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Where Have All The Great Men Gone?
The early years of our republic produced dozens of great leaders. A historian explains how men like Adams and Jefferson were selected for public office, and tells why the machinery that raised them became obsolete.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
The leaders of the early republic—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall—set the standard for greatness. Since their day only Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Boosevelt have attained equivalent stature. Why has mediocrity come to prevail where meritocracy once ruled? Where have all the great men gone?
This question is more complicated than it may first appear, and some will argue that the issues it raises are false and ahistorical, since responses to the question must be subjective. Indeed, some will say that to pose the question is to retreat into romantic mythology where the founders of the republic become the heroic figures of a “golden age.” These objections cannot be ignored.
It has been said that a statesman is nothing but a dead politician. From the time we are children we are taught not to speak ill of the dead, and in public rhetoric it is common to elevate them. In our own time admiration for John F. Kennedy exemplifies this phenomenon, and earlier in this century the reputation of the assassinated President William McKinley enjoyed a similar glorification that only gradually ebbed away. Nostalgia distorts historical perceptions, a fact that has nourished revisionist historiography for generations. In fact, revisionism in American historical writing began with the early-twentieth-century discovery that the Founding Fathers were flesh-and-blood politicians, and however obvious that “discovery” now appears, it remains a vital corrective to “golden age” thinking.
Yet even admitting all of this, scholars who have closely scrutinized the major leaders of the early republic continue to be enormously impressed. The array of talented and devoted individuals is awesome. In Massachusetts, for instance, John and Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry and John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine and James and Joseph Warren, immediately come to mind, as well as a dozen less exalted figures—a James Bowdoin, a Henry Knox, a Benjamin Lincoln, a James Sullivan. We need not agree that they all were truly great, but if we compare them with the present incumbents, the sense of loss and deprivation is overwhelming.
At the end of the eighteenth century, as today, political leaders were chiefly drawn from the white male population aged forty to sixty years. Leaving aside questions of wealth and education, Massachusetts in 1790 possessed about thirty thousand such people, the United States as a whole some two-hundred and fifty thousand. Today there are eighty times that number nationwide, twenty million white men aged forty to sixty years. And the total voting population ofthat age is forty-four million. Considered in light of these figures, the ability of the early republic to generate so many talented officeholders cannot be dismissed as mere patriotic mythology. We are talking about an actual fact.
Biographies cannot provide an explanation. The almost routine emergence of such able leaders was a social phenomenon, and to understand it we must examine the society that produced them. What were the conditions that created this political pattern, and when and why did it recede?
The folklore of politics teaches us that great events produce great men, and we can all think of examples where great events ennobled public figures who had previously, and accurately, been viewed as undistinguished. In 1932 the journalist Walter Lippmann observed that Franklin D. Roosevelt was “an amiable Boy Scout…a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” Unquestionably, the crises of the Depression and World War II elevated Roosevelt’s leadership. Had he served during the 1920s, there is no reason to believe his Presidency would be memorable.
Yet this phenomenon is not inevitable. Great events and great challenges produce George McClellans and George Wallaces as well as George Washingtons. No natural law requires societies to assign their most talented members to positions of public trust in times of crises. To understand the nature of how we actually do select our leaders, we must begin by examining the systems of recruiting and advancing public officials within a republican government.