- 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
John Quincy Adams saw clearly what was going on. In his memoirs he confided: “Electioneering for the Presidency has spread its contagion to the President himself.… One of the most remarkable peculiarities of the present time is that the principal leaders of the political parties are travelling about the country from State to State, and holding forth, like Methodist preachers, hour after hour, to assembled multitudes, under the broad canopy of heaven.” Adams would not lift a finger to pursue réélection. He ignored his own party’s pleas for help and even refused to state that he wished to be elected. Like a caricature of the classical ideal, he stood for office in silence.
Elites still selected candidates in party caucuses and conventions, but they measured their choices against popular preferences and party loyalty. In an age when sentiment was supplanting reason in religion and the arts, when egalitarianism was destroying the legitimacy of natural as well as hereditary aristocracy, the values embodied in the classical republican ideal lost out in the race for popularity.
During the Civil War the Boston brahmin historian Francis Parkman probed the fundamental issues: “Our ship is among breakers, and we look about us for a pilot. An endangered nation seeks a leader worthy of itself.… In a struggle less momentous it found such leaders.… Out of three millions, America found a Washington, an Adams, a Franklin, a Jefferson, a Hamilton; out of twenty millions she now finds none whose stature can compare with these. She is strong in multitudes, swarming with brave men, instinct with eager patriotism. But she fails in that which multitudes cannot supply, those master minds, the lack of which the vastest aggregate of mediocrity can never fill.… Where are they? Why is mediocrity in our high places, and the race of our statesmen so dwindled? … The people have demanded equality, not superiority, and they have had it: men of the people, that is to say, men in no way raised above the ordinary level of humanity. In degrading its high offices, the nation has weakened and degraded itself.”
Ironically, these words were written just as the nation was about to discover the greatness of Abraham Lincoln. Yet the fact of Lincoln’s ultimate stature does not diminish the cogency of Parkman’s analysis. Lincoln was in fact elected as the common man incarnate. The fact that he subsequently displayed the superior qualities of wisdom, rectitude, and courage was accidental. His immediate predecessors in the highest office, Buchanan, Pierce, Fillmore, and Taylor, like his immediate successors, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, testify that the remarkable qualities Lincoln possessed were not requirements for nomination or election.
Today’s political system remains dynamic, and it has departed from that of the nineteenth century in a number of important ways. Senators are now elected directly by the voters. Primary elections for state and national offices have partially supplanted party conventions, and candidates appeal to voters directly through radio and television. Yet these developments represent logical extensions of the popular, egalitarian spirit that animated the nineteenth century.
As a result we elect companionable-seeming people who cannot appear aloof, and who are doomed if they seem arrogant or learned. One observer of the 1976 presidential campaign noted that after Jimmy Carter was criticized for the “lack of a self-deprecating humor, for several days he worked humorous remarks about himself into his public appearances.” As a candidate, Nixon had labored hard in the same vineyard and even took humor lessons from Bob Hope. For if a candidate possesses qualities that would truly set him off as superior, they must be concealed, since they excite fear and jealousy.
Overall we are more comfortable with people not much different from ourselves. Sen. Roman L. Hruska elevated this observation to a statement of principle in defending President Nixon’s nomination of G. Harrold Carswell for the Supreme Court in 1970. Hruska said that he would support Carswell “even if he were mediocre,” since “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers, and they are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?” Hruska’s only error lies in supposing that mediocrity is not already well represented in the high councils of the nation.