Pace President Obama and David Brooks, but power need not corrupt our public officials.
On December 11, 2009, columnist David Brooks repeated a story on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that he had said in an interview in the Atlantic on the Monday before President Obama’s election. On December 11, it was in the context of the President’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. On the Monday before the election, it was in the context of his argument that President Bush and Republican vice-presidential candidate Palin’s were anti-intellectual:
Obama has the great intellect. I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I’m getting nowhere with the interview, it’s late in the night, he’s on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he’s cranky. Out of the blue I say, “Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?” And he says, “Yeah.” So I say, “What did Niebuhr mean to you?” For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.
Knowing what we know about President Obama, it is more likely that he thought of power corrupting with respect to our Nation, rather than with respect to the Democratic Party or himself personally. But let us assume Brooks’ report is accurate — and I reply that power need not corrupt our officials.
Let’s make this a column even more interactive than usual.
In comments you post below, please identify any American official of local, state or federal government, at any time in our history, who resigned his or her position voluntarily (that is, without being fired or yielding to a public outcry) when something went amiss on his or her watch, but for which the official was not personally responsible. (So, by these criteria, the official’s extramarital activities do not qualify.) Please identify name, position, approximate year of resignation, and, in a brief sentence, describe the event that caused the resignation.
FOR MY PART, let me name one. And I’ll write more than a brief sentence about him.
When the event occurred in 1803 that prompted his voluntary resignation, Edward Livingston occupied not just one, but two, prominent positions. He was an appointed mayor of New York (before it became Greater New York) and the U.S. Attorney for the District of New York. The mayoralty was highly desirable — enough that DeWitt Clinton resigned his U.S. Senate seat to fill the vacancy Livingston created when he resigned. And the U.S. Attorney position was a presidential appointment, confirmed by the Senate, and its territory was the entire state of New York (now New York is divided into four districts). It was not a salaried position, but it was lucrative since remuneration came from fees.
Livingston (1764-1836) was the youngest of 10 children who survived to adulthood. In an 18-month period when he was 11 and 12, his two grandfathers and father died and his brother-in-law, General Montgomery, was killed in the Battle of Quebec. When he was 13, the British burned his and his neighbors’ homes to the ground in retaliation for their defeat at Saratoga.
It was during the War, in 1779, that he commenced his collegiate studies. He arrived at the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton) shortly after British soldiers had vacated the buildings. He graduated in 1781 — still in the middle of the War with no end in sight — in a class of six. After graduation, he studied law (before there were law schools) in Albany under John Lansing, who would become one of three delegates of New York to the 1788 Constitutional Convention. Edward Livingston was admitted to the bar in 1785, age 20 — young but not unusually young in those days.
Livingston was unsuccessful in two attempts at being elected to the state Assembly (1791, 1792) but won election three consecutive times to the U.S. House (1795-1801). In 1803, just a few days after his wife died of scarlet fever, he received President Jefferson’s appointment as U.S. Attorney, and then shortly after that he was appointed mayor.
It is not necessary to describe the kind of job Livingston did at these posts before July 20, 1803, because you will get the picture when we focus on the period of July 20 to the end of October. This is when an epidemic of yellow fever hit New York. While many people fled the city, Livingston stayed. Each and every day, Livingston went to homes where someone had been stricken and assessed and supplied their needs. He did the same at the hospitals. In August, he himself was stricken. His 1864 biographer relates: “He was now the object of extraordinary popular gratitude and regard…. A crowd thronged the street near his door, to obtain the latest news of his condition; and young people vied with each other for the privilege of watching by his bed.”
The U.S. Government notified Livingston that same month of irregularities that had occurred in the office of U.S. Attorney during his tenure. A large sum of money had been embezzled by one of its employees. The culprit was known but the amount was not yet certain. No one accused Livingston of personal involvement, but only of lack of care in supervision.
Livingston accepted moral responsibility. He decided to resign, not only from the post of U.S. Attorney, but also from that of mayor. Officials and friends asked him to reconsider and remain, but he declined, staying in office only until the epidemic was over — at which time the Common Council of the City addressed him in most touching terms. Furthermore, he decided not to wait until a complete accounting had occurred before signing an agreement to pay the U.S. Government $100,000 (in 1803 dollars) to completely cover its losses. He immediately conveyed real and personal property to a trust for partial payment. His net principal due the Government was $43,000.
Did he make good on his promise to pay? You betcha — but there were difficulties and delays — caused by President Jefferson and the War of 1812.
Livingston said several years later that he was humiliated, mortified, beyond words. He wanted to leave the situation, yet his professional and familial ties were all in New York. He was busy sorting out how he could make enough money to pay this kind of debt when he examined the opportunity presented by the recently negotiated Louisiana Purchase. Livingston knew the French language and the French Civil Code (a legal regime vastly different from English common law) used in New Orleans. He left his two children, ages 9 and 5 (a third had died in 1802), with a brother and his wife (who was his late wife’s sister), took $100 of gold and a letter of credit for $1,000, and went by ship for six weeks to New Orleans, arriving in February, 1804.
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