“Quick to Listen Podcast”: Presidential Character

I was recently a guest on “Quick the Listen,” a podcast produced by Christianity Today.  The topic was “character” and the current election cycle.  It was good to be on the air with my former student, CT writer and editor Morgan Lee, and her colleague Amy Jackson.  It turned out to be a great conversation.  And yes, Wayne Grudem’s endorsement of Donald Trump was mentioned.  We also talked about my inability to convince Morgan to become a history major when he was an undergraduate at Messiah College.

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?


On the Character of George Washington

george-washington1Gary Scott Smith, a history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, discusses the character of George Washington.  This piece was published in 2010, but it still resonates.

Here is a taste:

Although scholars criticize Washington’s personal ethics, sexual behavior, vanity, and ownership of slaves, his moral character, especially his refusal to yield to temptation, set him apart from most others in the late 18th century. He took the standards of his age very seriously and diligently strove to be virtuous. To many, the crowning achievement of Washington’s character was his simultaneous resignation in 1783 as the commander in chief of the American army and his retirement from the world of politics. Throughout the Western world, his unprecedented relinquishing of power (which he did a second time when he declined a third term as president) was widely heralded. Unlike other victorious generals, he did not expect a political or financial reward for his military exploits. Washington’s character, Jefferson argued, probably prevented the American Revolution from subverting the liberty it sought to establish. The Virginian had a sterling reputation for integrity and honor, dedication to duty and his country, and remaining above the political fray.

Eulogists and early biographers imputed many virtues to Washington. They praised his wisdom, judgment, astounding courage on the battlefield, and dignity. Congress elected him the first chief executive, principally because its members trusted his moral character. Assessments of Washington applauded his military zeal and political passion on the one hand and his self-restraint and civil moderation on the other. Blending Stoic and Christian traditions, eulogists extolled Washington’s perseverance in the midst of setbacks.

Many admirers considered Washington’s self-control the key facet of his character. He could master events because he had mastered himself. Despite being surrounded by fear, despair, indecisiveness, treason, and the threat of mutiny, he remained confident and steadfast. Eulogists also heralded his self-sacrifice, devotion to the common good, compassion, generosity, and benevolence.

As president, Washington strove to establish public confidence in the new government and to demonstrate that political leaders could act virtuously. He believed his character was much more important to the success of the republic than his policies, and he spent much of his adult life creating and preserving a reputation for integrity and uprightness. In 1788, the planter wrote to his trusted confidant Alexander Hamilton, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.” His character helped hold the other founders together in the midst of tremendous trials and reassured them that they could construct a workable republic. His example of self-sacrifice, discipline, and moral goodness helped elevate the status of the presidency.

Read the entire piece here.