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Where Have All The Great Men Gone?

July 2024
18min read

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.

THERE IS NO clear consensus on what constitutes greatness, nor are there any objective criteria for measuring it—but when we look at holders of high public offices and at the current field of candidates, we know it is missing. Some of our leaders are competent, articulate, engaging, and some are honest and honorable. But greatness is missing.

The leaders of the early republic—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall—set the standard for greatness. Since their day only Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Boosevelt have attained equivalent stature. Why has mediocrity come to prevail where meritocracy once ruled? Where have all the great men gone?

This question is more complicated than it may first appear, and some will argue that the issues it raises are false and ahistorical, since responses to the question must be subjective. Indeed, some will say that to pose the question is to retreat into romantic mythology where the founders of the republic become the heroic figures of a “golden age.” These objections cannot be ignored.


It has been said that a statesman is nothing but a dead politician. From the time we are children we are taught not to speak ill of the dead, and in public rhetoric it is common to elevate them. In our own time admiration for John F. Kennedy exemplifies this phenomenon, and earlier in this century the reputation of the assassinated President William McKinley enjoyed a similar glorification that only gradually ebbed away. Nostalgia distorts historical perceptions, a fact that has nourished revisionist historiography for generations. In fact, revisionism in American historical writing began with the early-twentieth-century discovery that the Founding Fathers were flesh-and-blood politicians, and however obvious that “discovery” now appears, it remains a vital corrective to “golden age” thinking.

Yet even admitting all of this, scholars who have closely scrutinized the major leaders of the early republic continue to be enormously impressed. The array of talented and devoted individuals is awesome. In Massachusetts, for instance, John and Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry and John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine and James and Joseph Warren, immediately come to mind, as well as a dozen less exalted figures—a James Bowdoin, a Henry Knox, a Benjamin Lincoln, a James Sullivan. We need not agree that they all were truly great, but if we compare them with the present incumbents, the sense of loss and deprivation is overwhelming.

At the end of the eighteenth century, as today, political leaders were chiefly drawn from the white male population aged forty to sixty years. Leaving aside questions of wealth and education, Massachusetts in 1790 possessed about thirty thousand such people, the United States as a whole some two-hundred and fifty thousand. Today there are eighty times that number nationwide, twenty million white men aged forty to sixty years. And the total voting population ofthat age is forty-four million. Considered in light of these figures, the ability of the early republic to generate so many talented officeholders cannot be dismissed as mere patriotic mythology. We are talking about an actual fact.

Biographies cannot provide an explanation. The almost routine emergence of such able leaders was a social phenomenon, and to understand it we must examine the society that produced them. What were the conditions that created this political pattern, and when and why did it recede?

The folklore of politics teaches us that great events produce great men, and we can all think of examples where great events ennobled public figures who had previously, and accurately, been viewed as undistinguished. In 1932 the journalist Walter Lippmann observed that Franklin D. Roosevelt was “an amiable Boy Scout…a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” Unquestionably, the crises of the Depression and World War II elevated Roosevelt’s leadership. Had he served during the 1920s, there is no reason to believe his Presidency would be memorable.

Yet this phenomenon is not inevitable. Great events and great challenges produce George McClellans and George Wallaces as well as George Washingtons. No natural law requires societies to assign their most talented members to positions of public trust in times of crises. To understand the nature of how we actually do select our leaders, we must begin by examining the systems of recruiting and advancing public officials within a republican government.

I believe that the United States currently operates a peculiar, debased form of meritocracy, which has five major attributes: first, access to high office is extremely competitive; second, keen personal ambition for power and recognition is necessary to propel people into the competition and keep them there; third, the system calls for a record of experience in public or quasi-public affairs; fourth, it requires visibility through media exposure; finally, what these four elements point to is the fifth characteristic of our system of recruitment and advancement—electioneering performance. The ability to perform in election contests, to go out tirelessly day after day in search of support and to win it from people of diverse characteristics—this is the ultimate criterion.

