The Founders' View of Character and the Presidency

by Scott R. Stripling

During the presidential campaign of 1996, the issue of character and its importance to the presidency was raised. The hurly-burly of a presidential campaign, however, does not conduce to philosophical or theoretical thinking about good character and its relevance to the office of the presidency. But now that the passions and enthusiasm of the campaign have subsided, it may be useful to think about the nature of character, or, to use the older terms, moral and civic virtue, and its importance for the presidency. The purpose of this paper is, then, to see this issue in the light of the political wisdom of the Founders of the American regime, in the hope that their wisdom can guide us as citizens of a representative democracy.

The issue of virtue and the presidency must be viewed in the light of the more comprehensive issue of human nature. In the opinion of the Founders, the question of the best form of government cannot be separated from the question of human nature, for it is in human nature that government has its origin and purpose; and, the limits of human nature set limits to what may reasonably be expected from politics. Thus, in order to understand the proper relation of virtue or character to the presidency, one must first understand human nature as the foundation upon which our system of representative democracy was erected. One is then prepared to understand more clearly why those principles so familiar to us-separation of powers, checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and so forth-were institutionalized in our form of government. It is within this context that the relation of character and the presidency is best understood.

The Founders did not take for granted the opinion that democracy is the best form of government. Indeed, many of the earlier papers in The Federalist take seriously and directly confront the arguments and views of those who held that human nature is so unruly that only a fool or a madman would allow human beings to rule themselves. Even some of the Founders, including Publius (the pseudonym chosen by John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, the authors of The Federalist) were occasionally driven to wonder whether human beings can be sufficiently virtuous for self-rule. Today, we take for granted the superiority of liberal democracy to every other form of government; but the Founders did not, and it is important that we take seriously their reservations about the capacity of human nature for self-government. This reinforces our earlier observation that the issue of moral and civic virtue and the presidency must be viewed in the broader context of the capacity of human beings to govern themselves.

There are many passages one might quote from The Federalist which suggest that Publius had a rather melancholy view of human nature and the prospects for political stability and safety, much less happiness. One of the most famous of such passages occurs in Federalist 10, in which Publius discusses the greatest danger to republican government (and by this, he means a representative democracy), namely, the tyranny of a majority faction. By faction, Publius means "a number of citizens who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

It is important to note that what unites a number of citizens into a faction is a passion for something that either contravenes the rights of other citizens, or is potentially harmful to the permanent interests of the community. Factions tend to be made up of people who believe that their particular issue is so important that it is identical with the permanent interests of the community: to agree with them is to support the common good of the community, and to oppose them is to harm the common good. In Federalist 10, Publius raises and begins to answer the question, What is the best way to protect the rights of those in the minority against being tyrannized by those in the majority?

What Publius calls factions, we now call "special interest groups," and we often hear them decried by politicians and others as the enemies of the public interest. In particular, during political campaigns, candidates vow not to be obliged to special interests, but to serve the general interests of the people. To our surprise, however, Publius argues that, human nature being what it is, there will always be factions in popular government based on the principles of freedom and equality:

The latent causes of faction are...sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points...; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other description whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.

But the attempt to suppress factions, Publius argues, will jeopardize the very liberty that is necessary to the existence of democracy: if people are free, they will form factions. The only way to reduce the tendency of factions to cause mischief, argues Publius, is to allow and encourage their proliferation: the more factions there are, especially in a country as geographically extended and socially diverse as the United States, the less likely will be the danger of a combination of factions resulting in the tyranny of a majority faction. If there were only a few factions, it would be relatively easy for them to combine themselves into a majority; but if there are many, this will be difficult.

Publius identifies in human nature two roots, as it were, of the political problem posed by factions, namely, reason and self-interest. Our reason aims at what is universally true of all things; but our self-interest is concerned to preserve and care for one particular human being, namely, myself and what matters most to me. Because of these two faculties and their reciprocal influence upon one another, we human beings tend to think that what we care about most is what everyone else should care about most. So, when others disagree with us, we tend to take it personally, as though we had been done an injustice, and we become angry and indignant. It is this human tendency to identify our particular interest with the good of the whole community that is the source of factions, and thus of much political strife.

