Retrospective on 2004

The year 2004 marked no milestone in the trajectory of America’s history. Nothing transpired comparable to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, or Pearl Harbor. The year confirmed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. To borrow from “A Tale of Two Cities,” 2004 was neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. Folly and wisdom, squalidness and courage, pettiness and statesmanship marched hand-in-glove on and off stage.

The United States stands at the pinnacle of power and wealth, like Rome at its zenith. But earmarks of decline are worrisome: glibness and celebrity rewarded more than learning and character; the eclipse of moral scruples; cultural drivel; and money and ostentation cherished as nine-tenths of life. If these deficiencies had blighted the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War would have shipwrecked and the Constitution would have aborted. If they had predominated in 1860, secession would have triumphed and slavery would have endured. If they had been ascendant in World War II, Operation Overlord would have faltered and the forces of dictatorship would have prevailed.

The United States enjoys pre-eminence today because of the intellectual, cultural and moral richness of the Founding Fathers. They applauded and esteemed the learned and wise because they were convinced knowledge will forever govern ignorance and that a people who hope to be both free and ignorant are pursuing a fool’s errand. An aristocracy of merit attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The 55 Convention delegates, steeped in political science and history, fashioned the greatest political charter in the history of civilization. It had checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, an independent judiciary to thwart legislative or executive abuses, limited government, protection of private property, and the Bill of Rights as a codicil.

James Madison, father of the Constitution, toiled over the history of federations and confederations, political philosophers, and human nature in preparation for the Convention. The Federalist Papers transfix with their penetrating and lucid deductions from history and literature in explaining the soundness of the Constitution’s architecture. George Washington, president of the Convention, admonished: “Let us set a standard to which the wise and honest may repair.” The Convention’s did not disappoint.

The Founding Fathers would have ridiculed the contemporary blather that all political opinions deserve equal deference — that the ill-informed are as worthy as the well-informed. They understood that political genius and statesmanship coupled with moral rectitude is the secret of national strength; and, that fools or amateurs would destroy the Constitution on the installment plan if they came to dominate the political stage.

Extraordinary brilliance and integrity laureled the nation’s early leaders, which substantiated the then cultural esteem bestowed on learning and prudence. George Washington’s sagacity and character were matchless. He disdained an opportunity for kingship. He preferred, like Cincinnatus, the role of public citizen. His Farewell Address glistens with statesmanship and shrewdness. He anticipated the Statue of Liberty in his first farewell to the Continental Army: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Washington’s Cabinet excelled the giants of Athens during its Golden Years: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton; Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; Attorney General Edmund Randolph; and Secretary of War Henry Knox. John Adams added luster as vice president. Washington confessed to a single fluttering of the heart during an adolescent weakness, but otherwise his character was spotless. As Stanley Weintraub recounts in General Washington’s Christmas Farewell: “A 19th-century visitor to the United States saw engravings and lithographs of Washington everywhere and observed, ‘Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints.’ ”

The first six presidents of the United States — until the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 — were uniformly scholarly and experienced in politics: Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, among others, gave intellectual prowess to Congress. John Marshall towered as chief justice, and Joseph Story as associate justice. Homage in America was showered on men of intellect, not on men of wealth. Ambition and achievement were acclaimed, idleness and mediocrity disparaged. The hero rather than the antihero was lionized and emulated.

Slavery and the subordination of women deeply marred the works of the Founding Fathers. But the rule of law and freedom of speech that they enshrined paved the way for the Civil War Amendments and equality of the sexes.

Contemporary America is like dross to the gold of its Founding years. National leaders are shockingly uneducated in the staples of their vocation — statesmanship, prudence, and human nature — suggesting that at least as regards the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been discredited.

Ask yourself, could any living politicians with unlimited time compose anything comparable to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Second Inaugural? And as regards character, no politician for generations has come within light years of Washington or Lincoln.

Children are taught complacency with mediocrity and jealousy of genius. Standards of achievement plunge to avoid psychological distress to the indolent. Moral distinctions among civilizations or religion are discouraged. To suggest the superiority of Beethoven over Britney Spears, or Rembrandt over Jackson Pollock is to invite an indictment for cultural snobbery.

If the United States continues to disdain and abandon the ideals and customs of its birth, then its death, like the Roman Empire, is simply a matter of time.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant at Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.

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