“The aim of every political constitution,” James Madison famously wrote in The Federalist Papers, “is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society.” Once those rulers are in place, it is then up to government “to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
How far we have come.
One challenge of teaching future leaders these days — which I am fortunate to be able to do at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies — is helping them understand that the period we are currently enduring is not exactly the democratic ideal.
Democracy places its faith in the people, of course, but the founders believed that leadership is essential. And not just a generic, vaguely defined leadership, but a particular kind of leadership.
Those entrusted with authority, responsibility and power needed good minds and good hearts — wisdom and virtue — and a commitment to a common good.
Indeed, how far we have come. So it is helpful occasionally to return to the writings of Hamilton, Madison and Jay, the authors of The Federalist Papers.
Not naïve, they were well aware of the dangers of passion and the evils of faction. They knew that, because “religious or moral reasons” could never be an unfailingly persuasive basis for action, there would always be the need for “auxiliary precautions.”
They knew “enlightened statesmen would not always be at the helm.” They sought to remedy the “defect of better motives” with a carefully designed framework of government where “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” It was more prudent to guard against the risk of fallible leaders than it was to search in vain for the all-wise, all-virtuous leaders. The genius of democracy lies in the dangers it prevents, rather than the good it can do.
Power had to be limited.
They hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst. Hamilton predicted that, when it came to future presidents, “there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
And if Madison’s eyes could easily see the flaws in human nature, he also was convinced there were other qualities “which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” In the end, whatever ingenuity could be found in the written Constitution, “a mere demarcation on lines of parchment,” would be insufficient to save the country from tyranny. Institutions matter. So do the people who reside within them.
The often-overlooked John Jay gave perhaps the most vivid expression of this school of thought. The seasoned diplomat was explaining why the Constitution’s provisions for negotiating and approving treaties were sound, even as the critics thought too much discretion and power had been granted to the executive branch.
There were practical reasons. Delicate discussions with foreign entities required secrecy and flexibility. Treaties were essentially bargains struck and, if a legislature demanded either fully transparent discussions or the authority to constantly revise or walk away from the bargain, the reputation of the new democracy would be untenable on the international stage.
Wise and experienced administrators would have to be granted a degree of trust.
They would deserve that trust because corruption “is not supposable.” Perish the thought. “Every consideration that can influence the human mind, such as honor, oaths, reputations, conscience, the love of country, and family affections and attachments, afford security for their fidelity,” Jay asserted. They will be leaders “of talents and integrity,” and therefore, the treaties they produce will be as good as they possibly could be.
But then in a remarkable pirouette, after explaining why officials deserve trust, Jay advised the skeptics not to worry: “So far as the fear and punishment and disgrace can operate, that motive to good behavior is amply afforded by the article on the subject of impeachments.”
If leaders do violate the trust, the Constitution provides the remedy.
So here we are today, testing the propositions of the founders, keenly aware that enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm, facing the reality that when the threats to the Constitution become so grave a mere demarcation on parchment will be insufficient to save us.
Only the wisdom and virtue of some leaders can, in the end, remedy the lack of wisdom and virtue in others.