The distance between Independence Hall and the U.S. Capitol is about 123 miles as the crow flies, or 241 years as the world turns.
I had occasion to visit both buildings last month and, with the additional cue of the Independence Day holiday, have been thinking about what is different about the Congresses that met at each.
We tend to view the men in Philadelphia who set us on a course for liberty, first in 1776 and then 11 years later at what became the Constitutional Convention, as practically otherworldly. “An assembly of demigods” is how Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams, described those who were drafting the Constitution, while both of them served as ambassadors in Europe.
Had the Framers been actually supernatural, they mightn’t have hit such tragic impasses as the one over slavery (though their inability to lift that curse cannot diminish the historic, necessary steps they took to create a free land in which the subjugation of others was such an obvious contradiction it could not stand forever). But the system they built survives, and we celebrate them still, mostly because of one key insight: Checks and balances on human power are vital because human nature is both flawed and immutable.
Which brings us to the current Congress.
Meet with individual members of today’s House or Senate, and you feel the legislative branch, with its dismal approval rating, gets a bad rap. They are generally more thoughtful and pleasant in person than the bombast and over-simplification we see when they are, alone or in groups, in front of a camera. (Their friendlier personal touch, as much as gerrymandering in my view, accounts for their high rate of re-election despite the public’s low opinion of them collectively.)
To watch the leaders of either party strut and snipe at each other at press conferences — I watched top Senate Republicans and Democrats alike do both just last week — is to be reminded how much of politics is theater. And to remember how much that has changed as well.
Two scenes from 1770s Philadelphia: George Washington leaving the room when John Adams rose to make the case for him as leader of the Continental Army; and Jefferson sitting in the same room, silently, as delegates critiqued, debated and edited his draft Declaration of Independence. Each story speaks to a degree of modesty and humility almost extinct from our present politics, in which proclaiming most fervently (and loudly) oneself to be right makes might.
This is not to suggest the Founders were without ego or ambition. Far from it. But even if the stories about Washington and Jefferson are apocryphal, consider why they would have been concocted. As was often the case with the revolutionary generation — and this is not unlike our current crop of political leaders — they knew they were posing for the public and posterity. Back then, it seems, they thought humility and modesty would be the best look.
Recall, the Framers built a government with checks and balances because they knew better than to expect men, particularly those with power, to be angels. It was the people from whom they expected, or at least wished for, virtue. What does it say about us that we so often reward the opposite?