Where have all the statesmen gone?As a historian, the thought has occured to me lately that the art of statesmanship is dying in America. I'd venture to say that we haven't had many real statesmen in public life in quite some time. In Congress, I think most of the people I would consider great statesmen of both parties have retired. With the retirement of Ernest "Fritz" Hollings and the retirement and death of Strom Thurmond, Congress lost two great Southern elder statesmen of both parties. As much as I often disagree with Robert Byrd, he has proven himself over the years to qualify as a statesman. He has engaged in his share of public spending stupidity enough to qualify himself as a good Democrat, but he also was one of the lead Senators to push the Defense of Marriage Act (he was a prime sponsor of the legislation) and I recall that he brought his father's Bible to the Senate floor and quoted from the First Chapter of Genesis. In recent years, I fear that Robert Byrd's old age and senility have prevented him from functioning with effectiveness, and he is frequently given over to delusion on the Senate floor.
What has caused this reflection on the loss of statesmanship is that I am currently reading David McCollough's biography of John Adams. Adams was (and remains) a model (as do many of the rest of the Founding Fathers) of everything that should define a statesman. He saw nothing wrong with political ambition, and he possessed it himself. He was a good lawyer who travelled the court circuit and he saw providing for his family through his profession to be his primary responsibility in life. Yet, in spite of this primary responsibility, he accepted election to the Massachusetts Assembly (he was chosen, as they did in those days in New England, by the town meeting) because he believed he had a duty to serve his country in public life. He entered public life writing against the Stamp Act in 1765, so we would say he began his public life as a political writer and agitator (he might have been a political columnist-or more likely a blogger, in todays world). He was first elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1770 after a successful defense of the British regulars accused in the Boston Massacre. Adams would serve for a single one-year term. He thought he was giving up politics.
After being chosen by the Massachusetts legislature to attend the First Continental Congress in 1774, Adams would never again be a private citizen until he retired from public life in March of 1797, after being defeated for a second term as President of the still-new United States by Thomas Jefferson. Even in retirement, Adams was never fully free of the public spotlight because his wisdom and experience in government were sought by many others at the State and federal level.
As we look into the pantheon of great American statesmen, often lost to the present generation because this generation has utterly forgotten our history (or worse, some are ashamed of it), we see men who gave of themselves to serve. Our own William Blount and John Sevier spent virtually their entire careers in public life once necessity or decision caused them to make the leap. Daniel Webster spent nearly his entire life in public service after being elected to the House in 1812, except for a brief four-year break. John C. Calhoun, who has always been a hero of mine solely because of his "cast-iron" defense of States' rights, was first elected to the House in 1810, and until his death in 1850 he served in public life. In the House, the Senate, as Vice President, and Secretary of State, Calhoun had done it all. So long did Calhoun serve that he was wheeled into the Senate in a wheelchair in 1850 to attend what would be his final Senate session.
Statesmen are people who are more concerned about the next generation as opposed to the next election. In Tennessee and in America there is a serious lack of these people. Many of my fellow Tennessee conservatives believe that the best way to insure that we get a few statesmen is to have mandatory term limits. I have great admiration and respect for many of the people who share this view, but I do not join them in this conclusion. I have seen how term-limited regimes function in other States where they are now the established law, and I find them to be a complete disaster. Rather than encourage ordinary people to enter public life and to become statesmen and stateswomen, they often merely encourage people already in government to circle into other offices and for their endorsed successors to take their places. When a bright new star emerges that could prove to be a great statesman or stateswoman, that person is often filtered out of their office by term limits, choosing to leave public life rather than seek another office where they are less comfortable or less effective.
What we somehow need to do is to encourage everyday people-small business owners, ministers, farmers, factory workers, real-estate agents, country lawyers-name the profession- people from all walks of life to enter public service and do as Washington did before them, stay as long as they are needed, and then leave as they came. Our present state of affairs does not lend itself to encouraging potential statesmen to enter public life in Tennessee or the Union at-large. I am not sure what we need to do to change this situation, but we need statesmen if all we can do is pray for them.