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Presidents Day Reminder: Self-Evident Truths We Still Find

"Former President Biden claims his administration made no mistakes during the Afghanistan withdrawal." The article criticizes political hypocrisy and praises past leaders.

How's this for "America's Got Talent?" James Garfield, an admirable president best known for being shot, used to entertain friends by writing a message in Greek with his left hand and another in Latin with his right simultaneously. This was a remarkable feat of mental dexterity, but perhaps less impressive today, in an era when most of us are used to politicians who can say two different things at once.

Many of us chafe at the hypocrisies of leaders who praise democracy while giving unelected bureaucrats more and more power. Who celebrate the First Amendment while denigrating free speech. Who speak of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" while working to promote abortion, silence conscience, and conform our children to the more fashionable sexual agendas.

None of us, certainly no politician, is immune to hypocrisy. But those who have earned our respect as statesmen were men who knew the truth when they saw it - and then boldly spoke it. And sometimes, musing on what they said, it seems as though some of those we remember, revere, and reminisce about today were as much prophets as presidents.

Take these words, so perfect for this election year, from our second Chief Executive, John Adams: "The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue," he said, "and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies."

At a time when many of us rue the depths of corruption poisoning many of our political processes, our every-two- and four-year excursions into practical democracy seem to be breeding more frustration than confidence. Our virtues, surely, aren't as pure as they used to be.

Which is not to say that our Union was ever uniformly good, nor that any of the men who have presided over the nation have been angels in disguise. Some of them were of remarkably low character, and even the best had their off days and misguided notions.

It's very much in vogue nowadays to dwell on those faults and shortcomings. But then it's always been easier to topple statues and deface monuments than to recognize the humanity in great men ... or aspire to their highest ideals. And, of course, tearing down giants makes it that much easier to tear into the more ordinary mortals who dare to look at the country - at life - a bit differently than we do.

Still: the great presidents of our past understood some things that - in our saner moments - continue to bind us to them and to each other. In particular, they understood, like Thomas Jefferson, that some truths are "self-evident" to anyone who has lived long enough to know his own soul. That some rights come with being human - including the right to live, to be free, and to flourish as best we can within the abilities and circumstances God has given us. And that we give a handful of people the right to govern us, with the understanding that their objective is to protect these cherished rights, and to make them more accessible to all of us.

Yet, as the elections of November grow inexorably closer, many of us find ourselves increasingly estranged from the belief that our leaders are genuinely committed to preserving our liberties - and from the belief that enough of our fellow citizens prize the same virtues we do.

"We must not be enemies," Abraham Lincoln famously said, on the eve of civil war. "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

The war, of course, came anyway. But the breathtaking cost of that conflict - and the extraordinary compassion Lincoln drew on to end it - underscored his message. Guided in no small part by his example, his nation, in time, found its way back to brotherhood.

The second hope is that we can rediscover religious liberty, and renew our respect for the right of every American to think, speak, and live his heart's convictions.

"Conscience," James Madison said, "is the most sacred of all property." And it's inseparable, George Washington warned, from religious freedom.

"Reason and experience," he said, "both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

It is those principles that purify our virtues. And those virtues that oil the machinery of our democratic republic. Without them, we're just going through the motions - exchanging tyrants and tyrannies.

Across nearly 250 years, these two enduring hopes have been affirmed by every great and good man who's held our highest office. Both the men and the hopes may seem ephemeral, old-fashioned, untenable in our fractious age. But their wisdom has been proven, time and again.

Chris Potts is senior creative writer and editor at Alliance Defending Freedom.

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