With three weeks left until the primary elections in Kentucky only one thing is on everybody’s mind, the Derby. That’s right, the Kentucky Derby is the single event that combines all of what is reputed to be the best Kentucky has to offer.
It showcases the beauty of springtime in the Bluegrass State; it is a time to languish in nostalgic memories of an antebellum world; it brings together money, bourbon, beautiful women and, of course, the statuesque athletes of thoroughbred racing bejeweled with colorful silks and, hopefully for one, a blanket of roses.
Nothing related to politics has any of the grand attributes of the Derby. But there is a period of jockeying for position entering the homestretch of the primary.
So, with the lazy days of summer right around the corner and campaigns this week taking a long, hard look at how much ground they have to cover between now and the finish line, I thought it the perfect time to go back in time to see how elections, campaigns and the choice of leaders has changed over time.
If our founders were to appear in this modern world, no doubt they would find many shocking changes. But for men who spent a good deal of their waking hours examining the history of governance through the ages, and who with divine inspiration, concluded that man really could be trusted to govern himself, the self-aggrandizing, egotistical, boastful contest we call campaigning would surely count as one of their biggest disappointments.
The newly enacted constitution had only been in place a matter of weeks when George Washington was unanimously chosen to be America’s first president by the electors of the individual states. In those days, the concept of a national government was a hard-fought compromise between the powerful men who represented proud separate centers of power in each of the original states. They had no interest in ceding any of that power to a centralized government but were persuaded to form a union for their collective benefit. Only one man’s hands could be trusted with that power and it was Gen. Washington.
Washington did not seek power, he did not seek fame and he did not campaign for the office as we now think of campaigning. In those days the chosen leaders of the various states took the trust of their citizens with them and conferred in group meetings. It was by consensus of those leaders that Washington was chosen. The real trick was convincing him to accept the responsibility.
You see, in that moment our nation understood that the job carried with it a duty to execute the office with great respect for the will of the people, and with great deference to the leaders of the various states. The notion that somehow the new president would be “king-like” was abhorrent to all but a few and for the rest only Washington could be trusted not to give in to them and their desire for an “imperial presidency.”
To our founders the power to elect leaders was viewed as a sacred privilege held tightly by those who were about to be led. The mere suspicion that anyone would lust after public office, particularly at the newly created federal level, would almost certainly have been a disqualifier.
But those were days when the population of the entire country was only a few million people, crowded along the Atlantic coast, living between the ocean and the Allegheny Mountains. And although news traveled slowly, the character of a man such as Washington was known far and wide. Choices were, therefore, in the earliest days of our nation made between men of great reputation whose backgrounds, patriotism, intellect and vision were as familiar to most citizens as their own brothers.
And though Washington served with near unanimous support among the citizens of his new country, his time in office would eventually come to an end. And with the end of that service began the first real contest between American statesmen who, seeing the powers of the position, wrestled with their public images and began a process which continues to this day.
Tomorrow I will continue the discussion about how the desire of Adams and Jefferson for the office of the presidency set the course for political contests for the next 60 years. For it was only 60 years after Jefferson became our third president that Lincoln was elected, a period of time similar to that which has passed since the election of Eisenhower. And in both periods the world of politics degraded.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a daily commentary for KyForward.