In 1776 Americans declared themselves independent of more than arbitrary rule by a distant monarch. They also severed the ties of aristocracy. This was in itself a revolutionary notion.
It meant that political power, its attendant privilege and economic advantages would no longer be transferred by the blood. Earldoms, dukedoms, and kingdoms were banished from the territory and from the future of the American people. The citizen became the self-identifying unit of self-rule.
The generation of English colonists who gathered together in the summer of 1776 to declare their independence from the English crown knew that they had exhausted all other remedies. They had petitioned, beseeched, and protested. Finally, they had resisted with force of arms at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Their declaration of independence was the last resort, the last redoubt, the final refuge. As we say today, they were putting it all on the line.
They were breaking not just with monarchy, but with hereditary aristocracy as well. From that day forward, July 4th, 1776, the destiny of no American would be defined or limited by the circumstances of his birth. Dukes, earls, princes, knights — all were swept away. Political power would no longer be the dominion of a select few families, to be passed from one generation to the next.
As with the other Founders, Adams and Jefferson shared an abhorrence for what they called the “tinsel aristocracy” of the Old World. They were glad that America had been spared the baneful influence of a corrupt, hereditary nobility.
While recognizing that the abolition of the hereditary rights of primogeniture and the prohibition of titles of nobility precluded certain kinds of officially sanctioned aristocracy, Adams insisted that such measures could not in themselves preclude the re-emergence of aristocracy in some other, perhaps more insidious, form.
He argued that aristocracy could renew itself as it had in the old world, by means of the accidental circumstances accruing from birth into a wealthy or renowned family.
Adams wrote, “I can never too often repeat that aristocracy is the monster to be chained…Bind aristocracy then with a double cord, shut him up in a cage from which, however, he may be let out to do good but never to do mischief.”
Adams insisted that “every government is an aristocracy in fact” and that it is imperative to guard against the greed, ambition, and tyranny of the aristocracy. He indicated the remedy: “The great secret to liberty is to limit [the aristocrats’] power and to control their passions. Rome and Britain have done it best.”
In a republic an informed electorate watches over all the branches. The “balance of government,” and with it liberty, is therein preserved. Thus the separation of powers, checks and balances; clearly delineated, limited and circumscribed powers ceded to the Federal Government, regular and frequent free elections – as Adams would say, “plucks the flower of republican safety from the nettle of aristocratic danger.”
Over time, indeed the passing of more than a century, the people of Britain, following their own path, without the total abolition of hereditary privilege, stripped this privilege of its political power.
Today the Royal family continues to enjoy great wealth, the continued ownership of extensive property which includes palaces and estates and a certain influence rooted in tradition, but zero political power. The queen cannot start a war, raise taxes, or, for that matter, even take sides in a political debate. She is the living embodiment of a heritage, a national community, an emblem and a country.
In recent years we in America have lived through a disturbing reversal of our concept of the citizen and our foundational rejection of the hereditary model.
Despite the fact that we are more than three hundred million strong, when it comes to political power, we seem intent on reestablishing the old hereditary aristocracy rejected, dismissed and dissolved by our ancestors.
Unlike the contemporary British model, with the Queen cozily ensconced in Buckingham Palace where she can do no harm, we Americans seem to be succumbing to the lure of a neo-aristocracy, one in which we endow our neo-aristocrats, our “royal families,” with full and unfettered political power and all that that entails.
When we elect a president we endow this person with immense power. For four to eight years this individual – this one solitary person – makes extensive political appointments across a wide range of powerful offices. These choices have lingering effects in the judiciary, law enforcement, national defense, and in bureaucracies too numerous to list here. This constitutes a vast network of patronage, favoritism, privilege, cronyism, and power.
Moreover, this influence extends beyond the particular president’s actual tenure in office – even beyond their lifetimes.
The Founders understood that power corrupts.
This thinking underlies and undergirds every decision they made in crafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Humans lust for power. It’s in their very nature. The Constitution checks this power, diffusing it away from individual persons and individual groups or factions. This is why it is so important to protect this document – and why it has been defended by great statesmen and heroic soldiers.
The generation which fought the Revolution, who endured the freezing winter at Valley Forge, the icy waters of the Delaware, the bloody fields of Saratoga, Trenton, Monmouth, and Yorktown, knew very well what they were fighting against – tyranny – and knew very well what they were fighting for – liberty.
In the 1940s a later generation sought to curb what they saw as an encroaching and ominous concentration of power in one person by limiting presidents to two terms. They realized, correctly, that no person, however talented, dedicated, or competent; however high-minded, inspired, or well connected; however popular or even beloved – no one person should be permitted to hold such massive and pervasive power for more than a limited time.
They understood, as hopefully we still understand, that we are just human beings, each and every one of us – and subject to the frailties, imperfections, excesses, and errors of all humans. Though some of us may sometimes forget it – we are not gods.
When the triumphant generals paraded with their legions through the streets of Rome, glorious astride their flower-strewn chariots, with the noise of the adoring throngs ringing in their ears, standing right behind them was a humble servant.