Furthermore, Publius argues, the disparity of talents for acquiring wealth, or the "diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests."

In a free society such as ours, the "first object" of government-but not necessarily the highest-is the protection of these faculties. One of the principal objects of government is to protect the right of each citizen freely to employ his talent for acquiring and keeping property as he sees fit, within the constraints of the law, of course. The natural disparity of such talents, however, coupled with the freedom to employ them, means that there will always be disparities of wealth: "From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results: and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties."

For these reasons, Publius concludes that the "latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man." As long as freedom exists, factions are inevitable: civil society will always be divided into groups of citizens, united by a shared passion for a particular opinion-or "ideology," as we now say-or by a common economic interest. And it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to persuade the citizens to put aside their private interests and devote themselves to serving the public good. Publius rejects as merely visionary any plan for civil government that depends upon reforming human nature for the purpose of eliminating factions and making all citizens devoted to the common good.

At this point, the reader will perhaps be moved to ask, If what Publius says about human nature is true, isn’t it better for government to be all-powerful and tyrannical so that public order and safety can be maintained? Does not man’s passionate attachment to his self-interest and subordination of his reasoning powers to his merely private concerns make it impossible for him to acquire and exhibit the kind of self-transcending dedication to the common good that is necessary for republican government?

Publius obviously does not draw this conclusion. There are two great considerations that prevent his doing so, namely, certain recent discoveries of political science; and the existence in human beings of certain estimable qualities, which make possible those virtues without which self-government would be impossible.

Concerning the first, Publius writes in Federalist 9:

The science of politics like most other sciences has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments-the introduction of legislative balances and checks-the institution of courts composed of judges, holding their offices during good behavior-the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election-these are either wholly new discoveries or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellencies of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.

These institutional structures are designed to distribute political power into many different hands, as well as to enlist the self-interest and ambition of politicians in their defense, and thus in defense of the common good. Because of the principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances, each branch may jealously guard its powers and interests, while exerting some control over the other two branches. For example, a president, merely from ambition and self-interest, may defend the constitutional prerogatives of the executive branch against encroachment by certain decisions of the Supreme Court; but despite this "defect of better motives," as Publius calls it, the public interest is served precisely insofar as those constitutional prerogatives are upheld.

Concerning the need for civic virtue, in Federalist 51, Publius asserts:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

The importance of the italicized sentence for the thought of the Founders cannot be overstated: if we are to govern ourselves-that is, if we are both to govern and to be governed-we cannot rely merely upon pieces of paper and government institutions to protect our rights. These are of little effect without certain civic virtues, the virtues of the citizen. Absent these virtues, government of and by the people is not possible:

Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

Thus, Publius argues that self-government is possible and indeed desirable, but only under certain conditions. The two most important conditions are properly structured governing institutions and a virtuous people. Government is structured properly when it conforms to the great principles newly discovered by political science: checks and balances, separation of powers, the scheme of representation, the division of political authority between the national and state governments, and the like. These structures divide political power so as to make unlikely the concentration of too much power in one person or office, and to make government responsive to the will of the people, as contrasted with the immediate expression of every caprice and passion of the people. They also enlist the self-interest of the elected representative in the support of those very constitutional structures that are intended to secure our rights.

Proper structure must be supplemented, however, with moral and civic virtue. Without the virtues of self-restraint and public spiritedness in particular, free government, no matter how well structured, would be impossible. As Publius states, virtue is especially critical in a civil society dedicated to securing individual rights, as ours is. Without self-restraint, dedication to securing individual rights can easily be transformed into a sanction for self-indulgence and selfishness, to the detriment of our fellow citizens.

Furthermore, without public spiritedness, how can the people have the resolve and selfless dedication necessary to defend their homeland against aggressors, or dedicate themselves to any other great public work?

