by Michael P. Federici, Middle Tennessee State University
The American founders were acutely aware that human beings desire power. Like Lord Acton, they believed that power tends to have a corrupting effect on those not only who attain it but those who reach for it. Consequently, the Framers of the Constitution safeguarded power by creating an elaborate system of separated powers reinforced by checks and balances that existed within the rule of law. Yet the Framers knew that institutional structures and law were insufficient to restrain the ambitions of power-hungry leaders. In addition to institutional measures, the Framers relied on the virtue of self-restraint to tame power.
Two American customs that restrain the politically ambitious are modesty in seeking office and willingness to leave it. George Washington exemplified these virtues. Like many of the Founders’ generation, he was ambitious. His ambition, however, was tempered by his reticence to accept power. One of Washington’s recent biographers, Ron Chernow, notes that the “hallmark of Washington’s career was that he didn’t seek power but let it come to him”; he avoided any “show of unseemly ambition.” When he accepted the position of commander of American military forces during the War for Independence, he repeatedly expressed the notion that he was unequal to the post. He wrote to his wife Martha that it was “a trust too great for my capacity.” Joseph Ellis has called Washington’s reticence not a lie but an “essential fabrication.” He refused the temptation to be a military dictator offered by the Newburg conspiracy and resigned his military commission at the end of the war willingly and publicly. He was the obvious choice to be the nation’s first president, but he did not seek out or campaign for the office. He had to be persuaded to run for a second term, and while he could have served a third term, he refused and willingly returned to private life.
In a time closer to ours than the Framers’, Gerald Ford, serving as vice-president, revealed to Newsweek reporter Thomas M. DeFrank that he expected to become president. As soon as Ford uttered the sentiment, he said to DeFrank, “You did not hear that.” After a short conversation that included the vice president grabbing the journalist’s tie, Ford convinced DeFrank to keep the utterance a secret, to “Write it when I’m dead.” DeFrank was true to his word. The older reticence about revealing one’s ambitions for power was alive in Ford’s imagination and character.
Why veil the quest for power? Why forfeit it when it is well within one’s grasp?
The eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke understood that illusion was necessary to make “power gentle and obedience liberal.” It matters how we imagine politics at its best. Washington knew that he was ambitious, but he also knew that he should avoid being seen as such and should avoid being too ambitious. His reluctance to seek power and his willingness to give it up were virtues that kept him from becoming intoxicated with power. The custom of reticence was a way to inculcate restraint that does not come naturally to human beings.
Many contemporary politicians, beginning at least at the time of Gerald Ford’s faux pas, have lost sight of the importance to restrain the will to power. They lack the reticence that checks the tendency to overestimate one’s talents and the good that can be done with power. They forget Alexander Hamilton’s warning that a “fondness for power is implanted in most men, and it is natural to abuse it when acquired.” In short, they expect too much from themselves and from politics generally.
The reasons why contemporary American politics is hampered by self-conceit and exaggerated claims regarding the possibilities of politics is the loss of an older, sober view of human nature and politics that served as the philosophical foundation for eighteenth-century constitutional formation, a view that is apt to be disparaged in contemporary times as dark and pessimistic. The older conception of the human condition expressed by the American Framers was fading from American memory by the time Gerald Ford and Thomas M. DeFrank made their deal. Today its faint echo competes with contemporary views that base politics on enlightened and idealistic conceptions of humans and politics, views of politics that emphasize universal rights and the transforming possibilities of politics. There is little attention paid to what Cicero called moral duty. Older suspicions about human will and the corrupting effects of power are overshadowed by idealistic and utopian visions of life and politics. Institutional or character constraints on leaders are viewed as obstacles to progress because it is assumed that the more power political leaders have, the more good they can accomplish. By contrast, the Framers assumed that the more power rulers have, the greater their capacity for tyranny. For example, James Madison’s Federalist 47 defines tyranny as the concentration of power in the hands of the one, the few, or the many.
Americans need to reimagine politics to understand the Framers’ constitutional system and conduct themselves appropriately within it. A good starting point is to study the reasons why eighteenth-century leaders were reticent to appear anxious about holding power. The self-discipline required to veil ambition was a starting point for developing the character necessary to exercise power in a sober way—within the rule of law and confines of constitutional checks and balances—that directed it to the public good and not self-interest. The willingness to let power go, before leaders are forced by circumstances to do so, is a lost virtue that we do well to rediscover and emulate. Central political virtues need to be more than faint echoes if America is to produce better statesmen.
Michael Federici is Professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University and chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations. He also serves as a Senior Fellow at The Center for the Study of Statesmanship.
Burke, Edmund. Reflection on the Revolution in France. Edited by J.G.A Pocock. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett: 1987.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. On Duties. Edited by M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins. Translated by M. T. Griffin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
DeFrank, Thomas M. Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, James Madison. The Federalist. (The Gideon Edition). Edited by George Carey and James McClellan. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Edited by Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.
- How did Washington’s conduct in office shape expectations for all future presidents? Why did those expectations get scuttled?
- How often do you hear people talk about “self-restraint”? Why do we seem more interested in self-expression than self-restraint?
- What other mechanisms are in place to curb ambition? Why did the framers of our Constitution seem so concerned about ambition?