American University Professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard L. Fox have co-authored a book entitled “Running from Office: Why Young Americans are turned off to politics.” They surveyed thousands of high school and college students and conducted interviews with dozens to conclude that today’s young Americans care a great deal about their country but they are not interested in a political role for themselves. They view politicians as dishonest and self-serving.
Unfortunately, there is lots of evidence to support that view. But a few good women and men can make a difference.
Consider the subjects of President John F. Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” written during his tenure as a United States Senator. The book is a tribute to eight men who displayed extraordinary courage while serving in the Senate. One profiled Senator was Edmund Ross of Kansas who voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson following Johnson’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. Ross was willing to risk his political future to protect the office of the presidency from reckless conduct by those seeking to gain political advantage.
If Kennedy’s book had included members of the House of Representatives, he certainly would have chosen Delaware’s Representative James Bayard for his role in resolving the heated conflict involving the presidential election of 1800. The very young United States Constitution had a flaw. It had to do with how the president was chosen. Each elector voted for two persons to be president with the idea being that the one with the most votes would be president and the runner up would be vice president.
There were 16 states with a total of 146 electoral votes. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes. The Constitution provided that in the case of an electoral vote tie the House of Representatives would decide who would become the president. Each state had one vote, regardless of its size. When the votes were counted each man had 8 votes. The Constitution had no provision for resolving a tie vote in the House of Representatives. The House voted again and again and after thirty-five votes there was no break in the deadlock. There was talk of trashing the whole idea of a United States. Virginia, the largest state in the Union, spread the word that if Jefferson was denied the presidency it may secede.
Northerners despised Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican (today’s Democratic Party), and favored Burr of New York.
Representative James Bayard, a Federalist, was Delaware’s only representative and he controlled Delaware’s vote for president. Fearful that his state would not survive if the union failed, Bayard turned in a blank ballot when the House voted for the 36th and final time. Bayard’s action paved the way for other states to change their votes and Jefferson won with 10 electoral votes. Though Bayard was vilified by many of his fellow Federalists there were others that felt that Jefferson was the correct choice because his party had won an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives and the new members would soon take office.
Are there any Ross-like or Bayard-like elected officials out there today? And can they be heard above the noise?
Yes, there are many mayors, councilmembers, commissioners and others who perform their duties with integrity and place their communities ahead of their personal ambitions. Oftentimes they are the leaders who seek a consensus and do the people’s work with deliberation and moderation. Such leaders are sometimes accused of being weak by those with destructive personal agendas. Maybe those with search and destroy personal agendas should read Aesop’s fable “The North Wind and the Sun” where the North Wind claims to have superior strength and, spotting a man walking along a road, challenges the Sun to see who could remove the man’s coat. The harder the North Wind blew the tighter the man wrapped his coat. But when the Sun took over and cast its warmth on the traveler he removed his coat. Blustery can get a lot of attention but it seldom has an acceptable solution to any problem.
As noted by professors Lawless and Fox, today’s young people need reasons to believe that government can do good things and that they need to get involved and learn to become the type of leaders that they envision. It is today’s leaders’ responsibility to set examples that future leaders will want to emulate and a good way to start is to live by the Rotary Club’s Four-Way Test. Of all the things we think, say or do (1) Is it the TRUTH? (2) Is it FAIR to all concerned? (3) Will it build GOOD WILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? and (4) Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Footnote: The 12th Amendment to the Constitution changed the selection of the president and vice president to the method used today.
This is part of a series of columns on government by Jerry Roseberry. Roseberry is Mayor of Oxford and Vice Chairman of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission Council. He can be reached at JRoseberry@oxfordgeorgia.org.