“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Sadly, those words possess a timeless quality. Still, it seems that some ages are particularly trying; furthermore, to quote Alexander Hamilton, after “making the proper deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature,” it seems some periods of history are extraordinary in their depravity.
Even if our present age is not one of those extraordinary times, to many of us it seems that way, and that ought to concern us enough. The catalogue of our misfortunes alarms: declining levels of trust; an increasingly sclerotic and ineffective government that, oddly enough, generates higher and higher levels of partisan competition for the control of it; an inability to find common ground; a corrupted media environment; the enervating of our social institutions; increasing rates of crime, mental illness, and drug use — we could continue the list.
Not satisfied with identifying the symptoms of our disorder, we must inquire also into the causes if we have any hope of providing a proper cure. Sadly, one sign of our disorder is our inability to agree on the causes, in part because we can’t even agree on the symptoms. This bedeviling problem was already observed by James Madison in Federalist Paper #38, wherein he compares the body politic to a sick patient who, in seeking a cure, must evaluate “the characters of different physicians” and call upon those “he judges most capable of administering relief, and best entitled to his confidence.” Surely part of our problem is that we have limited capacity for such evaluation and judging, and as a result we often end with “leaders,” if they can be called that, who, in the words of Hamilton, possess little more than “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”
Our republic desperately needs leaders not in possession of such talents and arts, but who instead display “other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish [this person] in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.” Even in our darkest times and most disputatious moments, Hamilton believed, there remains “a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence; and experience justifies the theory.”
Which is to say that one capable of bringing the relief we crave must be in possession of the virtues—moral, intellectual, spiritual, and civic—that “republican government presupposes the existence of … in a higher degree than any other form.” This person, in turn, can model to the rest of the community not only what it means to live life well, but to form the kinds of community where such living can take place. The guiding hand of providence may within our dark times grant us our portion of virtue by drawing out from within our midst a leader “best entitled” to such confidence.
Outside the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum stands a statue of the 38th President, and the pedestal bears the words of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, “God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford — the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.” Ford was exactly the kind of person of virtue and honor who could restore esteem and confidence to the broken institution of the presidency.
The Ford Leadership Forum will build on President Ford’s legacy: restoring the health of the body politic through the cultivation of virtue. Without the tonic of virtue, the body will get weaker and weaker; but virtue is a hard regimen, and often the patient will avoid taking the one thing that can cure it, determining the demands too arduous. But if we know anything about the fixes we get in, it’s this: there are no easy ways out. Just as a $30 trillion debt will require diet and exercise to trim, so too will any effort to strengthen our polity.
The Platonic dialogues all deal in a basic truth: political debate concerns itself primarily with the rising generation. While we at the Forum seek to serve our nation in general and more immediate political communities in particular, our emphasis is on cultivating the virtues in our youth. We will do this through a series of educational and mentoring programs specifically designed to get young people to understand and engage the obligations and opportunities of public life.
This website itself is the third leg of our programmatic stool: to supplement, through a series of essays, our understanding of the relationship between virtue and civic life. This requires, of course, an understanding of what virtue is, what the various virtues are, how they are to be exercised, and how we can form our character in such a way as to be habituated to virtue.
Our 38th President was indisputably a man of high moral character: unimpeachable integrity and honesty, prudential decision-making, an ability to form friendships with people with whom he disagreed, an ability to see politics in its proper proportions, self-restraint, the willingness to put aside his own interests to serve the larger community, and consistently demonstrating the underappreciated value of basic human decency. Americans should insist on nothing less from their leaders, and we need to remember that the primary way we learn to tell right from wrong is through imitating model figures.
Our goal is to impress upon the public the need for virtue-anchored leadership and to support the institutions of civic life vital to cultivating those virtues. We are not a policy institute or a partisan actor. Instead, in this forum, we will publish thought-provoking and significant essays that contribute to the formation of a virtuous republic.
- Can the public agree on anyone “best entitled to our confidence” in properly identifying the sources of our problems?
- Even if we could find someone who could both diagnosis the problem and provide the possibility of a cure, would the public be willing to take its medicine? What role does rhetoric play in this?
- What qualities would the public need in order to be capable of such evaluation?