In early September of 1774, delegates from the American colonies met together to react to the Coercive Acts implemented by the British. Now known as the First Continental Congress, those delegates discussed how they would address the humiliating taxes and restrictions imposed by the British.
They knew that in order to enact change, they would have to engage in open rebellion. Because he admired his military experience and reputation, John Adams nominated George Washington to lead the Continental Army.
With sweeping assent from the whole delegation, George Washington addressed the First Congress in an acceptance speech. While outlying his fervor in leading the colonies to freedom, his speech also had a profound plea: “But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
A president has many roles. As supreme commander, there is a duty to conduct military affairs in a moral and just manner. As leader of the free world, there is an oath to uphold our inalienable rights. And as a figurehead to their political party, there is an obligation to represent the values of their party.
But in respecting the significance of those positions and roles, we must be wary of elevating the person above this paramount office.
It is a vice we have indulged in throughout our history. We tend to attribute political and cultural accomplishments to a single figure. We say Churchill saved England during World War II while sidelining the efforts of British parliament. When we say Reagan revitalized the American economy, we glance over the emergence of new economic theories that made it possible.
We do this because it is more simple to attribute cultural and political occurrences to one entity. Politics can be quite complex, as well as uncertain. By attributing culture and politics to a single figure, we are given a form of permanence and certainty—that as long as that figure is active, so too will be the political and cultural phenomenon of their day.
But doing this leads to the danger of elevation. Especially in regards to the presidency, one should never “become” their office. To do so implies that one’s value is equal to what that office represents. And in doing so, the figure gets the opportunity to rise above their office, and thus gets the power to redefine what that office represents and stands for.
In a constitutional republic, this can never bode well. When a figure becomes elevated above the law of the land, their intentions—whether good or ill—inherently undermine the value of the Constitution. In this, our fragile republic can also be undermined, whether by the will of the figure or by the followers that support them.
Instead, the figure should place themself below their office, and hold themself accountable to preserving and representing the platform that they have been honored with. They should not define themself by the position that they are given, or consider their worth equal to the worth of the office that they hold.
Rather, they should strive to make themself worthy of holding that office, pushing themself to uphold the values, duties, and oaths that come with their position.
In other words, no one should be above the values that they hold, especially in the matter of the presidency. But the president, or any other influential political figure, does not have to be alone in holding themselves accountable.
We are citizens, and constituents, and voters. In those capacities, we have the power to enable and empower figures in our society. But we also have the capacity to hold those same figures accountable, and criticize or limit them when they stray from the values of their office. In other words, political figures should not become the worth of our values.
As we enter a new presidency, we must be mindful of our power to enable political figures, as well as our responsibility to disavow political figures. We should always be critical and wary of our political figures, and always hold them accountable to upholding our American values.