What If A President Were One Of Us?

The qualifications to be president are prosaic, strictly speaking, according to Article II Sec 1 of the US Constitution:

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States…shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.

Why would the Founders endorse such a low bar to entry for the nation’s “Chief Magistrate,” an ancient label used by Alexander Hamilton throughout his folios in the Federalist Papers? Especially since Article II Sections 2 and 3 give profound and broad powers to the president?

Well, by design, a common man, a citizen after all -- the most exalted egalitarian title to be earned, or bestowed -- would perfect an indelible and unmistakable contrast to a monarch. It was Thomas Jefferson’s romantic notion of the “citizen farmer,” possessing those inalienable rights bestowed by our Creator upon an individual -- the antithesis of aristocracy, privilege, class, and corruption -- that found its way, without much debate or controversy at the time, into the eligibility clause.

Yet Hamilton in Federalist 68 had this to say about those unwritten, albeit understood, expected attributes of the “Chief Magistrate,” far beyond Article II’s minimalism.

Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.

Civic virtue was the cardinal virtue as lived by George Washington, discussed by Scott R Stripling, “The Founder’s View of Character and the Presidency” in a 1996 Claremont Institute monologue.

Stripling references a letter from Washington to Henry Lee in 1788,

“Though I prize, as I ought, the good opinion of my fellow citizens; yet, if I know myself, I would not seek or retain popularity at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue."

Stripling annotates further,

“Washington’s self-restraint regarding popularity is motivated by his honorable determination to be bound by "social duty," that is by what we have been calling civic virtue; as well as by moral virtue, that is, by those qualities of character that govern one’s passions and actions, for example, self-restraint in regard to anger or appetite.”

James Madison’s commentary on the need for civic virtue in Federalist 55, predating Washington’s sentiments by six months, expresses the same tenor, and tone:

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Sadly, civic virtue is but a modern affectation; in former times a serious aspiration, the handmaiden of honesty, humility, generosity, and selflessness in public servants. While the Founders believed civic virtue in the new nation’s governing class to be a precondition for an enduring republic, they had few illusions that such noble temperament would be the norm.

Thus Madison took lessons on the bleak view of human nature from Hobbes, although his prescription to remedy its ills obviously were very different. Madison’s affinity for a republican form of government, with its filters, balances, and distributed authority was a containment berm or obstacle course tempering the damage from factions, those aggregations of self-dealing, greed, corruption, and tyranny. In Federalist 10 Madison freely admits that self-serving passions are a necessary corollary to liberty and must not be controlled, but channeled:

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency…

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

Despite the anxieties that civic virtue was neither intuitive nor universal, the Founders in the Ninth Amendment affirmed the limits of government’s enumerated powers, leaving all other rights to the people, unmolested: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Thus civic virtue, unlikely to be a widespread trait of the people, was not a precondition to the Ninth Amendment. On the other hand, government officials were expected to display an abundance of civic virtue in order to protect those rights retained by the people.

Civic virtue amongst the governing class has all but disappeared. Our last encounter with a president whose civic virtue reservoir dipstick read “full” was Calvin Coolidge. Also within living memory would be Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, and both Bushes, whose policies can be athletically debated, but who understood and largely practiced a virtuous civic life.

Bill Clinton carpet-bombed forever any pretense to civic virtue amongst “Chief Magistrates” -- impeached, and disbarred for lying under oath to a grand jury, addicted to a pattern of dishonesty, personal vilification of one’s enemies, and using the White House to enrich one’s personal appetites, while enjoying fortune hunting -- happily copied, and enshrined as normative presidential behavior by Barack Obama.

And Hillary Clinton, nominal spouse of President Clinton, either inspired his sordid and illegal conduct, or simply copied his template. Supporters of her as the 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president have a squalid definition of civic virtue, which would horrify the Founders, namely serial lying, compromising national security, obstructing justice, and using high office to actively enrich her family’s bank accounts. It would be astonishing to the Founders, and is today repugnant to Hillary’s opponents, that Democrats endorse and will actually vote for someone so transparently corrupt, without reservation or shame.

Few pay attention these days to antiquated notions of civic virtue. Fewer still, are aware of, let alone believe in, the Ninth Amendment.  Yet those regular Joes and Marys who have not yet read (or become re-acquainted with) James Madison have at least a gut instinct that he foretold -- their anguish, anger, and aversion to the corrupt status quo.  To wit from Federalist 10:

“Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people."

Regular Joes and Marys have been betrayed by politicians of all stripes, notably by conservatives, and other Republicans who ran on a platform of limited government, pledging to roll back liberal progressive infringements on liberty, sovereignty, free speech, and self-determination, but once elected disowned their constituents, and repudiated their erstwhile purported mission.

Regular Joes and Marys lack the conceit to assert they are faithful practitioners of civic virtue, although they possess far more honesty, and far less corruptibility than the current dominant political class.   And in harmony with the Founders, they expect civic virtue from a president, and know when they don’t see it, smell it, or taste it.

Yes regular Joes and Marys know they won’t get old style civic virtue from Hillary Clinton. But like Madison’s circumspect faith that civic virtue can arise from any one of us, they’ll at least have a chance with Donald Trump.

