- 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
The difficulty of any merit system is how to measure merit. Early leaders relied on personal acquaintance.
John Adams grasped the problem immediately. In a popular representative government, the elitism that was inseparably connected to the development of a natural aristocracy was suspect: “Knowledge is among the most essential Foundations of Liberty. But is there not a Jealousy or an Envy taking Place among the Multitude of Men of Learning, and, a wish to exclude them from the public Councils and from military Command? I could mention many Phenomena, in various Parts of these States, which indicate such a growing Disposition. To what Cause Shall I attribute the Surprizing Conduct of the Massachusetts Bay? How has it happened that such an illiterate Group of General and Field Officers, have been thrust into public View, by that Commonwealth which … ought to have set an Example to her sisters, by sending into the Field her best Men. Men of the most Genius Learning, Reflection, and Address. Instead of this, every Man you send into the Army as a General or a Collonell exhibits a Character, which nobody ever heard of before, or an aukward, illiterate, ill bred Man … there is not a Single Man among all our Collonells that I dare to recommend for a General Officer, except Knox and Porter.” Adams and his peers associated learning and largeness of view with merit, and the fact that these qualities also correlated substantially with wealth and social status seemed natural and appropriate to them.
But ordinary people were not fully in agreement. John Adams wrote in alarm: “I fear We shall find that popular Elections are not oftener determined, upon pure Principles of Merit, Virtue, and public Spirit, than the Nominations of a Court, if We dont take Care. I fear there is an infinity of Corruption in our Elections already crept in. All Kinds of Favour, Intrigue and Partiality in Elections are as real, Corruption in my Mind, as Treats and Bribes.… A Sober, conscientious Habit, of electing for the public good alone must be introduced, and every Appearance of Interest, Favour, and Partiality, reprobated, or you will very soon make wise and honest Men wish for Monarchy again, nay you will make them introduce it into America.” Long before the emergence of the Federalist movement, Adams foresaw the tensions between elite political expectations and government based on popular elections.
Actually, Gordon S. Wood, the leading authority on the effort to create the Constitution of 1787, believes that one of its central objectives was to screen out the direct influence of the people from the government, enabling the elites to select from among their own number the people they believed were best qualified to guide the United States. The provisions of the Constitution prescribing the selection of the principal public officials clearly limited the impact of popular elections. The President was to be chosen by an Electoral College, and failing a majority there, by the House of Representatives. The members of the United States Senate were to be elected by the individual state legislatures. The only popularly elected officers would be members of the House of Representatives, but since their constituencies were so large (at least forty thousand people), it was believed that only prominent men of proven abilities would possess the visibility and wide acquaintance necessary for election.
The conviction that men of merit according to upper-class standards must dominate public office was a consistent theme in the Federalist administrations of Washington and Adams, but the election of 1800 and the ensuing party competition between Jeffersonians and Federalists pointed in a new direction. After Jefferson took office, even the majority of Federalists were prepared to give the people what they wanted, tailoring policy to popular wishes instead of to abstract principles of the public good. While it is hard to fix a precise date for the demise of the system of political recruitment and advancement that produced so many great men, it was weakening in the early decades of the new century, and in the presidential election of 1828 its utter defeat is evident.
As President, John Quincy Adams was a political anachronism. His election in 1824 was the only case where the electoral process set up in 1787 to assure the best choice in case of deadlock had actually been employed. When no one commanded a majority in the Electoral College, the selection of the President fell to the House of Representatives. Here his fellow candidate Henry Clay decided that Adams would make a better President than Andrew Jackson, who had won a plurality of popular votes. Whatever Clay’s motives, by following this course he directly repudiated the popular vote as well as the instructions of his own Kentucky legislature. The system of elite selection worked, for Adams was indeed superbly qualified for the highest office according to the classical republican canons of education, experience, intelligence, energy, and moral stature. But he lacked popularity and the willingness to seek it. In 1828 he and the meritocratic system he symbolized were defeated.