The people have chosen their electors, and the electors shall choose Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. For many, it is a woeful prospect: abortion, embryonic stem cells, cloning, the fate of Israel, the danger to free speech, activist judicial appointments, the loss of economic freedom, the weakening of the military, the threat of terrorism. In such a parlous mood, we should pause and repair to Madison, the Madison of Publius. Men are not angels, and angels do not govern men, he counseled. Against that reality, the republic was erected.
The Presidency has been peopled by fools and knaves, as well as by heroes and more ordinary men. Many of the less worthy, or those who did less worthy things, were carried by waves of adulation. At the height of his popularity, John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson sought a one party state, assisted by his aide James Madison, the erstwhile defender of checks and balances. And in his ultimate quest, Jefferson largely succeeded—for a while. Jefferson’s embargo of 1807 beggared the country and had no benefit to our foreign relations. He attempted to raise 30,000 troops, not to battle Britain, but to enforce the Embargo Act against the American people, but Congress said no. For his part, James Madison, when president, blundered into an unnecessary and nearly calamitous war with Great Britain.
The wildly popular Andrew Jackson destroyed the bank that anchored the American monetary system, and proudly proclaimed his success in cleansing the eastern United States of Indians, showing no regret for the thousands who died on their trek as forced refugees. During his tenure, Jackson’s manner and favoritism reduced the Presidency to its meanest state. No President from Jackson until Lincoln did anything to stem the growing plight of the slave. In fact, they were often complicit in giving political and legal cover to the practice (as, of course, was the Congress).
Andrew Johnson’s presidency was founded on the touchstone of personal bigotry, while, in contrast, Grant chose duty over bigotry to enforce laws designed to protect the freed slave. In his first term, Franklin Roosevelt established a regime of executive dictatorship over the American economy that had never been seen, nor experienced afterwards. He later, by executive order, deprived thousands of American citizens of their liberty and their property. Richard Nixon’s cynical manipulation of the office to enhance his personal power brought him deserved ignominy.
We have had Presidents who were inept or incompetent: Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan—a remarkable run when you think of it—Harding and Carter. And those that were venal: Jackson, Nixon, Clinton.
It seems that but once a century, we throw up a real hero—Washington, Lincoln, Reagan—which should give us pause before we hanker after another. The Framers designed a government where a free people could be protected against their own flawed enthusiasms. It has not worked in all cases. Yet the republic has managed to close most of these democratically self-inflicted wounds, albeit with some scars. This election saw one wound closed. A black man, heir to the efforts of Lincoln and Grant, shall be President.
In January, the four-year miracle will again take place. One president, at the direction of the people, will witness the transfer of power to another. It should remind us that our republic and our Constitution give us the means to resist, deflect, or even convert bad executive policies and bad executives.
The times ahead may well be difficult. But we are not cast adrift. The republic still stands.
David Forte is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. He is Senior Visiting Scholar at the Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.