Principle Before Party

Published: April 23, 2024

By Jim Lichtman
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Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Shutterstock

“Duty is ours. Results are God’s.”—John Quincy Adams

In 1806, after a series of attacks by Britain on American ships carrying goods, Massachusetts Senator John Quincy Adams and his colleagues were outraged. American sailors were being captured and “impressed” into the King’s navy. When the American frigate Chesapeake was fired upon by a British ship, Adams was so incensed he demanded that severe action be taken by President Jefferson. Jefferson proposed an embargo shutting off all international trade. However, the proposal would be disastrous to Massachusetts, the most commercially viable state in the union.

Adams, an ardent supporter of the measure, was excoriated by his colleagues and the entire shipping industry in New England, who believed John Quincy had sold them out. In one swift action—the future president and devoutly religious Puritan—had gone from revered protector of Massachusetts interests to despised traitor.

In explaining his principled stand, Adams stated, “Private interest must not be put in opposition to public good.”

This brings me to House Speaker Mike Johnson, who—despite being a hard-line Republican and unequivocal proponent of stronger border protection—was forced to make a similar decision regarding a long-delayed aid package to Ukraine.

Johnson, a deeply religious man, prayed for guidance before deciding.

When he brought the Ukrainian aid package to the floor last week, his far-right colleagues—who firmly stood against any aid to Ukraine until the Biden administration addressed the border crisis—denounced him.

“History judges us for what we do,” Johnson told the press last week. “This is a critical time right now. I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different. But I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing. I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important.”

“Mr. Johnson,” The New York Times writes, “attributed his turnabout in part to the intelligence briefings he received, a striking assertion from a leader of a party that has embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s deep mistrust of the intelligence community.

“I really do believe the intel,” Johnson told reporters. “I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed. I think he might go to the Baltics next. I think he might have a showdown with Poland or one of our NATO allies.”

“‘I want to be on the right side of history,” Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, recalled the speaker telling him,” The Times reported. All of a sudden, he’s realizing that the world depends on this,’ McCaul said. ‘This is not some little political game on the floor.’”

Trump acolytes excoriated Johnson’s decision, threatening to vacate (remove him) as House speaker.

“‘This is the third betrayal by Mike Johnson,’ Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene said on the House steps minutes after the vote on Saturday, citing the government funding bills and legislation he advanced to renew an expiring warrantless surveillance law as his first two transgressions.

“‘A foreign war package that does nothing for America?’ she continued. ‘It’s unbelievable. I’m thankful that America gets to see who this man is.’”

However, “Convinced that [his colleagues] would come around to his way of thinking, Mr. Johnson repeatedly urged Republicans who opposed the funding measure to go to the secure space at the Capitol and receive the same intelligence briefings, according to people he spoke to.”

Why wouldn’t all House Republicans sit for a briefing? Wouldn’t it be important to know all the facts before making a judgement. This is an example of party agenda over a critical crisis with an ally, especially when that ally is being attacked by Russia’s Putin.

“Mr. Johnson was also struck by the stories he heard in meetings with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and others about the magnitude of the misery Russian forces have unleashed across the embattled nation. All of it tugged at Mr. Johnson’s sense of Christian faith.

“‘I think he always understood the importance of this and believes in the importance of this,’ Representative Mike Lawler, Republican of New York, said. ‘The function of being speaker is to try to build consensus, and I think he wanted to find consensus among the conference. Unfortunately, there are some folks that are just unwilling to compromise.’

“Mr. Johnson had been more reflective, telling reporters that during tough times, he took comfort in an adage about former President John Quincy Adams’s time in Congress.

“Another lawmaker asked Mr. Adams why he continued bringing up the same resolution to end slavery, only to see it fail each time. In Mr. Johnson’s telling, Mr. Adams replied: ‘Duty is ours. Results are God’s.’

“To me,” Johnson told reporters, “that’s a very liberating thought. I will do my duty, and the results are not ultimately up to me. I’m comfortable with that.”

I’m comfortable that the US House of Representatives has a leader who has the courage of his convictions despite the consequences.


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