Presidents now and then

Work and opportunity, for the most part, was accessible to virtually any who would seize it.

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

You never know what you might learn from encountering another culture.

It is when I walk the avenues of another nation and culture that I feel myself most “American.”

We as Americans have a unique relationship with authority. To put it mildly, we are not great fans of monarchs or dynasties.

It is “We the people” who decide, and set the tone for law and authority in America.

We have an electoral process that we value far more than any specific political party or candidate.

And we honor our presidents in ways other nations do not – and never would.

In China for example, the more respected the leader, the higher the value of the currency that holds their image. Chairman Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China is featured prominently on the highest bill. In the USA, in contrast, George Washington’s image is found, as he would have preferred it, on the one-dollar bill. And on the quarter. He saw himself as a man of the people, not one to pursue or hold onto power.

Another one of America’s most revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln, is on the lowest value coin of all – the penny. And the five-dollar bill.

It’s very deliberate. We don’t venerate our leaders in the ways other cultures do. We value their similarity to us – not their distance. Every kid could grow up to be president we told ourselves, and we meant it.

Our representatives literally represented us. They came from our schools and neighborhoods. And any of us could run for office. From school board to local or statewide office, or even more, we do.

We, for over two centuries have had what few nations have ever had – a peaceful transition of power – even by political parties with opposing values and beliefs.

We don’t always live up to our own ideals, but they still inspire us – and often those of other nations.

Just as we might encounter our “Americaness” most vividly when we are in foreign areas, foreigners see us in ways we never could.

Alexis de Tocqueville remains one of the most astute observers of America. Even though he was here in 1831, he saw clearly the major strands of the peculiar American character.

Here is one of his observations –

“unlike in the old societies of Europe, neither conquerors nor conquered were seen. It can be said in general, that, at their departure from the mother country, the emigrants had no idea whatsoever of any kind of superiority of some over others. It is hardly the happy and the powerful who go into exile, and poverty as well as misfortune are the best guarantees of equality that are known among men. It happened, however, that on several occasions great lords went to America following political or religious quarrels. Laws were made in order to establish a hierarchy of ranks there, but it was soon noticed that the American soil absolutely rejected territorial aristocracy.”

Work and opportunity, for the most part, was accessible to virtually any who would seize it.

America thrived on stories, real or fictional, of rags-to-riches experiences. Horatio Alger made his fortune by writing such stories.

Many cultures and legends featured such stories from Aladdin to Cinderella to Oliver Twist, but in America, we all believed, opportunity – and fortune – was, in a practical sense, available to all.

The “Protestant work ethic,” originating in New England set the northern states abuzz with industry.

The difference in attitude toward wealth and authority was very different in South America.

As de Tocqueville observed:

“At this time, Europe was still singularly preoccupied with the idea that mines of gold and silver constituted the wealth of peoples. This destructive idea has done more to impoverish the European nations that embraced it and, in America, has destroyed more men than war and all bad laws put together.”

They didn’t use the term income inequality back then, but America had income inequality almost hard-wired into its economy through the official adoption of slavery.

Slavery, as de Tocqueville put it, “dishonors work; into society, it introduces idleness, along with ignorance and pride, poverty and luxury. It enervates the forces of the mind and puts human activity to sleep.”

Slavery, as de Tocqueville could plainly see, did not reward or value those who worked, but instead idealized a life of power, control and leisure. In a state of institutionalized inequity, with slavery as its most extreme from, it was leisure and distraction, if not idleness, that were the implicit goals of life – not work or a sense of mastery of a craft or accomplishment of a project.

You can see very quickly how slavery/inequity was inherently corrosive to enslaved and enslaver alike. (Wendell Berry, a native of Kentucky, addresses this in his book The Hidden Wound).

At its core, the universal ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness stood in direct opposition to enslavement and traditional hierarchies.

America was not the land of kings or royalty or serfs and slaves; America was the land of the pursuit of opportunity. As we all know too well, the practical achievement of this destiny has been uneven at best.

When King George III heard the rumor of a voluntary, peaceful transfer of power, in the newly formed United States, he said that if George Washington actually did what he was saying, he would be “greatest man in the world.”

Peacefully, willingly giving up power was something, then and now, that was just not done on the world stage.

But George Washington did do it. And he did it humbly and graciously – and with many warnings to those who would follow. For the full text of George Washington’s farewell address look here:

Kings, then and now, held on to thrones to their last bitter dying breath. Kings were suspicious of almost everyone, even, or sometimes especially, family members.

Everyone, from servant to military officer, was required to swear loyalty to the king first and foremost. Every knee had to bow and every tongue confess that the king was the king. The alternative was to automatically be classified as the king’s enemy.

Those who lived under such systems were (and continue to be) subjects, NOT citizens.

What’s the difference you might ask?

As historian David Ramsay sums it up; “The difference is immense. Subject is derived from the Latin words, sub and jacio, and means one who is under the power of another; but a citizen is a unit of a mass of free people, who, collectively, possess sovereignty.

“Subjects look up to a master, but citizens are so far equal, that none have hereditary rights superior to others. Each citizen of a free state contains, within himself, by nature and the constitution, as much of the common sovereignty as another. In the eye of reason and philosophy, the political condition of citizens is more exalted than that of noblemen. Dukes and earls are the creatures of kings, and may be made by them at pleasure: but citizens possess in their own right original sovereignty.”

We used to call our representatives public servants – they were in fact hired by, paid by and subject to us.

And the Bible (Mark 9:35) reminds us that the greatest one is the servant of all.

Our political system, as flawed as it is, is a marvel to behold.

Our political leaders, for better or worse, are not so very far from any one of us.