Last November, for the 116th time since the Constitution was ratified in 1788, Americans across the country participated in congressional elections. It’s a remarkable tradition. Whatever the nation’s setbacks, challenges, emergencies, and shortcomings, biannually, for 230 years, we’ve had the chance to answer the question “who should lead?”
It’s a question that our founders emphasized. James Madison wrote that “The aim of every 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.”
Those lines are from number 57 of the 85 Federalist Papers, a series of essays published by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1788 under the pen name Publius. Their purpose was to convince all the states—but especially New York—to ratify the Constitution.
The Federalist, as the collection of essays is commonly known, also contains within it the most coherent theory of political leadership that exists in the American canon—and even then, we’re forced to read between the lines. If elections are our chance to answer the question “who should lead,” then the Federalist is the closest thing we have to a guide for “what should we expect of a leader?”
It’s not surprising that a nation founded on its opposition to a king would have a skeptical view of leaders and take a subtle approach to the idea of leadership.
While selecting virtuous rulers was supposed to be “the aim of every constitution,” as Madison put it, what made our founders unique is that they didn’t rely on the virtue they were aiming for. They realized that the nation needed great men, but also that such greatness was rare and unreliable. They knew that even for the best of men greatness was sporadic, and often unattainable. The founders further understood that governing a sprawling republic would require addressing a vast number of competing priorities and preferences (think Manhattan bankers and Virginia planters), and that individual leaders couldn’t save the country from division. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10: “It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
Nowhere in the Federalist (or anywhere else in our nation’s foundational documents for that matter) can you find a list of qualities or traits that add up to the ideal political leader. That’s because, as Madison and his coauthors knew, no such ideal exists in the real world. As David Weaver, a political scientist who studies the idea of leadership in the early republic, writes: “the constitutional order is designed to allow the emergence of great leadership in service to the republic while attempting to insure that it is not dependent upon such leadership.”
It’s somewhat amazing that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison had such a somber—and, in our view, evolved—view about the potential of individual leaders: at the time, the idea of virtue was paramount, an honor code dictated how many elites went about their daily lives (think duels), and revolutionary heroes like George Washington were a larger-than-life presence.
Leaders were to play a role in the complex system of checks in balances that the Federalistargued for: they were to be part of the system—not above it. The framers increased the potential for individual greatness by opening the door to diverse and abundant candidates: the more people who could legally run for office, the thinking went, the greater chance that excellence might emerge (elections, too, are of course flawed in many ways, but at least they’re a less arbitrary tool of leader selection than birthright). At the same time, in addition to several other “auxiliary measures,” regularly-recurring popular elections were to be the great check on individual political leaders.
Elections and leadership were, and remain, inextricably linked. Unfortunately, from the start, the ultimate goal of elections that the founders imagined—to select good leaders and deselect bad ones— was very hard to carry out in practice. To win an election, a candidate has to get attention. The individual leader is front and center, the constitutional system they’re a part of a mere afterthought.
In a note to Thomas Jefferson in late 1787, John Adams articulated this tension quite well: “Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with great terror. Experiments of this kind have been so often tried, and so universally found productive of Horrors, that there is great Reason to dread them.”
In the first-ever U.S. congressional election, during the winter of 1788-1789, James Madison participated in the closest thing to an idealized electoral contest that one could imagine. Madison took to the campaign trail in his race for a house seat against James Monroe. It was an emblem of gentlemanly politics: the two men, friends, traveled together through the Virginia countryside, debating the finer points of the newly-ratified Constitution. The race is remembered today because it turned out to be the only time in history that two future presidents would be competing for the same House seat. The race might interest historians, and it might’ve reflected the Federalist’s hopes for how elections would function in the new republic—but it doesn’t seem to have piqued the interest of voters: Culpeper county, where Madison spent more time campaigning than anywhere else, had a measly 13.3 percent voter turnout, second-lowest in the entire state.
He’d have had better luck turning out the vote if he’d just gotten people drunk. “Treating”—giving voters free food and drink at the polls—was common practice at the time. In 1758, when George Washington stood for election in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, he had paid for “160 gallons of various beverages”—or about one and a half quarts per voter. Early in the next century, Davy Crockett—who was a congressman representing Tennessee from 1827 to 1831—advised “When the day of election approaches visit your constituents far and wide. Treat liberally, and drink freely, in order to rise in their estimation though you fall in your own. True, you may be called a drunken dog by some of the clean shirt and silk stocking gentry, but the real rough necks will style you a jovial fellow, their votes are certain, and frequently count double.”
Madison’s Federalist co-authors never stood for elective office at the federal level, but nor were they spared the indecencies of national politics. The treaty that John Jay engineered with Britain in 1794 drew such condemnation that he was burned in effigy on the streets of New York. Alexander Hamilton famously died in defense of his reputation.
For the most part, participants in Presidential elections have fared no better—and often they and the country have fared much worse as a result of the political battles waged for the prize of the Presidency.
The first two Presidential elections went well enough, because in 1789 and 1792 George Washington ran unopposed. When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran against one another in the Presidential elections of 1796 (an Adams victory) and 1800 (a Jefferson win), it was still uncouth for candidates to take to the trail on their own behalf. Even without their personal participation, those elections had disastrous consequences: they cemented the establishment of oppositional political parties as a condition of the American system (Jefferson’s Republicans versus Adams’ Federalists); saw the rise of a partisan press; led to one of the most glaring instances of executive overreach in American history (Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts); almost tore the country apart (Jefferson referred to his 1800 victory as a “revolution,” and commentators on both sides genuinely feared civil war); and rent a nearly fatal gash in a deep friendship between Adams and Jefferson that wouldn’t mend for two decades.
Since the founding of our nation, and with only occasional exceptions, the actual exercise of battling for political leadership has been as corrupting as elections themselves are ennobling. The practice of elections, and the hurly-burly of politics, naturally distort our view of what political leadership is supposed to be. Political machines, the partisan press, television, debates, campaign slogans, electoral paraphernalia—these and other attention-gaining measures emphasize the leader at the expense of a popular understanding of how leaders are supposed to fit within our constitutional system.
It’s true that some things are different today. We’re in the era of social media and the soundbite. Candidates for office are more diverse than ever. A reality TV star was elected President.
But every era has, in its own way, discouraged us from placing leaders in their proper place. The trick then, is to sift through the noise of campaigns and apply the subtle lessons left to us by the founders. Were they here today, what might they suggest we look for?
To that end, we offer eight pieces of advice to those who will vote in two years for the 117th Congress and will either re-elect the 45th President or elect the 46th—how might you go about answering the question “who should lead?”
The founders believed that human nature was flawed. As a result, they didn’t trust any single leader to alone maintain or advance our republic. History bears out their intuition. Most transformative American leaders surprised us, and many came from outside our political system: no one expected what Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, or countless others did to bring us closer to our ideals.
When we’re voting in a couple Novembers, we shouldn’t look for someone to live up to these inimitable exceptions. Instead, we should just look for someone to play the role our founders intended.