Discussion of the larger framework of American politics and statesmanship
By Alan Keyes
August 25th, 2001
I want to step back this week from the particular controversies about issues like stem-cell research and affirmative action in order to discuss the larger framework of American politics and statesmanship. We would all agree that the quality we should seek above all in our leaders is wisdom. And if "it takes one to know one," ordinary citizens themselves must have a notion of what wisdom looks like and how to recognize it. What is political wisdom? And more specifically, what is political wisdom in America?
That last distinction may seem a curious addition. American wisdom? Why not North American wisdom, or Ohio wisdom, for that matter? Is there such a thing as "American political wisdom"?
Perhaps, finally, wisdom does not come in geographical flavors. But American political leaders and citizens are in a unique situation as they seek to be wise in their public lives. The American republic is unique in human history because it was self-consciously founded on a clear set of political principles principles which issued from the reflections of philosophers and the prayerful study of God's word by believers, extending over centuries.
From the lofty and universal proclamations of the Declaration of Independence, to the particular and minute tweakings of political process which occupied much of the Constitutional Convention and the minds of the authors of the "Federalist Papers," the political thought of the American founding took the form of argument from principle and toward practical conclusion. In America, from the beginning, political action has always been expected to give an account of itself by way of an argument from first principles.
We perhaps do not enough notice or appreciate this expectation in ourselves. And yet, it is at the absolute heart of our political order. We are a democratic republic because we believe all men are, by nature, capable of participating in a rational and, hence, free way in the conduct of their own affairs. Consent of the governed is necessary because we believe God has made all men equal in the dignity of that rational nature. Denying to our fellow men equal standing in the conduct of government is unjust not because it violates some generic sense of "fair play to similar creatures," on which principle we might be as troubled by the different treatment of two pieces of granite or two horses as by different treatment of two men. It is not because men are created with the same nature that all must be acknowledged as equal in political right, but because that nature is rational, and is equal, wherever it is found, precisely in the dignity of a being created to seek, love and find the God that made him.
So that's why we argue about politics in America, and why we should take care to do it well. It is our vocation. And because it is our vocation, American citizens are more providentially positioned to seek political wisdom than our less fortunate brethren who, to greater or lesser degrees, still languish in regimes that are not explicitly and originally dedicated to making political wisdom take flesh through self-government and the discourse that makes it possible.
And yet, there is a problem a frustration with principled political argument. It is said that political reasoning seeking to base practical decisions on the solid rock of political principle is rigid, and unable to compromise. This is a serious challenge, and not to be taken lightly, In fact, however, I believe that American political wisdom can reach, has reached, its perfection precisely in facing it.
Abraham Lincoln reached that perfection. And his words and deeds endure as the almost allegorical fullness of the unity of principle and prudence in American statesmanship. I want to highlight what I believe are the chief characteristics of that statesmanship, as an aid to those who are seeking to cooperate in the service of wisdom in American political life today.
First, it is no part of political wisdom to eschew all compromise on policy. Lincoln believed slavery to be as wrong as a deed can be. And yet, he was not an abolitionist, believing that the compromises of the founding, including the "right" of states to make slavery legal, had to be respected. This is not to say he was content with the existence of slavery but, rather, understood that sometimes circumstances make impractical the immediate accomplishment of the whole of justice. In such circumstances, patience becomes a crucial part of wisdom. Lincoln's repeated profession that he had no inclination to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed manifested his wise patience, his willingness for the Republic to bide its time, when necessary, in order that justice might ultimately be accomplished without abandonment of the fundamental principle of the consent of the governed. Political wisdom is patient.
Patient, but vigilant. Above all, it consists in faithfully comparing the circumstances and choices of the moment to the eternal principles against which, finally, everything must be measured. Sometimes, perhaps often, such reflection will reveal that all we can do is state the principled goal which we cannot, for now, effectively pursue. At such moments especially at such moments we must not fail to speak the truth of principle. Be vigilant, speak the truth of principle, and then do what you can in its service. This is wisdom.
Stephen Douglas was willing to state that he "didn't care whether slavery is voted up or voted down." He may have thought that this "great doctrine of popular sovereignty" regarding slavery in the territories would lead to a free-state majority. But such a policy, Lincoln knew, would kill the love of justice in the people, an incalculably worse disaster for the Republic than a shift in one direction or the other of the mere demographics of servitude. Lincoln's position was to make very clear what was right and what was wrong. And when he had made that principle very clear, and re-established the basic principle on which the country must approach the issue, he would go on to talk about strategic toleration of the evil in order that the fundamental good of the Republic could be preserved. But he would not allow the wellspring of freedom, the principle that, finally, we do care whether justice be voted up or down, to be poisoned by public and official neutrality on that issue. He knew that no temporary progress would matter if the nation abandoned the pursuit of justice, for it would mean that the Republic had already died.
Wise statesmanship consists in being clear about principles and then, if necessary, compromising with the facts. The statesman must always be first a teacher. He must understand that, whatever the practical impediments to justice presented by the circumstances of the day, the ultimate goal of justice must remain the guiding star of the people. Stephen Douglas, for all his intelligence, represented the mortal enemy of such statesmanship, because he thought it would be best if the issue of slavery would simply disappear.
Douglas's failure to stand with principle is sad because the great issues of principle, and the challenges that arise from them, are also the great moments of opportunity for the American heart. Declaration issues slavery, abortion are moments in which we can make more profound our understanding of what we are supposed to be as a people. They are great moments for education for the ennobling and uplifting of this people, so we can understand once again what we are, and what we are about, transcends dollars and cents the grubby materialism that is always on offer and reaches up to the highest goals, the highest principles, the best aspirations of humanity.
Why do we run from such issues? They may be daunting and they may be difficult. But in them also lie the greatest inspirations, the greatest motivations, the greatest sense of challenge for a great people. We are such a great people. And wise leadership will not shrink from the moments of opportunity for our greatness, but grasp them, so we can understand our future with the wisdom necessary to make it real.
Originally published at WorldNetDaily.