- Historic Sites
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
I believe that the United States currently operates a peculiar, debased form of meritocracy, which has five major attributes: first, access to high office is extremely competitive; second, keen personal ambition for power and recognition is necessary to propel people into the competition and keep them there; third, the system calls for a record of experience in public or quasi-public affairs; fourth, it requires visibility through media exposure; finally, what these four elements point to is the fifth characteristic of our system of recruitment and advancement—electioneering performance. The ability to perform in election contests, to go out tirelessly day after day in search of support and to win it from people of diverse characteristics—this is the ultimate criterion.
It was not always thus. At the outset of the republic, recruitment and advancement operated differently. First of all, the electorate was confined to white, male property-holders who had been schooled in the deferential politics of the colonial era. This was an electorate that expected political leaders to be men of wealth and education, not ordinary people like themselves. Moreover, in choosing candidates, voters were accustomed to supporting men whom they knew face-to-face or through local reputation. If they voted for a stranger, it was usually because that stranger carried the endorsement of a trusted member of the local elite. As far as the electorate was concerned, the role of candidates themselves in seeking office was largely passive.
The key process of nominating candidates was dominated by layers of local, state, and national elites. Candidates were selected by their peers, people who had witnessed them in action for years and who knew first-hand their strengths and weaknesses. Whatever the office in question, relatively homogeneous groups of incumbents and their associates selected candidates from among their own number. While the system was open to new men, and choices required approval at the polls, it had a distinctly oligarchic flavor. High esteem among the peer group was a prerequisite for major elective offices.
This brief comparison between the present system, where electoral popularity is the ultimate criterion, and the early republic, where peer-group approval was paramount, helps to focus our analysis, but it does not answer the question of the disappearing great men. Though it might be tempting to offer a simple elitist explanation, this would be worse than inadequate; it would be wrong. Historically the records of elite selection processes are replete with instances of incompetence, corruption, and tyranny—and mediocrity. Whether operated by Byrd in Virginia, Daley in Chicago, or Tweed in New York City, the record of oligarchic rule inside the United States, as elsewhere, is not synonymous with meritocracy. The central question then is not techniques of recruitment and advancement per se; it is the values that animate the process.
Great events and great challenges produce George McClellans and George Wallaces as well as George Washingtons.
During the first generation of the republic there was a clear consensus among leading men in all parts of the nation regarding fundamental political values. This consensus was grounded on the classical models that were central to the curricula at all the colonial colleges, from William and Mary in Virginia to Harvard in Massachusetts. Ideals of citizenship and public office were drawn from the history of the Roman republic. First of all, private, personal virtue was a prerequisite to public virtue and hence a requirement for high office. The object of political leadership was to implement the general public good, and in order to perceive and pursue it, leaders must be men of superior wisdom, energy, initiative, and moral stature. The people were not their guides; they were their charges, to be led along paths selected by the leaders. An aristocracy of merit—Jefferson called it a “natural aristocracy”—should rule.
In practical politics this classical model dictated that the man should never seek the office, the office should seek the man. The historical figure of Cincinnatus, who had been called from his plow to lead his people, was the ideal type. In our Revolutionary days, George Washington and Israel Putnam, among others, were presented in this mold.