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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
Greatness is an exceptional phenomenon; even under the best conditions the odds must always be against it.
Hruska’s statement is embarrassing because normally we do not like to admit our suspicion of superiority. In the end, however, we regularly elect plausible, supple politicians who have the patience for endless campaigning and who are appealing rather than admirable.
Still, greatness is not absolutely ruled out. At special historical moments a highest common denominator may be discovered and, as with Lincoln and Roosevelt, greatness may luckily emerge. But greatness, of course, is an exceptional phenomenon; even under the best conditions the odds must always be against it. By selecting leaders as we do, we lengthen those odds dramatically. In order to better our chances, a revolution in our system of recruiting and selecting leaders would be required, as well as a revolution in values. We would have to admit that the people, who glimpse candidates only momentarily from a distance, and through the filters of the media, do not have the capacity to judge who is fit for office. We would have to reject the democratic egalitarian ethos under which our political system has been operating for over a century.
I do not advise revolution. The great men who led in founding our republic would offer the same counsel. After all, they made the Revolution for the sake of liberty through law, and they created the Constitution because history had taught them it was dangerous to rely on the individual merit or virtue of rulers. They placed their faith in constitutional government, arranging power so as to rely on laws, not men. They believed that, in the long run, this gave the best hope for freedom. Their greatest fear was not the mediocrity and inadequacy of leaders, it was the apathy, ignorance, and petty selfishness of the people. When public morals became corrupt, they warned, liberty would languish.
Perhaps their warning is relevant for our own time. Our longing for great men and women to lead us out of the wilderness is, in classical republican terms, a sign of lassitude, of the corruption that encourages demagogues and leads to tyranny. Informed by history, we should understand that the circumstances that led to the sparkling era when personal greatness and high public office coincided were unique, and exceptional. To expect greatness in public office, to anticipate a new meritocracy that can solve our problems, is a fantasy. The public interest and the safety of free government are better served by an alert, informed citizenry seeking to promote the common good. Whether that, too, is fantasy, only time will tell.