The Founding Fathers understood the importance of term limits, yet they failed to include them in the Constitution. In an effort to remedy this oversight in relation to the presidency, George Washington declined to serve more than two terms. He thus established a convention that no president would seek a third term. But constitutional conventions are useless in restraining those with no respect for them. One hundred and sixty years passed, and the debauchery of the currency and the resulting Great Depression reduced the American people to a wretched child-like dependency on the paternalistic Franklin Roosevelt and his fireside chats. So little did Roosevelt respect his country’s cherished conventions, so insatiable was his ambition, that he ran, not just for a third term, but a fourth as well! Had death not carried him away, he would undoubtedly have sought to emulate Marius and run for a fifth consecutive term. Both Marius and Roosevelt claimed, as do all politicians who break term limits, that the crisis with which their electorate was dealing made it unwise to change leaders. Yet Roosevelt’s death in office, while the war was still raging, demonstrated the vanity of that claim—America did not skip a beat.

A free people are not children, they do not look up dependently and expectantly at some father figure. They look to government to act as a mere trustee of their rights; the great questions of state are not decided in the Kremlin, or Chancery, or even the White House, but around the dinner table in millions of homes across the nation. Moreover, a free people have an inexhaustible pool of talent from which to draw their executive officers and legislative delegates. There are today millions of people in America who could quite competently fulfill the duties of the president. It is the highest insult to his country, and the greatest indication of megalomania, for a politician to claim that he is indispensable. The Roman Republic was never in greater danger than during the Hannibalic War. Yet despite consul after consul along with their officers being slaughtered on the battlefield, replacements continued to spring up like daisies. This episode proved that no leader is indispensible. However, when, centuries later, the Romans began allowing men to hold the consulship for successive terms, Caesar and his successors claimed not just to be indispensable, but to be gods no less!

After World War II the American people, with their confidence in their power of self-government renewed, passed the Twenty-second Amendment, which states, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.”

It was a narrow and dangerous escape. What if Roosevelt had been a younger, healthier man? After surviving the war he could have argued, “I brought you out of the Depression, I won the war, and now that the Soviet Union is threatening us, it is no time to change horses.” After six or seven terms, the Americans would have built him a temple in Washington and worshipped him as a god, the way the Romans built a temple for, and worshipped as a god, the dead Julius Caesar. Some might say, “Don’t be ridiculous, the Americans would never build a massive Doric temple, with a gigantic god-sized statue, like Athena in the Parthenon, of their dead president inside it.” The sad truth is they already have—America’s golden calf is the Lincoln Memorial. The inscription inside even credits that mortal man, supposedly a mere functionary of the law, with having ‘saved the union.’ What then is meant by ‘saved the union’? If Lincoln did not actually single-handedly defeat the Confederate armies, do these words signify that he decided to save the union and ordered the armies to fight of his own volition (against the wishes of the people)? Was he a tyrant rather than the people’s agent? If so, then his memory should be cursed, not cherished. On the other hand, if he was merely fulfilling the democratic will of the northern states, expressed through their legislature, then what exactly is it that sets him so far apart from a policeman, mayor, judge, general, or any other public functionary who fulfills his or her statutory functions? Why the need for this enormous pagan temple and statue?

The adulation of leaders, whether it be Lincoln, Lenin, Mao, Roosevelt or anyone else, is profoundly dangerous. Thomas Jefferson would never have consented to the Jefferson Memorial being built for him: in fact he made arrangements for a simple marker on his grave. The danger in such over-the-top honors being paid to dead politicians is not that they will abuse their deified position from beyond the grave, but rather that successors to their office will use their deified status to intimidate the people into thinking they too are gods. Thus, while Stalin had no particular love for Lenin, he nonetheless embalmed him and created an obscene shrine to his corpse in Red Square. Augustus Caesar declared his uncle and predecessor a god in order to enhance the mystic power of his own tyranny. It is therefore unsurprising that it was Franklin Roosevelt, the man who broke George Washington’s temperate precedent, who initiated the building of the Jefferson Memorial. Obviously he, like Augustus Caesar (who likewise initiated the building of a Doric temple for the worship of his predecessor), felt that the starving of his fellow citizens was less important than the need to impress on the tired, poor, huddled masses the divinity of those who held the supreme office.

The American presidential monuments, including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, Kennedy’s eternal flame, and Mt. Rushmore, are insidious because they encourage improper veneration of American presidents. America is great because its presidents are insignificant and the individual is everything. China was so impoverished because Mao was everything and the individual nothing. Temples like the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials should be built, but the statues inside should be labeled ‘Justice’, ‘Moderation’, ‘Law’, ‘Frugality’, ‘Honor’, ‘Fortitude’, ‘Honesty’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Foresight’, ‘Patience’, or ‘Work.’ Visiting schoolchildren should learn to venerate the values of great men, rather than being awed into imagining human beings divine.
The situation in Washington, D.C., can easily be remedied. The Lincoln Memorial would make an excellent monument (after appropriate alterations) to the dead on both sides of the Civil War. The inscriptions inside should note that the Founding Fathers were imperfect mortals who, by leaving the question of slavery unaddressed, caused that unnecessary and hideous war. Lincoln’s role in the conflict could be sufficiently honored by quoting his words from the Gettysburg Address, but perhaps in a smaller typeface; after all, they were written by a man on a train—they did not come down from the Mount inscribed on tablets. The Washington Monument should be re-dedicated to venerate the Constitution and be surrounded by twelve bronze tablets upon which the Constitution, as amended from time to time, is inscribed. As for the Jefferson Memorial, it should be rededicated to commemorate the Declaration of Independence. This would require very little other than removing and destroying the idol inside. Maybe then that good man, who did nothing whatsoever to deserve the posthumous insult, will be able to stop turning in his grave and finally rest in peace.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove