Now that we’re about to decide the White House’s next occupant, let’s speculate about how previous presidents might fare were they standing for election in today’s America. What would be the presidential prospects of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, our third and fourth presidents? Here’s my bet: They’d go down in an unprecedented landslide defeat. I could see the likes of a Joseph Stalin or a Mao Zedong winning long before a Jefferson or Madison. Let’s look at it.
In 1792, Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees. James Madison wrote disapprovingly, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Even though our Constitution hasn’t been amended to authorize Congress to spend on the objects of benevolence, I can’t imagine today’s Americans electing a president who’d share Madison’s view. Such a candidate would be labeled mean-spirited, racist, sexist and homophobic.
Today’s politicians might argue that Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, is all wrong. They’d say spending on the objects of benevolence (legalized theft) is authorized by the Constitution’s “promote the general welfare” clause. James Madison spoke to that argument saying, “With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers (enumerated in the Constitution) connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
Today’s Americans wouldn’t elect Thomas Jefferson, either. He’d be labeled an extremist and a gun nut. Jefferson warned, “The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.” Today, he’d be referring to the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and federal regulatory agencies. Because of elite proclivities, Thomas Jefferson urged: “No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” Jefferson wasn’t referring to just any old government; he was referring to the U.S. federal government.
Franklin Pierce, our 14th president, took actions that would be political suicide today. In 1854, he vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill saying, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity,” adding that to approve such spending “would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.”
In 1887, President Grover Cleveland, our 22nd and 24th president, said when vetoing an appropriation to help drought-stricken counties in Texas: “I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan to indulge in benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds. … I find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.”
Today’s politicians can’t be held fully responsible for our growing constitutional contempt. We might blame them for not being statesmen. The lion’s share of the blame rests with 270 million Americans. Our elected officials simply mirror our contempt for constitutional principles and our desire to live at the expense of our fellow American. It’s unreasonable to expect a congressman, or a president, to live up to his oath of office, to protect, defend and bear true allegiance to the Constitution, if doing that means political suicide.