This tendency of leaders to disappoint is a reason why our young people have turned to sports and entertainment celebrities for their role models and why our civic discourse is so vicious right now. In recent decades, our political leaders have failed us so frequently (LBJ and lies about Vietnam, Nixon and lies about Watergate, Clinton and lies about sex, and on and on) that only rabid partisans praise them. Most citizens expect little good from our leaders, who live down to our expectations.
We have forgotten one important reality: any society that long endures must possess a deep roster of capable political leaders.
Possibly most current leaders compare poorly to their predecessors, but presumably some still are admirable. We have little practice praising them, though. The problem with living heroes is that they are still breathing, and they, therefore, still have ample opportunities to implode in endlessly inventive ways. No wonder we prefer to praise dead people. We think we know them, and they cannot screw up anymore.
Yet we need to praise our exemplars, or we will create a society in which all individuals, the young and old alike, struggle against the imperfections of human nature without high standards of human achievement to guide them away from egotism and amorality.
There is another way. We could praise political leaders whose achievements clearly benefit other citizens while still reserving the right to criticize them when they act poorly.
I’ll start this practice with Thaddeus Stevens, safely dead and almost forgotten until the recent Lincoln movie. Stevens lived for seventy-six years, and the man did not let the grass grow under his feet.
We might live better lives if we pondered the words that might be carved upon our tombstones. Stevens, the radical Republican abolitionist and congressional representative, wanted to argue for his principles even after he was dead.
“I repose in this quiet and secluded spot,” his tombstone reads, “Not from any natural preference for solitude / But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race by Charter Rules, / I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death / The Principles which I advocated / Through a long life / EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”
One measure of his quality is that while playing a key role in funding the Union war effort, by chairing the House’s Committee on Ways and Means while it successfully passed multiple tax increases, and abolishing slavery, by making fiery moral arguments and maneuvering ruthlessly, Stevens also advocated relentlessly for economic development in surprising ways. As biographer Hans Trefousse writes, “A firm adherent of what came to be called the ‘American System,’ [Stevens] believed in banks, internal improvements, and protection for native products.” A free-market theorist he was not; a capitalist committed to economic growth and jobs for American workers he was.
He also championed public education. Early in his career, while still a state representative in Pennsylvania, Stevens delivered a series of speeches over several years in defense of public education. Through these speeches, he helped to ensure the early adoption of sufficient funding for public education.
Delivered in March of 1838, one speech later was published as a book. “The degree of civilization and intellectual cultivation of every nation on earth may be ascertained, and accurately estimated, by the amount of encouragement which they give, not by individual contributions, for these only show private liberality, but by permanent laws to common schools and common education, and to the higher branches of knowledge,” Stevens said.
By “liberality,” Stevens means freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and equality of opportunity. For Stevens, providing good education was a necessary condition for creating a society that enabled upward mobility and defended freedom. You can find the full text in Google Books by searching for “Speech of Thaddeus Stevens, Esq. In Favor of the Bill to Establish a School of Arts.”
In the same speech, Stevens asserted, “I trust that political prejudice and party rancor will never be permitted to do permanent injustice to meritorious actions.” We have failed to meet that standard of civil excellence.
So let’s turn off MSNBC and Fox News, which are encouraging us to hold the most cynical understanding of political leaders; instead, read about Thaddeus Stevens and leaders who routinely reached so-called Grand Bargains.
My small city’s three largest libraries offer local residents a way to nourish this thinking. Both the Schewe Library and the Pfeiffer Library contain biographies about Stevens or books that include his most powerful speeches. Try Fawn Brodie’s Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South or Ralph Korngold’s Thaddeus Stevens: A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great. Do your local libraries still have these books on their shelves?
From Trefousse’s Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (available in the Jacksonville Public Library), you can learn that Stevens considered himself a failure late in life. Oh, my. Imagine the state of this nation if we had a thousand more of such failures—Democrats, Republicans, or whatever party suits you—in our federal and state houses.
George Orwell once wrote about Gandhi words that apply equally well to Thaddeus Stevens: “Regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”
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