…seems to be the rarest trait a politician possesses rather than the most common…

“No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate.”

~  James Madison, The Federalist Papers No. 53, 12 February 1788


The Constitution’s official requirements for legislators are pretty shockingly low.  You only have to be a citizen of a certain age, and if your constituents will elect you, you’re in.  Considering that the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries were the first congressmen, senators, and presidents, this becomes even more surprising.  After all, none of the members of that august company were professional or academic slouches by any means.  In fact, quite the opposite-the lives of the Founders clearly demonstrated they were exactly the kind of men who should be entrusted with public office.  Adams was a highly regarded jurist, known for his vast knowledge and moral bearing.  Washington was a former General who had put his duty to his country before all else.  Jefferson was one of the most brilliant minds of the day, and had authored numerous treatises on government.  These were men who could even count Benjamin Franklin among them, the man who ‘discovered’* electricity.  So what on earth possessed them to leave the requirements to hold public office so lax?  Simply put, real governance “by the people” means that any one of the people should reasonably be able to be elected to public office.  Of course, the Founders did assume the people would be educated enough themselves in their duties as citizens to make good and informed choices.

That age-old problem with assumptions being what it is, it’s not altogether surprising that we have found ourselves somewhere else entirely.  The majority of our modern legislators tend to run the gamut from “not competent” to “totally incompetent”.  It is exceedingly rare to find a member of Congress who actually has any legitimate knowledge (let alone sound judgement!) on half the subjects he legislates on or publicly discusses.  If we were to immediately recall any legislator who made basic factual errors in public speeches, there would be no more than 10 congressman left.  And yet we constantly reelect these bombastic fools, as if they’re the best options available to us.  Career politicians don’t bring to our governance a wealth of knowledge or skills.  They bring us more of the same, because the only thing they have knowledge of is working the modern political system to their advantage, or maybe at best, the how-to’s of hyper-partisan politics.  We know this, but we no longer fight it.  And if we don’t demand legislators with the knowledge and ability to really legislate, we cannot really ever think our government will actually get anything done.  How can we possibly expect our government to be competent when the people we elect are not?


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No.53, 12 February 1788

Electronic Text Courtesy of the Avalon Project at Yale Law School

* Benjamin Franklin didn’t actually discover electricity, but it was his experiments on the subject that directly led to our being able to pay utility bills for it to light our homes today.

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