The qualifications to be president are prosaic, strictly speaking, according to Article II Sec 1 of the US Constitution:

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States…shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.

Why would the Founders endorse such a low bar to entry for the nation’s “Chief Magistrate,” an ancient label used by Alexander Hamilton throughout his folios in the Federalist Papers? Especially since Article II Sections 2 and 3 give profound and broad powers to the president?

Well, by design, a common man, a citizen after all -- the most exalted egalitarian title to be earned, or bestowed -- would perfect an indelible and unmistakable contrast to a monarch. It was Thomas Jefferson’s romantic notion of the “citizen farmer,” possessing those inalienable rights bestowed by our Creator upon an individual -- the antithesis of aristocracy, privilege, class, and corruption -- that found its way, without much debate or controversy at the time, into the eligibility clause.

Yet Hamilton in Federalist 68 had this to say about those unwritten, albeit understood, expected attributes of the “Chief Magistrate,” far beyond Article II’s minimalism.

Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.

Civic virtue was the cardinal virtue as lived by George Washington, discussed by Scott R Stripling, “The Founder’s View of Character and the Presidency” in a 1996 Claremont Institute monologue.

Stripling references a letter from Washington to Henry Lee in 1788,

“Though I prize, as I ought, the good opinion of my fellow citizens; yet, if I know myself, I would not seek or retain popularity at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue."

Stripling annotates further,

“Washington’s self-restraint regarding popularity is motivated by his honorable determination to be bound by "social duty," that is by what we have been calling civic virtue; as well as by moral virtue, that is, by those qualities of character that govern one’s passions and actions, for example, self-restraint in regard to anger or appetite.”

James Madison’s commentary on the need for civic virtue in Federalist 55, predating Washington’s sentiments by six months, expresses the same tenor, and tone:

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Sadly, civic virtue is but a modern affectation; in former times a serious aspiration, the handmaiden of honesty, humility, generosity, and selflessness in public servants. While the Founders believed civic virtue in the new nation’s governing class to be a precondition for an enduring republic, they had few illusions that such noble temperament would be the norm.

Thus Madison took lessons on the bleak view of human nature from Hobbes, although his prescription to remedy its ills obviously were very different. Madison’s affinity for a republican form of government, with its filters, balances, and distributed authority was a containment berm or obstacle course tempering the damage from factions, those aggregations of self-dealing, greed, corruption, and tyranny. In Federalist 10 Madison freely admits that self-serving passions are a necessary corollary to liberty and must not be controlled, but channeled:

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency…

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

Despite the anxieties that civic virtue was neither intuitive nor universal, the Founders in the Ninth Amendment affirmed the limits of government’s enumerated powers, leaving all other rights to the people, unmolested: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Thus civic virtue, unlikely to be a widespread trait of the people, was not a precondition to the Ninth Amendment. On the other hand, government officials were expected to display an abundance of civic virtue in order to protect those rights retained by the people.

Civic virtue amongst the governing class has all but disappeared. Our last encounter with a president whose civic virtue reservoir dipstick read “full” was Calvin Coolidge. Also within living memory would be Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, and both Bushes, whose policies can be athletically debated, but who understood and largely practiced a virtuous civic life.

Bill Clinton carpet-bombed forever any pretense to civic virtue amongst “Chief Magistrates” -- impeached, and disbarred for lying under oath to a grand jury, addicted to a pattern of dishonesty, personal vilification of one’s enemies, and using the White House to enrich one’s personal appetites, while enjoying fortune hunting -- happily copied, and enshrined as normative presidential behavior by Barack Obama.

And Hillary Clinton, nominal spouse of President Clinton, either inspired his sordid and illegal conduct, or simply copied his template. Supporters of her as the 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president have a squalid definition of civic virtue, which would horrify the Founders, namely serial lying, compromising national security, obstructing justice, and using high office to actively enrich her family’s bank accounts. It would be astonishing to the Founders, and is today repugnant to Hillary’s opponents, that Democrats endorse and will actually vote for someone so transparently corrupt, without reservation or shame.

Few pay attention these days to antiquated notions of civic virtue. Fewer still, are aware of, let alone believe in, the Ninth Amendment.  Yet those regular Joes and Marys who have not yet read (or become re-acquainted with) James Madison have at least a gut instinct that he foretold -- their anguish, anger, and aversion to the corrupt status quo.  To wit from Federalist 10:

“Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people."

Regular Joes and Marys have been betrayed by politicians of all stripes, notably by conservatives, and other Republicans who ran on a platform of limited government, pledging to roll back liberal progressive infringements on liberty, sovereignty, free speech, and self-determination, but once elected disowned their constituents, and repudiated their erstwhile purported mission.

Regular Joes and Marys lack the conceit to assert they are faithful practitioners of civic virtue, although they possess far more honesty, and far less corruptibility than the current dominant political class.   And in harmony with the Founders, they expect civic virtue from a president, and know when they don’t see it, smell it, or taste it.

Yes regular Joes and Marys know they won’t get old style civic virtue from Hillary Clinton. But like Madison’s circumspect faith that civic virtue can arise from any one of us, they’ll at least have a chance with Donald Trump.