making local government more ethical

Conflicts of Interest and the Founding Fathers

Fred Anderson's review of Gordon S. Wood's book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books contains a passage on government ethics that gives an interesting context to our thoughts about it.

'Eighteenth-century British America ... was dominated socially and politically by 'gentlemen'' a comparatively tiny minority of men whose liberal education and public spirit, so it was thought, enabled them to perceive the common good, and whose fortunes gave them the leisure to pursue it without compromising their livelihoods. Such advantages of wisdom and wealth obliged gentlemen to take the lead in public life. Those who did so demonstrated their 'virtue,' or ability to rise above the self-interest that absorbed the energies and limited the views of lesser men. All of the Founders, Wood argues, aspired to this kind of leadership.'

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One thing that makes them special is that they were not born to this. 'Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison were the first in their families to acquire the much-prized mark of gentility, the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Franklin and Washington, who lacked college educations, compensated by relentless self-improvement.'

But an education was not enough. 'Above all, to become a gentleman meant that one had to be acknowledged as such; which is to say, one needed to have the 'character' of a gentleman. Whereas modern Americans equate character with a person's inmost moral qualities, the eighteenth-century conception conflated personal integrity with the older idea of character as public reputation. Aspiring young men were literally 'given a character' when older, established gentlemen testified to their worth by supporting them as candidates for political office or appointing them to positions of public trust.'

Wood uses Aaron Burr as an exception to this. For Wood, Burr's treason was not his conspiracy against the U.S. government, but 'his willingness to use politics for private gain.'

So when we talk about the importance of government ethics, we are talking about an ideal that was being lived at the founding of our country, but which is now an ideal that people can follow or not. In fact, what was considered a virtue of gentlemen is now more commonly thought a virtue of women, but will probably become less so as more women rise into positions of power. As it is, most people accept that most municipal politicians are in it for private gain, no matter how often they say they act out of public service.

But it is worth reminding ourselves, and others, that this high ideal of seeking a true public reputation was, to a large extent, lost during the Jacksonian period, and only came back into our culture in early twentieth-century progressivism, which was led by people who thought of public service much as the founding fathers did. Although government ethics has taken root in our culture, it is the well-fertilized culture of Jacksonian democracy, where the goal was getting what you could get.

We are lucky to have the founding fathers as role models, even if few of us are like them. What is important is that we aspire to the best of their values, and that we are not ashamed to say so, and to mean it.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org