George Washington substantially agreed with Publius regarding the fragility of republican government and its dependence upon the virtues that enable us to transcend our self-love; but consider the following passage, which describes his concern with the chaotic state of the country under the Articles of Confederation, as a particularly felicitous expression of Washington’s thoughts on civic virtue and republican government:

I think there is more wickedness than ignorance mixed in our councils. Ignorance and design are difficult to combat—to be so fallen! So lost! Virtue, I fear, has in a great degree taken its departure from our land and the want of a disposition to do justice is the source of the national embarrassments; for, whatever guise or colorings are given to them, this I apprehend is the origin of the evils we now feel.1

That Washington entirely agreed with Publius on the indispensability of moral and civic virtue (in particular, as Washington’s own character and deeds showed, the virtue of self-restraint), may also be seen from many of his public remarks. In the Farewell Address, for example, he asserts that it is "substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." In the First Inaugural Address, he states that "there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity."

Furthermore, as Washington wrote to a friend in January, 1795, "republicanism is not the phantom of a deluded imagination: on the contrary, under no form of government, will laws be better supported, liberty and property better secured, or happiness be more effectually dispensed to mankind; but the form of government must be supported by a virtuous citizenry." (italics added)2

Turning to the specific issue of moral and civic virtue and the presidency, we begin by observing that it would indeed be an anomaly if the Founders were to insist on the necessity of public virtue for popular government, without also insisting on the necessity of virtue in the representatives of the people. This possibility is explicitly repudiated by Publius in Federalist 57: "The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust."

But what are the virtues that pertain specifically to the president? Publius says that, whereas it is the work of the legislative branch to deliberate--that is, to consider what laws should be passed--and of the judicial branch to judge whether laws or actions conform to the Constitution, it is the work of the executive branch to carry out the will of the people, as expressed in acts of legislation, or as required by political necessities, such as domestic disasters, or foreign attack. Accordingly, the president acts in behalf of all the people for their common good. "Talents for low intrigue," writes Publius in Federalist 68, "and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States."

Thus, the president must have those qualities-dedication to the public good, for example-that earn the "esteem and confidence of the whole union."

A second quality Publius discusses is energy: "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government."3 By energy, Publius means vigor in executing the will of the people: "It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks: It is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws, to the protection of property against those irregular and high handed combinations, which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice, to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy." Thus, the president must transcend partisan interests in favor of the common good, so as "to conciliate the confidence of the people and to secure their privileges and interests." The president must be decisive: it is well for the legislature to be deliberate and slow, so as to avoid haste and unwise decisions. But the president must be capable of acting with certainty of purpose and dispatch; and he must display the kind of self-restraint worthy of one who bears the public trust.

Furthermore, the possibility of representation as that term was understood by the Founders requires a kind of virtue in the representatives as well as in the represented. This appears to be particularly true of the president. In Federalist 71, Publius asserts:

There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature, as its best recommendation. But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted. The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.

To put Publius’s point in a slightly different way, we must distinguish between the consent of the governed and the "needs" of the governed. Today we are used to hearing it said that government exists to fulfill our needs, whatever they might happen to be at the moment. And, candidates for office now often commend themselves to the voters as being "more responsive" to their needs. Publius clearly rejects this view: the public happiness or common good is not promoted by putting sycophants and "yes men" into the White House. The consent of the governed is to be distinguished from the momentary consensus or sentiment of the governed; and one of the virtues of the President is a kind of discernment, a quality that enables him to distinguish the one from the other. The great demand placed upon the President is that he be ever mindful of the momentary sentiments of the people, for they place a limit upon the good that can be achieved through political means. But he must also seek to mold public sentiment so that it conforms to those conclusions that would be reached by calm deliberation devoid of passion and interest, in behalf of the public good.

The President of the United States is not a "public servant," if we take that phrase literally. He does not serve at "the pleasure of the people."4 It is particularly important to note Publius’s assertion that the republican principle—and here he appears to be speaking of the "scheme of representation," which allows for the extended as contrasted with the small republic—demands that the "deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct" of the elected representatives of the people. It does not, however, bind the president to serve the transient caprices and whims of the people. It is the duty of the president to represent the "deliberate sense of the community," that is, the consensus that would be reached by the people after due consideration of a matter in the light of our founding principles.