THIS SYSTEM OF political advancement operates directly through the electorate and indirectly through elites that recognize the ultimate authority of the ballot box. Because the electorate and the elites are so diverse, electioneering on a national scale or in any large state requires tireless campaigning to persuade people from a multitude of different backgrounds, often with directly conflicting interests, to look with hopeful anticipation on a single person. Chameleonlike, the candidate must appeal to boardroom and back room, fans of symphonies and Super Bowls. From the standpoint of electioneering, our current system is meritocratic, but the attributes that lead to success at the ballot box often seem to assure mediocrity in public office.


It was not always thus. At the outset of the republic, recruitment and advancement operated differently. First of all, the electorate was confined to white, male property-holders who had been schooled in the deferential politics of the colonial era. This was an electorate that expected political leaders to be men of wealth and education, not ordinary people like themselves. Moreover, in choosing candidates, voters were accustomed to supporting men whom they knew face-to-face or through local reputation. If they voted for a stranger, it was usually because that stranger carried the endorsement of a trusted member of the local elite. As far as the electorate was concerned, the role of candidates themselves in seeking office was largely passive.

The key process of nominating candidates was dominated by layers of local, state, and national elites. Candidates were selected by their peers, people who had witnessed them in action for years and who knew first-hand their strengths and weaknesses. Whatever the office in question, relatively homogeneous groups of incumbents and their associates selected candidates from among their own number. While the system was open to new men, and choices required approval at the polls, it had a distinctly oligarchic flavor. High esteem among the peer group was a prerequisite for major elective offices.

This brief comparison between the present system, where electoral popularity is the ultimate criterion, and the early republic, where peer-group approval was paramount, helps to focus our analysis, but it does not answer the question of the disappearing great men. Though it might be tempting to offer a simple elitist explanation, this would be worse than inadequate; it would be wrong. Historically the records of elite selection processes are replete with instances of incompetence, corruption, and tyranny—and mediocrity. Whether operated by Byrd in Virginia, Daley in Chicago, or Tweed in New York City, the record of oligarchic rule inside the United States, as elsewhere, is not synonymous with meritocracy. The central question then is not techniques of recruitment and advancement per se; it is the values that animate the process.

Great events and great challenges produce George McClellans and George Wallaces as well as George Washingtons.

During the first generation of the republic there was a clear consensus among leading men in all parts of the nation regarding fundamental political values. This consensus was grounded on the classical models that were central to the curricula at all the colonial colleges, from William and Mary in Virginia to Harvard in Massachusetts. Ideals of citizenship and public office were drawn from the history of the Roman republic. First of all, private, personal virtue was a prerequisite to public virtue and hence a requirement for high office. The object of political leadership was to implement the general public good, and in order to perceive and pursue it, leaders must be men of superior wisdom, energy, initiative, and moral stature. The people were not their guides; they were their charges, to be led along paths selected by the leaders. An aristocracy of merit—Jefferson called it a “natural aristocracy”—should rule.

In practical politics this classical model dictated that the man should never seek the office, the office should seek the man. The historical figure of Cincinnatus, who had been called from his plow to lead his people, was the ideal type. In our Revolutionary days, George Washington and Israel Putnam, among others, were presented in this mold.


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.”

ADAMS WAS A part of a national talent search, and he begged for candid assessments of individuals. The reports he received from political acquaintances in the Northern states reveal the application of meritocratic principles to the process of advancing people according to known connections. From New York a friend of Adams, a lawyer, now serving as a Continental officer, provided him with these ratings of the Massachusetts colonels:

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

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.

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.

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.

MEANWHILE , professional politicians flocked to Andrew Jackson because his military reputation made him famous and popular. Jackson’s career lent itself to magnification, and strategists organized parties, parades, and house-to-house canvassing to turn out the Jackson vote in 1828 on behalf of a common man’s crusade. Though Andrew Jackson was a person of unusual ability and genuine achievement, he was elected because he appeared to symbolize popular feelings. In 1840, when the Whigs successfully ran the aged and obscure William Henry Harrison as a Jackson look-alike in the “hard-cider,” “log-cabin,” “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign, the absolute corruption of the selection process was evident. Mediocrity was more popular than meritocracy, and henceforth it would be qualities associated with electioneering success that would determine recruitment and advancement.

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.

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.

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