- 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
Anyone familiar with behind-the-scenes politics from 1776 onward knows that these ideals were commonly violated. The launching of the new state and national governments generated a bonanza in vacant offices, and a wave of office seekers rushed in upon them. In the lower echelons of the civilian and military establishments, place seeking was routine. At higher levels the process of recruitment and advancement was much more complicated, and the influence of the new republican idealism on actual practice was far more evident. Patronage connections remained vital, but the meritocratic possibilities of patronage developed a new importance.
The situation is illustrated by the efforts of the Continental Congress to fill its complement of officers for the Army. British colonial tradition dictated that such offices be filled according to principles of venality—that is, personal influence, tempered by some attention to seniority within the ranks of officers. But the Congress broke with tradition, and on May 10, 1776, it formally adopted a policy of “promoting the officers in the continental service according to their merit.” Five months later the Congress even repudiated the principle of seniority in favor of merit, recommending to the states that “all the officers to be hereafter appointed, be men of honor and known abilities, without a particular regard to their having before been in service.” This recommendation was political dynamite, and even the normally acquiescent General Washington took issue with it, arguing that unless promotions were compatible with seniority, the officer corps would be demoralized. A compromise was finally proposed in which prior rank and merit both had a part, but with the understanding that Congress might deviate from any of its rules “in favour of merit eminently distinguished and generally acknowledged.” In the accompanying debate John Adams vigorously rebutted the arguments of Washington and those who counseled in favor of seniority. “I have no fears from the resignation of Officers if junior Officers are preferred to them,” Adams declared. “If they have virtue they will continue with us. If not,” he concluded, “their resignation will not hurt us.” Adams, a key member of the board of war, had been wrestling with the problem for nearly two years and he was convinced that meritocracy could work.
The difficulty of any merit system is how to measure merit. Early republican leaders sought the judgments of informed gentlemen, relying on their discretion as to whether merit was “eminently distinguished and generally acknowledged.” Here personal acquaintance—“connections”—was often crucial, and the meritocratic possibilities of patronage were developed.
At the core of the system trust ruled. Assessments of character and abilities were necessarily subjective, so those who selected candidates for civil and military office had to rely on the testimony of their peers. John Adams’s correspondence as a member of the board of war illustrates the system’s values and the way it worked. To his old law clerk, Adams wrote in August 1776: “I am … determined to pursue this Correspondence, untill I can obtain a perfect Knowledge of the Characters of our Field Officers.” Of one man Adams asserted: “His Genius is equal to any one of his Age. His Education is not inferiour. So far I can Say of my own Knowledge”; but before Adams could recommend promotion, he needed to know more about the candidate’s “Morals, his Honour, and his Discretion.” On the same day Adams complained in another letter to a colleague that Massachusetts “continues to act, the most odd Surprizing and unaccountable Part, respecting Officers. They have a most wonderfull Faculty of finding out Persons for Generals and Colonells of whom no Body ever heard before. Let me beg of you, in Confidence to give me your candid and explicit opinion, of the Massachusetts General and Field Officers, and point out such as have any Education, Erudition, Sentiment, Reflection, Address or other Qualification or Accomplishment excepting Honour and Valour for Officers in high Rank. Who and What is General Fellows? Who and What is General Brickett?…
“If there are any officers, young or old, among the Massachusetts Forces who have Genius, Spirit, Reflection, Science, Literature, and Breeding, do for the Lands sake, and the Armys sake, and the Province sake let me know their Names, Places of Abodes and Characters.”
WHITCOMB: has no Trace of an Officer, his Men under no Government
REED: A good Officer not of the most extensive Knowledge but far from being low or despicable…
LITTLE: A Midling Officer and of tolerable Genius, not great