American history cannot help but to make one nostalgic; such were the dreams and hopes for a Republic. Today, (r)epublicans fight bitter ideological battles between Manhattan progressives of the Roosevelt and Taft variety and aristocratic neo-conservatives bred as bastards of a drunken tryst between Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
While the Jeffersonian utopia of agrarian Unitarianism, as well as Teddy Roosevelt’s dreams of rapid American colonialism, have been set aside for German philosophies and idealism – the modern varieties of Rationalist political philosophy born of Hegel and Kant – twisted through the racism and statism of Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, this modern incarnation of American political imagination seems ever more dull and nauseating.
While Rousseau’s vision died after the War of 1812, as Americans realized that Hamilton wasn’t the pompous ass we all thought him to be, a modern and somewhat French populism has reawakened like Smaug in the Lonely Mountain. Abraham Lincoln may have been the first and last Republican of the 19th century, remembered more for his liberation of slaves than his Whig upbringing. It wasn’t until Calvin Coolidge that we rediscovered that protestant ethic reminiscent of John and Abigail Adams.
Calvin Coolidge was common sense and Patrick Henry reborn.
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. – Calvin Coolidge
Coolidge, like Lincoln, desired racial equality and just equity between men. He brought virtue back to the White House; an antagonist of waste, of fraud, and of corruption. Calvin attacked no one, but appealed to the common sense and dignity of a nation that had not demonstrated they possessed either. They did of course. It took a President to recognize it.
President Coolidge was no libertarian, rejecting corporate and factory abuse wherever he found it; but neither was he a statist or an idealist, believing that a small, limited government best served the interests of the American People. With no idealism to hold him down and no ideological masters to impress, Coolidge was often restrained until corruption or graft or industrial greed provoked him to action.
Of course Coolidge, like Reagan, was a brief respite from our collective march toward corporate and federal “progress”. In truth, we’ve had only two such relaxing administrations. Yes, there have been lazy presidents, and their people may have been very much relieved; but they were not leaders capable of communicating to the American People a vision of themselves as sovereign. President Reagan had a way of experiencing American life with the American People and recounting that experience in ways that made us proud, even in our darkest moments.
I know, on occasion, that I am more pessimistic and stoic than most; but, if I am, it is because I have read about and listened to the greatest patriots and thinkers our nation has ever known. So, out of respect for them and an unwillingness to disparage their memory, I hold high standards for those that would call themselves “Republican”.
There was nothing about Lincoln, or Coolidge, or Reagan, which prevents the mere mortals of our age from aspiring to and attaining their virtue and common sense. This is not a more complicated time, nor is it more violent, more hazardous, or more frightening. In many ways, absent a civil war, absent the great powers of Europe staring each other down, and absent the daily threat of nuclear catastrophe, this is a simpler and easier time for all Americans.
I do not think it too great a reach to hope for leaders today, that would rival our great leaders of the past; nor do I expect it impossible to discover them. What I lament – what pierces my peace, my hope, and my levity – is that we no longer are brave enough to set our expectations so high. We rarely set them in the middle. Instead, we set our expectations as low as any common denominator, and complain, like school children, when we don’t get what we so undeservedly demand.