Jacquelyn Martin, AP
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens to a question on the Department of Defense budget posture during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Thursday April 26, on Capitol Hill in Washington. He sent his letter of resignation to President Trump on Thursday, Dec. 20.

On Jan. 1, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will be the latest cabinet member to exit President Donald Trump’s dwindling circle of friendship. To some, he’ll walk away a hero who stood on principle. To others, he’ll head home a softie who couldn’t rein in the president. Still others will bid him a hearty farewell and welcome another more aligned with the president.

So which is it? When at loggerheads with the chief executive, is resigning a show of integrity, or is it failing to put country first?

Mattis, a distinguished career Marine, was appointed by Trump nearly two years ago and entered the office with a long list of accomplishments. He seemed a natural fit and affirmed the importance of a United States-led world order, in a sense supporting a foreign affairs version of “America first.” But tensions with the president mounted, bursting when Mattis refused to defend the president’s Dec. 19 decision to pull 2,000 American troops out of Syria.

So he resigns. And his resignation letter doesn’t hide any discontent he feels toward the administration. “Because you have the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours,” he writes, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

Sounds like standing on principle.

But Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse called it “a sad day for America” because “Secretary Mattis was giving advice the President needs to hear.” Sounds like a public servant refusing to put his country first.

What’s right?

Consider this history refresher. With the United States in its infancy, electors had no qualms casting their votes twice for George Washington to lead the fledgling nation. But after he graciously bowed out of a third term, partisan politics settled in and the country got its first taste of nasty politicking.

Washington’s vice president, John Adams, dueled with his longtime friend and fellow cabinet member, Thomas Jefferson, in the election of 1796. These were simpler times where Twitter was the town newspaper and stump speeches predated news sound bites.

It also was a time when the Constitution had only 11 amendments.

That means whoever got the second-most votes in their run for president became the vice, a constitutional mechanism Congress altered with the 12th Amendment.

In the meantime, Adams edged out Jefferson in 1796, elevating Adams to president and making his political foe second in command. Once great friends, politics drove them apart and neither had an inclination to work with the other.

Foreign affairs was the sticking point. Jefferson supported the ongoing French Revolution, despite the execution of King Louis XVI, while Adams was decidedly pro-British. Somehow they limped through the four years.

22 comments on this story

After another demoralizing campaign, politicos of the day saw the mess and found the solution in a constitutional amendment. (Apparently, slandering Adams’ “hideous hermaphroditical character” didn’t do much to help the situation.) But such a severe action isn’t prudent today, at least not for something so petty as a presidential-appointed secretary who disagrees with his boss.

Unlike Mattis and a growing number of Trump’s chosen White House officials, Jefferson stuck it out. But is gridlock and conflict more noble than progress for one person’s agenda?

Put yourself in the scenario. Could you possibly serve your country without being totally compromised by working for someone you couldn’t support? It’s a complex question. But let’s hope our touchstones for answering still involve a sense of patriotic duty and a clear conscience.