December 16, 2008
Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, introduced speaker Dr. J. Rufus Fears to an audience gathered at the Library of Congress, on Capitol Hill, for the opening keynote address of the “Bush Legacy and Lessons” conference. Dr. Fears is the David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he teaches courses on the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as a survey course on the history of liberty in the West. Dr. Fears also has a substantial following based on his best selling audio courses published by the Teaching Company on topics ranging from the ancient Roman republic, to a biographical history of Winston Churchill.
The topic of Dr. Fears’ keynote address was “George W. Bush, Economic Crisis, and the Lessons of History.” Assessing the Bush presidency from a classical perspective, Dr. Fears urged his audience to think historically about the Bush legacy, a task which proved challenging for a number of policy makers present in the audience. Dr. Fears framed his argument on three premises. First, freedom is not a universal human value. Second, he argued, “[d]emocracies and the spread of democratic freedom do not ensure peace. Democracies don’t necessarily make good neighbors.” Finally, Dr. Fears wanted the audience to remember that the American traditions of liberty and freedom are unique in all human history.
In order to define his terms properly, Dr. Fears explained what he meant by liberty and freedom. He argued that there are three components of freedom: political freedom, national freedom and individual freedom. National freedom is freedom from foreign domination, whereas, political freedom is the liberty to vote, hold office, and serve on a jury. Individual freedom is the freedom to live as you choose, as long as you don’t harm anyone else. Interestingly enough, these components are not mutually exclusive—one can have national freedom without individual freedom, political freedom without national freedom, and so on. He further argued that “freedom is not an abstraction, it is realized at history events and in institutions.”
Developing his argument, Dr. Fears explained that at many times in history, nations have foregone political and individual freedom in pursuit of national greatness. He pointed to the example of the Third Reich as an empire that sought national freedom by subordinating personal liberty. From this foundation, he provided evidence as to why the concept of freedom is not a universal value. Time and time again, throughout human history, societies have chosen the “perceived security of despotism over the awesome responsibility of self-government.” These trends are as old has history itself. From ancient Mesopotamia to the Pharaohs of Egypt, people chose despots who could give them economic security over rulers who could grant them individual rights.
After discussing the history of ancient Greece and Rome, Dr. Fears argued that the spread of democracy does not lead to peace. After all, the warring Greek city-states were thoroughly democratic. The greatest war of the ancient world was between the democracies of Athens and Sparta. On our own continent, the American Civil War—a war between two democracies—was the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. Dr. Fears pointed out that the Founding Fathers were not under the delusion that spreading American democracy abroad would make the world a safer place. John Jay wrote in the Federalist Papers that colonies must be united, because “thirteen colonies side by side would fight all the time.” Keeping this reality in mind, the only way to make wars end completely is the unconditional surrender and humiliation of the enemy. Fears argued that the Confederate surrender did not come about because of negotiations between Lincoln and Davis, but rather, through a consistent and bloody military campaign.
Speaking on the uniqueness of our own country’s history, Dr. Fears said that America achieved a “miraculous blend of national, political and individual freedom.” Only the ancient Athenians came close to achieving this same mixture of all the components of ordered freedom. Just last November, Americans exercised their political freedom in the midst of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. We take our political freedom so for granted, that the majority of Americans don’t even bother to show up to the polls on election day. In terms of individual freedom, Fears argued that Americans are freer than any other people on the globe. He pointed to the enormous immigration rates as evidence that people desire to share in America’s sense of individual freedom.
Dr. Fears then developed his argument by stating that both President George W. Bush, and the Athenian Pericles, argued that their societies were a model for the world. Both men believed that if the world could follow their example, it would be a far more safe and prosperous place. However, history has shown us that all great political experiments, no matter how unique, have an expiration date.
Turning to the American Founding, Dr. Fears argued that the United States is the only nation in history founded on principles. At the heart of the American identity is an adoption of our founding principles, not the result of “a geographical accident.” He cited the text of the Declaration of Independence as evidence that all Americans are endowed with certain unalienable rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thus America’s constitutional foundation in natural law makes it unique among other democratic countries in the world today.
Dr. Fears began the question and answer period by recapping his argument to the audience. Fears was emphatic that the Global War on Terror requires a higher degree of sacrifice by the American people. He explained that no other nation in history was able to wage foreign wars abroad and cut taxes at home without inviting domestic economic chaos. Playing the role of political commentator, Fears argued that the world is a more dangerous place in 2008 than it was in the year 2000.
Relating America’s recent economic downturn to the lessons of history, Dr. Fears explained that history has shown us that economic crisis abroad often leads to political crisis on the home front. Fears sees many similarities between the United States current recession and the economic atmosphere in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Just like those living on the cusp of the Great Depression, many Americans today were lured into the stock market that did not have the money or expertise to manage their finances properly during these turbulent times. He also argued that America’s two foreign wars in the Middle East caused the government to take its eye off the mounting economic crisis at home.
Gleaves Whitney posed for a photograph with friend and colleague Tracy Mehan. Mr. Mehan has had a distinguished career with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.
Gleaves Whitney, and Grand Valley’s Vice President Mary Eileen Lyon, shared conversation with Paul-Noel Chretien. Mr. Chretien works at the Central Intelligence Agency, just one of several audience members with a professional relationship to the George W. Bush administration.
Dr. Fears addressed questions regarding the content of his keynote with a couple audience members at the conclusion of the question and answer session. Several audience members stayed to converse with Dr. Fears at the end of the evening’s 90-minute program. Those in attendance found Dr. Fears’ presentation to be both informative, and at times, provocative.
Immediately upon entering the lobby of the Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress, one cannot help but notice a Greco-Roman effigy of former president and Founding Father, James Madison.