Book: First Principles

When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move to Canada!? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.

Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? And so in First Principles Ricks examines some of those core principles around which this nation was originally founded upon.

This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.

For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.

Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.

The Hampton Roads Conference — 156 years ago today

Historians call it the Hampton Roads Conference. It happened 156 years ago today. Not far from where I live now, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on February 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln met with commissioners from the southern Confederacy to discuss a possible peace agreement.

The conference is dramatized in the Oscar winning movie Lincoln. The movie, of course, cannot give us all that was said during a roughly 4 hour meeting. What the film maker does in this scene is give us the core sentiments of the negotiating sides, creatively summed up in this short scene:

Hampton Roads Conference scene from the movie Lincoln

“How have you held your union together? Your democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration. Your union sir, is bonded in canon-fire and death.”

Lincoln’s reply brilliantly turns those words back on Alexander Stephens. Yes, the sacrifices had been immense, but these sacrifices will ultimately be proven worthy because they were made not just for our democracy but for democracy as an idea itself. “But say all we’ve done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos. That there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union. Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must have been proved by now.”

Again, the movie clip above is a creative dramatization. Stephens and Lincoln didn’t, as far as we know, actually say these lines, but if you read the correspondences related to this meeting and the various written recollections, you can see how what’s said could be interpreted as representing the central position of Stephens and Lincoln.

By the time of this meeting it was clear the Confederacy was defeated. It was over. The Hampton Roads Conference wouldn’t lead, however, to the Confederate government surrendering. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, would continue to allow southern troops to fight and die in a hopeless cause. The Civil War would end only when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.

JFK’s Four Questions for Measuring Public Leadership

President Elect John F. Kennedy delivering his Address to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, January 9, 1961

During President Reagan’s 1988 farewell address, he invoked that now famous John Winthrop phrase about “a shining city upon a hill,” to symbolize how Reagan had always envisioned America’s purpose in the free world. It was an inspiring and beautifully delivered speech.

But Reagan’s vision seemed mostly concerned with the cultural and commercial aspects of that shining city, and not its leadership. National cultures and economies may evolve into a shining examples, but that rarely happens without good leadership, especially in government.

Though he had not taken office yet, it was actually President Elect John F. Kennedy (JFK) who first gave notoriety to Winthrop’s phrase “A shining city upon a hill” during JFK’s January 9, 1961, Address to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But Kennedy, who would soon assume the highest office in the land on January 20th, used the phrase to focus attention on those entrusted with public leadership.

But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. 

“We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill–the eyes of all people are upon us.” 

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

For JFK public service was a noble profession, where citizens were entrusted to serve the public’s interests and uphold his or her oath to the Constitution and the founding ideals of this country. This was especially true of public servants elected to high office. For JFK those entrusted with power would ultimately be judged on how they used (or miss used) power—surely by God—but certainly by the great tribunal of History. JFK said History will judge a public leader by the answers to four questions—which I feel are still the best set of questions for judging any public leader, both then and most certainly now.

For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us—recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state—our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions: 

First, were we truly men of courage—with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies—and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates—the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed? 

Secondly, were we truly men of judgment—with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past—of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others—with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it? 

Third, were we truly men of integrity—men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them—men who believed in us—men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust? 

Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest. 

We know, as JFK did, that his 4 questions are an ideal. We know this because we’re human beings who regularly fall short, sin, and often fail to meet the high moral demands of the moment. It’s what we do. But JFK also knew we had to demand that our leaders strive for these high ideals….because that was what built and, more importantly, sustained that shining city upon a hill. The point, then and now, is that public leaders must have a social conscience and a sense of duty to others—and that we (and History) should judge our leaders by how honestly they have striven to meet the heavy demands of moral leadership.

“Let us stand together…”

I’ve been reading Kennedy by Ted Sorensen as a sort of therapy during these very turbulent times. JFK was a pragmatic idealist. He was intelligent, witty, inspirational, and a highly competent man. Reading about his life (and times) you realize he was very much a man for all seasons and a skilled leader. So naturally during times like these, when all these qualities are missing from the current President, some of us, nostalgically, like to read about great men and women of the past who, while never perfect, met the challenges of moment with a noble sense of purpose, unity, and high ideals.

Yesterday JFK would have turned 103 years old had he been alive. I was reading a few articles about JFK online and came across something I’d never seen before. Here are his final words on a note card that JFK had planned to read at a Austin, Texas, event before his life was tragically cut short on that fateful November 22, 1963 day.

Such words are meant to bring people together to meet difficult challenges and overcome obstacles. Unity of purpose and a sense that “we’re all in this together” has always been the message of great leaders in democratic societies.

A house divided cannot stand as Lincoln said. And currently we are a house that is being purposely divided. Our times call longingly for new leadership; a new way forward out of this morass of greed, selfishness, and little mindedness. Let us hope this November the nation will “stand together with renewed confidence in our cause.”

“by the better angels of our nature.”

President Abraham Lincoln delivering his first Inaugural Address

In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend” it…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

— U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861.