Amid the din of cheers and the screams of praise this servant whispered into the general’s ear, over and over and over again, lest he should be tempted even for a moment to be blinded by what he was seeing or deafened by what he was hearing with his own eyes and ears.
“Respice post te. Hominen te esse memento! Memento mori, memento mori.”
“Look behind you. Remember that you are a mortal. Remember that you too will die. That you too will die.”
I mean no disrespect to my fellow citizens who belong to the Kennedy, Bush, or Clinton families. I’m of the opinion that John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton are good men who endeavored to do their best for the country. In the cases of Kennedy and Bush, they are also war heroes. They deserve our admiration and respect.
My concern is not with their legacy. Historians in future generations will sort that out. My concern and my growing worry is that we are returning, by means of a meek acquiescence, to the aristocratic rule from which we liberated ourselves in 1776.
Is there a single day from which we are free of pundits, consultants, editorial writers, reporters, columnists, politicians, talking heads, or cable-TV hosts – the entire universe of sycophants, lackeys, hangers-on, and celebrants – gushing, giggling, gawking, and panting over the political prospects of a Hillary Clinton or a Jeb Bush?
And oh, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments that went on during the few short months without a Kennedy in the halls of Congress.
To this we’ve come. The fusion of celebrity, name ID, retail branding, and politics has returned us willy-nilly to the very political prison we fought to escape in the American war of independence — entrenched, hereditary, aristocratic political power.
We understand that wealth can be transferred from generation to generation. Americans by and large don’t have a problem with that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with leaving the fruits of your hard earned labors to your children.
But political power is something else again. Political power reaches into the privacy, the daily lives, the economic well-being, the health, safety, and freedom of every American. Political power is not the exclusive domain of a select few families, to be handed down from generation to generation.
Political power belongs to the people, to the citizens of the United States of America.
If Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush were to become president of the United States it would mean the power and influence of the presidency remained in the hands of the Clinton family for possibly sixteen years, and that’s not even counting the princess in waiting, Chelsea; and in the case of the Bush family, possibly twenty years, and that’s not counting the heir apparent, George Prescott Bush.
Have we devolved into a nation of bleating sheep, or screaming teenagers at an episode of American Idol? Can it be true that there are no other citizens in this great nation worthy of serving in the highest office of our land?
Is Mrs. Clinton truly the only woman? Is Mr. Bush truly the only man?
It is my hope that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush would in a moment of quiet patriotic introspection discover in themselves a generous humility that would cause them to realize that enough is enough.
They do have considerable talents and expertise, but so do millions of other Americans. They do work hard, but so do millions of other Americans. They are not “bad” people. But neither are millions of other Americans.
“Respice post te. Hominen te esse memento! Memento mori, memento mori.”
Alas, watching their careers, witnessing their scorching ambition, not as concealed as they may think, I doubt such self-restraint will be forthcoming from either Hillary or Jeb. Which leaves it to us, the American people, to reclaim our independence from hereditary aristocracy and to just say no.
The aristocratic power that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson warned us about is poised to have a coronation for either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush.
Their thousands of paid minions have been hard at work, preparing the ground and conditioning the people for their inevitable nominations. They want us to be already convinced that it’s a fait accompli and that there’s nothing we can do about it; that it’s just too late, that resistance is futile.
But really, let’s stop to think for a moment. Are Hillary and Jeb really entitled to the presidency because of a lucky accident of birth or a lucky accident of marriage? Would we ever have heard of them if their names were not Clinton or Bush?
Was Hillary Clinton a greater secretary of state than Kissinger or Baker or Albright? Was Jeb Bush a greater governor than Haley, Brown, or Rendell?
Are our presidents really to be anointed with scepter and crown and given the keys to the kingdom by media tycoons, beltway elites, K Street lobbyists, and Silicon Valley billionaires? Are we serfs to be ruled by this self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizing neo-aristocracy?
Recall John Adam’s admonition to posterity: “The great secret to liberty is to limit the aristocrats’ power and to control their passions.”
If July 4th meant anything in 1776, it meant that Americans would no longer be ruled by Tudors, Stuarts, or Hanoverians. And if July 4th means anything today, it means we will no longer be ruled by Clintons or Bushes.
We are either a free people or we are serfs. We can’t be both serf and free at the same time.
If the Democratic Party nominates Hillary Clinton or the Republican Party nominates Jeb Bush, they will be making a mockery of this day, a mockery of the declaration of independence and a mockery of the generation that founded our country 138 years ago.
It must never be forgotten that our liberty was born in tyranny. And that tyranny always fears liberty; fears the men and women who keep it alive in their hearts and minds.
July 4th is not just a day of celebration, though it is that. It’s not just a day of remembrance, though it is that too. It is moreover, a day of renewal; a day of re-dedication wherein liberty can be born again.
(John Adams references courtesy of Philip J. Costopoulos)