They will perhaps learn what it is like to live under unjust laws or high taxes. They will learn how to deal justly with people and how to persuade them to do good. They will come to appreciate what freedom does for people. In the process, others will come to trust them more and more. People will seek counsel at their hands. They will become pillars of strength in their homes, their businesses, and their communities.
After explaining the wonders of this natural aristocracy, Jefferson said we should so construct a government, which will then provide a system whereby these leaders in private endeavors can be skimmed off the top and entrusted with political leadership of the people for a time. Said he:
“May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?”
John Adams had the same feelings about those who served in political office. They were repulsed by those who wanted these offices for their own gain (or should we say for a career). John Adams observed:
“How is it possible that any man should ever think of making it (political office) subservient to his own little passions and mean private interests? Ye baseborn sons of fallen Adam, is the end of politics a fortune, a family, a gilded coach, a train of horses, and a troop of livery servants, balls at Court, splendid dinners and suppers?”
A Divine Science
I have always appreciated the definition which John Adams attached to politics. He said, “Politics are the divine science.” Today, politics is thought of as merely an art—the art of negotiating. Whoever can win the debate, be the most persuasive, and get the most votes is the best politician. The Founders did not agree it should be that way in America. They said politics is the sacred duty to preserve the God-given rights of the people. To them, there was something godly about public service. They agreed with the Roman statesman Cicero who said:
“For there is really no other occupation in which human virtue approaches more closely the august function of the gods than that of founding new States or preserving those already in existence.”
Since the Creator endowed each individual with liberty and agency, would He not be very concerned that a society be so structured and led, so that these liberties may be preserved? In other words, such leadership may be termed a godly function!
A Sacred Calling or Mission
Think of what a society would be like if its leadership offices would be thought of as a service or a mission. A person who has proven experience or talents, perhaps retired so that he does not need a big salary, would be asked to serve his country for a time.
In the early history of the United States, community offices were looked upon as stations of honor granted to the recipients by an admiring community, state, or nation. These offices were therefore often filled by those who performed their services with little or no compensation. Even when an annual salary of $25,000 was provided in the Constitution for President Washington, he determined to somehow manage without it. Some might think that this was no sacrifice because he had a large plantation. However, the Mount Vernon plantation had been virtually ruined during the Revolutionary War, and he had not yet built it back into efficient production when he was called to be President. Washington declined his salary on principle. He did the same thing while serving as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces during the Revolutionary War. Not all could afford to do this, but it was considered the proper procedure when circumstances permitted it.
Political Office-A Unique Opportunity
The Founders considered political office to be quite different than any other undertaking. In politics, there is a combination of human passions found in no other place. Benjamin Franklin described it this way:
“Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”
The uniqueness of politics is that it gives to office holders the power over other peoples’ lives and over other peoples’ money. No other occupation or business provides this kind of control. And that is why political power is so corrupting. Few men or women can handle it very long without gradually beginning to exercise unrighteous dominion over others. It is a fact of human nature.
What about Salaries of Public Officials?
The Founders felt that as soon as a salary is attached to a public office, it immediately becomes a job which people want to keep—even for a career. It is no longer considered a real service. Franklin explained to a friend the difference between public service in America and in Europe:
“In America, salaries, where indispensable, are extremely low; but much of public business is done gratis. The honor of serving the public ably and faithfully is deemed sufficient. Public spirit really exists there, and has great effects. In England it is universally deemed a nonentity, and whoever pretends to it is laughed at as a fool, or suspected as a knave.”
In the Constitutional Convention, Franklin gave a lengthy discourse on this subject. He warned that high salaries for government offices are the best way to attract scoundrels and drive from the halls of public office those men who possess true merit and virtue. He asked:
“And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government, and be your rulers.”
His next statement has turned out to be prophetic:
“Sir, though we may set out in the beginning with moderate salaries, we shall find that such will not be of long continuance. Reasons will never be wanting for proposed augmentations; and there will always be a party for giving more to the rulers, that the rulers may be able in return to give more to them.”
But Don’t We Have to Pay Sufficient Salaries to Attract Good People?
Franklin had an answer for those who worried that not paying high salaries would deprive our country of its best leaders. He used the example of George Washington but he did not use his name so as to not further embarrass him who was presiding at the Convention:
“To bring the matter nearer home, have we not seen the greatest and most important of our offices, that of general of our armies, executed for eight years together, without the smallest salary, by a patriot whom I will not now offend by any other praise; and this, through fatigues and distresses, in common with the other brave men, his military friends and companions, and the constant anxieties peculiar to his station? And shall we doubt finding three or four men in all the United States, with public spirit enough to bear sitting in peaceful council, for perhaps an equal term, merely to preside over our civil concerns, and see that our laws are duly executed? Sir, I have a better opinion of our country. I think we shall never be without a sufficient number of wise and good men to undertake, and execute well and faithfully, the office in question.”
A preview of the current salaries paid to state legislators of the fifty states confirms the truthfulness of Franklin’s prediction. If one groups the ten states with the highest paid state legislators, he will find that, on the average, they have not only the highest salaries and benefits, but also the highest number of staff members, the longest legislative sessions, the highest number of regulations on commerce, and the highest state taxes. By contrast, the group of ten states whose legislative salaries average the lowest, also have the fewest benefits, the shortest legislative sessions, the fewest staff members, the lowest amount of regulations on commerce, and the lowest state taxes.
Once again the Founders have the answer
Long before the Constitutional Convention, where Franklin had made his plea for modest salaries, Pennsylvanians had put the following provision in their State Constitution. It included a solution to the problem of many people wanting the same office:
“As every freeman, to preserve his independence, (if he has not a sufficient estate) ought to have some profession, calling, trade, or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no necessity for, nor use in, establishing offices of profit; the usual effects of which are dependence and servility, unbecoming freemen, in the possessors and expectants; faction, contention, corruption, and disorder among the people. Wherefore, whenever an office, through increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable, as to occasion many to apply for it, the profits ought to be lessened by the legislature.”
The Formula for Producing Leaders of Character and Virtue
A modern American cannot read the writings of men such as Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or Washington without feeling a certain sense of pride that the United States produced and had available leaders of this supreme quality to launch the first “noble experiment” for freedom in modern times.
However, one important question remains: “How are such qualities of superior character and virtue developed in human beings?”
The answer will be found in the writings and beliefs of the Founders themselves. These beliefs were based on careful study. They had also been carefully taught. In their respective churches, families, schools, or elsewhere, they had been allowed to acquire a comprehensive system of strong, basic beliefs. These beliefs are remarkable in and of themselves, but the fact that they all seem to have shared them in common is even more remarkable.
We will examine some of those beliefs next month.