Congress and the Decline of Public Trust

Congress and the Decline of Public Trust

Congress and the Decline of Public Trust

Congress and the Decline of Public Trust


Joseph Cooper is professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and served as the university's provost from 1991-1996.


Senator Bill Bradley

During the years I spent in the U.S. Senate, when young people visiting Washington on a school trip asked me what to do with their time, I usually encouraged them to visit the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, particularly the Jefferson Memorial, at night, taking enough time to read the inscriptions on the walls, to really read and absorb them. I made this pilgrimage of democracy myself, occasionally alone, though more often with out-of-town guests on warm Washington nights.

From a new book on the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, we now know how the words came to be as they are. in May 1941, the Jefferson Memorial Commission sent President Roosevelt a draft for the inscription, an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence beginning with the second paragraph, "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .," through the sentence in which Jefferson affirms that when government fails to meet its ends, "it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

Fdr, however, preferred to jump ahead to end the inscription with the words that end the entire Declaration, altered slightly: "For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour." He was the president, of course, and from the many sometimes contradictory words in the Declaration, it was the phrase he preferred to be carved in stone.

FDR's decision highlights a long-standing tension about the place of trust in this democracy. Do we treat government as a temporary expedient, to be "altered or abolished" when it fails to work as expected? Or do we pledge ourselves to it, wish for "divine protection," and throw in our lives and our honor?

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