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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
SERJEANT: has a pretty good Character but I have no Acquaintance
GLOVER: is said to be a good Officer but am not acquainted
HUTCHINSON: An easy good Man not of great Genius
BALEY: is Nothing
BALDWIN: a Personable Man but not of the first Character
LEARNED: Was a good officer, is old, Superanuated and Resigned
GREATON: An excellent Disciplinarian his Courage has been questioned, but I dont know with what Justice
BOND: I dont know him
PATTERSON: A Good Officer of a liberal Education, ingenious and Sensible.
The key qualifications are knowledge, “genius,” and judgment in addition to the courage and moral character that were prerequisites.
For the highest positions, such as major general, and later for President, much more was wanted. In August 1776 Adams reflected on the essential qualities for the highest of offices. Such a person, Adams believed: “should be possessed of a very extensive Knowledge of Science, and Literature, Men and Things. A Citizen of a free Government, he Should be Master of the Laws and Constitution, least he injure fundamentally those Rights which he professes to defend. He Should have a keen Penetration and a deep Discernment of the Tempers, Natures, and Characters of Men. He Should have an Activity, and Diligence, Superiour to all Fatigue. He should have a Patience and Self Government, Superior to all Flights and Transports of Passion. He Should have a Candour and Moderation, above all Prejudices, and Partialities. His Views should be large enough to comprehend the whole System of the Government and the Army. … His Benevolence and Humanity, his Decency, Politeness and Civility, Should ever predominate in his Breast. He should be possessed of a certain … order, Method, and Decision, Superior to all Perplexity, and Confusion in Business. There is in Such a Character, whenever and wherever it appears, a decisive Energy, which hurries away before it, all Difficulties, and leaves to the World of Mankind no Leisure, or opportunity to do any Thing towards it, but Admire, it.” From the perspective of 1776, Adams’s idealism was not idle fantasy. Already the Continental Congress and the republic had found one such individual in George Washington.
In order to discern such qualities one could only resort to known men. Speaking of the selection of officers in October 1775, Adams remarked that “Men of Honour cannot appoint Gentlemen whom they dont know.… Nor can they pay a Regard to any Recommendation of Strangers, to the Exclusion of Persons whom they know.” Personal knowledge and the recommendations of acquaintances—personal connections—were crucial. Traditionally these were the mechanisms of patronage, where friends and relatives sponsored each other’s promotion, with merit no more than a secondary consideration. In the Revolutionary republic at its best, however, the new idealism transformed old, quasi-oligarchic practices into a screen for talent, wisdom, and character.
There was a genuine convergence between the real and the ideal, but it should not be overdrawn. In staffing Massachusetts’s officer corps, the champions of meritocracy faced formidable obstacles that were intrinsic to a representative government. The policy of Massachusetts, it was acidly remarked, was “to thrust into Notice Men, whom Nature design’d for Obscurity.” Though mediocrity had no defenders, there were real pressures to recruit and advance men of mediocre abilities and, as a corollary, some willingness to discourage the best qualified from public service.