In tumultuous times, the wisdom of past presidents helps a lot
A new election is upon the nation. A nation that faces a lot of uncertainty and tremendous, complex choices is certainly in need of measured, wise leadership and self-reflection. Whether it's dealing with crippling national debt, unsustainable social welfare programs, intricate foreign policy, or even domestic education, these issues can seem overwhelming. A look at the wisdom of former presidents, facing their own crises during their own times, may prove a worthwhile study not just for elected officials, but for all citizens who most hold those officials accountable.
1. In the wake of the struggling public school system and national universities mired in controversies of suppressing speech, promoting indoctrination, and even legally discriminating against Asian and other students in regards to admittance, it may be useful to recall the nation's first president, George Washington. In President Washington's farewell address, he states, "Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened" (Gunn, 425). What does this mean? An unenlightened mass of people cannot be trusted to rule themselves or maintain property or even law and order. To alleviate that, the nation must have a deep rooted understanding of our Greek, Roman, and European forefathers; must thoroughly know the nation's founding and Constitution; and must promote a university system that promotes knowledge, wisdom, and discovery over ideology, groupthink, and control. Without this foundation, the nation becomes perched on a foundation of sand instead of solid rock.
2. For a nation experiencing 27 trillion dollars of national debt, fiscal responsibility is on the mind of many. President Jefferson said fiscal irresponsibility is "so contrary to the principles of our government, which make the representatives of the people sole arbiters of the public expense, and do not permit any work to be forced upon them on a large scale than their judgement deems adapted to the circumstances of the nation" (Mapp, 167). Jefferson proceeded to cut the national debt in half. Now, realistically, the current staggering national debt cannot be halved within the next four years. Likely, far from it. However, building from an enhanced educational base in point 1, we are reminded that the federal government was meant to be frugal — to provide security, roads, and courts, with the rest essentially being delegated to the state and local governments via the 10th Amendment. Certainly, it becomes possible to consolidate the various defense and intelligence agencies into a leaner, more cost-efficient machine; to roll back federal overreach in a myriad of sectors; to privatize services like Amtrak; and even to address foreign aid. At worst, the ball could begin to head in the right direction.
3. For foes domestic and abroad, let us hear the words of Andrew Jackson: "A million of armed freemen possessed of the means of war can never be conquered by a foreign foe ... which in the present state of our intelligence and population must render us invincible as long as our government is administered for the good of the people and is regulated by their will" (Brands, 410). As entire cities have been set ablaze by mobs attacking both people and property, the necessity of self-defense becomes all the clearer. We must allow people to have the means to protect themselves against those who would loot and harm otherwise defenseless, peaceful citizens. To rely solely on the protection of the state would be a matter of folly that any who had even a cursory knowledge in point number 1 would recognize.
4. In an era of ultra-partisan, hyperbolic media more focused on their own ideology and power than objectivity and the needs of the public, we may consult President Cleveland. When confronted with a divisive political issue, an adviser told President Cleveland he could be assured they could muster public support behind them. President Cleveland responded, "That has nothing to do with it. We must find out what is right and do it regardless of the result" (Nevins, 240). It's no secret: people are anxious to act, or even speak, truthfully in fear of what may happen to them socially, financially, and even from a security standpoint. Many among the media, sadly, have not only done little to alleviate it, but have in fact promoted such a climate. President Cleveland reminds us that even if there are repercussions, right is right, and we must act accordingly. Appeasement, as the 20th-century Europeans learned the hard way, is never a viable strategy for those who want a peaceful and prosperous nation.
5. For a country that, at times, seems to have forgotten or disregarded its roots, the words of President Coolidge stand out with regard to principle. Coolidge said, "I believe in the American Constitution. I favor the system of individual enterprise, and I am opposed to any general extension of government ownership and control. ... I am opposed to aggressive war" (Sobel, 292). In the broadest sense, Coolidge understood that allowing men to venture into business without cumbersome government interference; allowing them to keep the fruits of their labor; and sending them to war, risking blood and treasure, only when the defense of the nation was at stake were what made a nation both peaceful and powerful. It's worth noting that "Coolidge Prosperity" affects all: African-American literacy during his administration skyrocketed to over 80% and net worth to over 1.1 billion dollars. In the end, Coolidge understood that all rights are individual rights, not state-provided group rights. No other philosophy can generate lasting peace and prosperity.
While this wisdom may seem simple and obvious to some, it should be noted that for many, the ideas of these great former presidents have never been heard. In some cases, only demonized caricatures of them have been presented to students. If taught properly, we may be surprised at the progress our nation could achieve even within one simple election cycle.
Brands, H.W. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. Anchor Books, 2005.
Mapp, Jr, Alf. Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim. Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.
Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A study in Courage. American Political Biography Press, 1932.
Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Regnery, 1998.
Washington, George. Early American Writing: Washington's Farewell Address. Edited by Giles Gunn, Penguin Classics, 1994.