Keep the Faith

Paul Greenberg

9/2/2011 2:31:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Once this infant republic styled the United States of America adopted a new constitution, all would be well. With a single, energetic executive to lead the way, our borders would be secure, our trade protected, our flag respected. A president and commander-in-chief would give the country what it desperately needed: energy in the executive.

Alexander Hamilton explained it in Federalist Paper No. 70 ("The energy of the executive is the bulwark of the national security..."), and so long as the president was George Washington, his thesis would prove perfectly sound, even prophetic. The young republic had finally got a strong hand on the tiller in its first president.

Trusted by all, the old general could solicit the most diametrically opposed counsel -- from Hamilton on one side, Jefferson on the other -- and steer a statesmanlike course between them.

Indeed, the new Constitution had been framed with Washington as the model for its chief executive. And he lived up to expectations. He could withstand outbursts of public reaction against those of his decisions that were as unpopular as they were necessary at the time. For example, Jay's Treaty sealing the peace with Great Britain even at a time of nationalist fervor when anti-British feelings still ran strong.

At home, he put down the Whisky Rebellion against the new excises on that popular commodity. He acted decisively yet mercifully, pardoning all once the rebellion was over and order restored.

Washington remained steadfast throughout, exercising a constancy of purpose that served him and his country well, as it always did.

But once Washington and his generation were gone, the Constitution proved a less than perfect guard against the passions of the multitudes. For no system can be any better than those who are in charge of it. Not even the Constitution of the United States, our political bible.

By the time Alexis de Tocqueville was writing his study of "Democracy in America," our French visitor was wondering whether a democracy like ours, or any democracy, was capable of framing and following a coherent foreign policy.

Tocqueville did not deny that a democracy might handle domestic affairs well enough, even superbly. His admiration for this new species called Americans was almost unbounded in that respect. But the conduct of foreign affairs, he argued, required quite different capacities:

"Foreign politics demands scarcely any of the qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient (for) a democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience."

Tocqueville was right about many things, which is why the student of American politics, government and society in general would do well to re-read "Democracy in America" at least once a year. For example, he foresaw how slavery would make civil war inevitable, and threaten the Union itself. He foretold the cruel extirpation of the American Indian, and even the confrontation with Russia in a then distant future.

But our French friend and well-wisher put too much emphasis on the political structure of the American system -- its advantages and disadvantages, its potential and its limits -- and not enough on the quality and character of those at the head of it, which can make all the difference. Personnel is still policy.

For reasons hard to explain except by a providential grace, at just those moments when the country required a great leader, one would emerge out of the usual swirl of passions and parties that mark a democracy, and set a new course for the ship of state safely past the shoals ahead -- a Washington, a Lincoln, a Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Each made all the difference.

Now, once again, in both foreign and domestic affairs, the Republic drifts. Surely not even the most confirmed of Pollyannas would see any great constancy of purpose in the largely ad hoc maneuvers of the Republic's leaders today. But those of us who live by faith have come to expect grace -- indeed, to depend on it. Maybe that's why we wait confidently, expectantly, for the morrow. Keep the faith.