The recent government shutdown is all too indicative of President Donald Trump’s short-term politics geared toward the next news cycle or, at best, the next election cycle. But it does not have to be that way. On Presidents Day, it is instructive to remember our greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Although they faced far more serious crises than anything our nation faces now, they spent much of their time worrying about future generations.
As Washington wrote shortly after the war for independence had been won, “It is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.”
Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t conceive of his role in such a farsighted manner and seems far more concerned about his daily tweets than long-term and meaningful change. He is a particularly stark example of a problem that has infected our political culture, which has been impoverished to such an extent that virtually every politician reprises the same role — defender of the common man (an idea that has gone by many names ranging from the silent majority to the forgotten middle class).
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In part, this is a natural outgrowth of our history, the result of the incredibly powerful ideas in the Declaration of Independence, particularly that all men are created equal. By the middle of the 19th century, those words so transformed the country that being born in a log cabin was not a mark of shame but one of pride.
Although there is much to admire about this transformation, appeals to the common man have crowded out virtually every other political stance. A politics based solely on the common man is a politics that refuses to make hard choices, a never-never land in which there are easy solutions (“Build a wall!”) to complicated issues.
The Founders did not pander to majority opinion
But that was hardly the only role or even the primary one that the Founders envisioned for national leaders or for the people themselves. They spoke with a much richer vocabulary and a much greater sense of possibility, a political world in which concepts such as virtue and honor and justice found a meaningful place. These concepts often involved not a citizen’s rights but his or her duties.
As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, political leaders were not supposed to pander to majority opinion. They were supposed to “to refine and enlarge” the views of their fellow citizens, even if that meant they disagreed with the people who elected them. John Adams called for an even more strenuous politics during the Revolution. He believed that the nation’s path to success depended on sacrifice and suffering, writing that “the Furnace of Affliction may refine” American citizens and correct “many errors, follies and vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonor and destroy us.”
It is impossible to imagine a political leader today recommending the furnace of affliction. Although the Founders were far from perfect, they did at least squarely face the problems at hand and looked for solutions that did more than push off the hard reckoning to the next generation.
Washington and Lincoln made hard choices
On Presidents Day, we tip our hats in a perfunctory way to our forefathers, but Washington and Lincoln still have much to teach us, even if they do not necessarily provide the answers we want to hear. They show us that the true friend of the people is willing to make hard choices for the long-term benefit of the nation — to spend untold blood and treasure to achieve independence or to end the scourge of slavery.
Tremendous sacrifices by Washington’s generation and by Lincoln’s were necessary to create and keep the nation. This took leaders who believed not just in their own well-being but also in the well-being of generations yet unborn.
Andrew Trees, a novelist and historian, is the author of “The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character.” Follow him on Twitter: @andrewtrees