Publius continues by asserting:

It is a just observation that the people commonly intend the public good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.5

That is, the errors of the people are not commonly due to a depreciation of or disregard for the public good, or to a consideration of merely private interests: the common good is not identical with the simple arithmetic sum of all private interests. This is particularly apparent when the people themselves participate in public deliberations affecting the common good, for example, in town meetings or when serving on a jury.

Furthermore, the people, says Publius, do not seek a president who "should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting" the common good. There is among the people generally broad agreement about the ends or principles that make up the common good. Thus, not ends but means are commonly the object of public deliberation.6 Now the public are for the most part not well informed regarding the means available for carrying out the public will. It is the job of their representatives to know these things, and the people thus put their trust in their elected representatives to be informed about them. The Chief Executive of the nation is not, therefore, obliged merely to execute or carry out the will of the people; he is rather bound to act in the best interests of the people, being guided by those great founding principles, liberty and equality, as well as by the Constitution and the laws of the United States. In carrying out his duties of executing the law of the land, the President must always be guided by the ends or purposes that make up the common good; and he must chose those means that are commensurate with the common good.

It is particularly instructive to read Washington’s comments upon "public approval ratings," at a time when politicians seem to "govern" merely according to polls, which can be said to reflect the desires, passions, and interests of a small segment of the people only at a given time, Concerning the themes of public approbation and censure, and virtue and popularity, Washington wrote that "nothing in human life, can afford a liberal mind, more rational and exquisite satisfaction, than the approbation of a wise, a great and virtuous man."7 That is, not the approbation of the people, but the approbation of the wise, is the source of his satisfaction.

In another letter, Washington wrote: "In times of turbulence, when the passions are afloat, calm reason is swallowed up in the extremes to which measures are attempted to be carried; but when those subside and the empire of it is resumed, the man who acts from principle, who pursues the paths of truth, moderation, and justice, will regain his influence."8 And, writing to Henry Lee in 1788, Washington stated: "Though I prize, as I ought, the good opinion of my fellow citizens; yet, if I know myself, I would not seek or retain popularity at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue."9 We stated above the importance for republican government of the virtues of self-restraint and public spiritedness. Here we have a clear statement of how the two are connected. Washington’s self-restraint regarding popularity is motivated by his honorable determination to be bound by "social duty," that is by what we have been calling civic virtue; as well as by moral virtue, that is, by those qualities of character that govern one’s passions and actions, for example, self-restraint in regard to anger or appetite.

We may conclude, then, that, according to the Founders, character in the office of President matters profoundly. It matters precisely because we have consented to be governed by representatives whose public duty it is to represent our best interests as a people, or what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."


1 From a letter from Washington to John Jay, May 18, 1786. Quoted in The Life of John Marshall, Albert J. Beveridge, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1919, vol. I, p. 307.

2 Maxims of George Washington: Political, Military, Social, Moral, and Religious, collected and arranged by John Frederick Schroeder, DD, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Mount Vernon, Virginia, 1989, p. 5. Hereafter referred to as Maxims.

3 Federalist 70.

4 One might contrast this view of the presidency with that implied by the current dependence of the two major political parties on polls and "focus groups" in presidential campaigns. One wonders what would happen if a presidential candidate were to say: "These are my principles and this is what I stand for as good for the country. If you agree with me, then vote for me; if not, vote for the other candidate."

5 Federalist 71; italics added.

6 For example, neither side in the debate over welfare argues that charity towards others or, as we now mistakenly say, "compassion," is bad for the community. The debate is rather about the means by which charity may be best administered, namely, whether by the federal government or by private institutions.

7 Maxims, p. 144. Taken from a letter to Sarah Bache, January 15, 1781.

8 ibid., p. 145. From a letter to John Luzac, December 2, 1797.

9 loc. cit. From a letter to Henry Lee, September 22, 1788.

Scott R. Stripling retired recently from the National Center for America's Founding Documents at Boston University's School of Education, where he served as director. His book, George Washington: Father and Teacher of His Country, will be published in 1998.

Copyright The Claremont Institute. Used by permission.