Constitutional Character and POTUS Candidates


Last night I was doing some background reading for an interview and came across Dennis F. Thompson‘s 2010 article “Constitutional Character: Virtues and Vices in Presidential Leadership” Presidential Studies Quarterly 40:23-37.  Thompson is Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus at Harvard University.

Thompson argues that presidents, and by implication presidential candidates, should conform to a certain set of virtues which when taken together contribute to what he calls “constitutional character.”

They are:

  1. Sensitivity to basic human rights, especially as they relate to the most vulnerable citizens in society
  2. Respect for due process or a respect for the limits of presidential power
  3. A willingness to accept responsibility when things go wrong and suffer the consequences
  4. Toleration of opposition, or engaging political opponents on fair terms
  5. Candor or telling the truth to the American people

Robert Wiebe, in his 1984 book Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion, writes that the idea of “republican character,” as articulated by the founding fathers, required the following virtues:

  1. Courage
  2. Resolution
  3. Moderation
  4. Dedication
  5. Self-Control (which was the most important to the founders)

In his 2001 book The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or EvilJames Davison Hunter defines a person of character as having:

  1. Moral discipline: Control of one’s passions; constraint
  2. Moral attachment: Commitment to a community or something larger than self
  3. Moral autonomy: Freedom to make ethical choices

How do our current candidates measure up?


2 thoughts on “Constitutional Character and POTUS Candidates

  1. John, to answer your concluding question, one would need to use a standard (like Hunter’s) and then apply it to the spheres of character (behavior and pronouncement). It would be difficult, indeed, to establish major agreement on what “character” is. If successful at that stage, we would then have to wrestle with the political divide. If the sound bite is “my party, my candidate is above reproach” (or at least much better than “your party, your candidate”), then it becomes more yelling. In such a limited, 2-party arrangement, I would recommend using the standards someone has used in the past for comparisons today. So, for example, the way someone attacked (or gave a pass to) President Bill Clinton in an attempt to remove him from office, that standard could be applied to opposition to Donald Trump today. The way someone attacked (or gave a pass to) President George W. Bush, that standard could be applied to opposition to Hillary Clinton. This may only demonstrate consistency, or the lack thereof, in character assassinations, but it could provide insight into the presuppositions of those trying to discern moral character in public officials.


  2. How do our current candidates measure up?

    Probably a fool’s errand. Who is more likely to lead us into war? Which one will kill the most babies? Again, values must not masquerade as facts.

    Mitt Romney was a good loser. A very good loser. An EXCELLENT loser. Clearly “character” doesn’t count for everything, probably not even for much.

    Romney: Obama engaged in “character assassination”

    (CBS News) Mitt Romney told CBS News Wednesday that despite calls from conservatives to be more aggressive, he is not going to engage in a campaign of “character assassination” – despite the Obama campaign’s willingness to do so.

    “This is a campaign, not about character assassination, even though that’s what I think has come from the Obama camp by and large,” Romney told CBS News’ Jan Crawford before a rally in Toledo, Ohio. Crawford asked Romney if he was saying the Obama campaign was engaged in character assassination.

    “Oh yeah, sure, they try and completely misrepresent my point of view, along with why I’m in this race,” he said.


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