As we, the American people, in the next few weeks choose political leaders, we look for many things in the aspiring candidates. Whether for high national offices or local representatives and judges, we want these people to be knowledgeable, wise, caring, honest and effective. We want them to be qualified to assume heavy responsibilities that we, the people, entrust into their hands. But how can we judge character and decide confidently? The Founders of the American republic had an answer to that question, and it is as important today as it was 200 years ago.
When the 13 colonies threw out the king of England and his royal administration, all nations in Europe were ruled by kings. England had George III, France had Louis XVI and Russia had its czar. No one in that world imagined a government succeeding without a king. When the French Revolution turned brutal in Paris, the people soon flocked to support Napoleon, another king in imperial clothing. Europeans were alternately amused and terrified by the American Revolution. Few thought the American experiment would succeed. How could a democracy maintain order, prevent corruption and insure that powerful officials would remain loyal to principles with no controlling kings to judge the judges and maintain order?
For Americans, the answer was found in the idea they called "a future state of rewards and punishments." The founding generation overwhelmingly saw every position of power as a sacred trust and that good government required people in power to believe that someday, in some way, they would be held accountable, favorably or unfavorably, for the manner in which they discharged their duties while in office.
As James Hutson of the Library of Congress has written, this requirement was included in the state constitutions of Pennsylvania, Vermont and Tennessee and the South Carolina Constitution even required this belief of all voters. While the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for federal office holders, Americans on the right and on the left assumed that voters would entrust power only to people who felt constrained by an overriding sense of innate accountability.
Even where ardent conservatives and liberals agreed on nothing else, they concurred about the civic value of this belief. This principle was often tied to particular religious views of God and virtue, but it does not need to be so tied. Deists, Universalists and people of all religious persuasions accepted the imperative utility of this fundamental principle of democratic leadership. Indeed, when one goes back to the very basics, it is hard to find any other factor that can really control the concentration of power in the hands of the few.
It would seem that this principle is no less crucial today than it was in at the founding. The American experiment is still, and will always be, a work in progress. It remains vulnerable to power-seeking, corruption and plans that do not promote the long-term common good.
In a democracy, people willingly put themselves at risk because they trust. They trust in humanity. They trust that people are trustworthy. They trust that presidents, senators, judges, CEOs, bankers, teachers, parents, manufacturers, news reporters, doctors, lawyers, taxicab drivers and everyone else will willingly accept the burdens that rightly come with being trusted. As trustees, public officials have all the common law duties of diligence, obedience, loyalty and disclosure, of avoiding conflicts of interest, of putting the welfare of the people ahead of their own aggrandizement and ultimately of believing that they will be held accountable for any dereliction of these duties.
Americans also trust themselves to judge which candidates can be so trusted to take seriously how they will ultimately be judged, whether by God, by the nation or by future generations. Requiring this quality of character of every public servant is not too much to ask. Indeed, it is intrinsically at the heart of the American way.