Thursday, May 11, 2006


Where are all the great statesmen?

Still reading Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. The book has gotten me thinking about the old saw: why were there so many "great men" leading the our young nation through the Revolutionary War and the framing of the U.S. Constitution, and such mediocre political leaders today? Where are the stately Washingtons, the brilliant Madisons, Hamiltons and Jeffersons nowadays?

The question of who goes into politics today, and what the process does to their ideas and values, is a topic for another time and place. Here are some thoughts about why the brilliant ones made such a splash back then.

Late 18th century America offered a unique historical circumstance combining (1) low population, (2) a high concentration of wealth, power and education in a small elite, and (3) the high point of the Enlightenment.

The enlightenment represents the tail end of the period in which a well educated person could still be a "renaissance man," that is, a master of numerous fields of intellectual endeavor. Hamilton, for instance, gained mastery in the fields of law, political theory, economics and finance, and military command. Jefferson: political theory, philosophy, literature, architecture. And so on. As human knowledge deepens, the more we are pushed toward specialization, because mastery of a subject usually requires a lifetime of dedication to it.

Here, America's small population (about 5 million people, including nearly 1 million black slaves) and lack of established institutions come into play. Basically, renaissance and enlightenment men were gifted amateurs at a time and place when gifted amateurs could run things. Some of the greatness of the founders wouldn't look so great today -- Washington's grasp of militatry strategy, for instance -- but it worked because the standards of excellence were lower in that simpler time. (I sometimes fantasize about becoming a professional hockey player in Israel.)

In other areas, of course, the founders were brilliant by any standard, but that's where the small elite thing comes in. Chernow makes the interesting point that in the 1770s-1780s, there was a great demand for intellectual and theoretical argument in politics. No doubt this was a function of Enlightenment values couple with the need to create political institutions more or less from the ground up. The concentration of wealth, power and intellectual attainment in the same relatively small group contributed to the demand for intellectual argument by decisionmakers and the broader, but relatively small, reading audience. The Federalist Papers were not written for the masses.

Finally, mere historical myopia played its role. There was plenty of low-brow personal attack politics in that era (for instance, Hamilton's political enemies in New York politics dubbed him "Tom Sh*t" in a series of essays claiming, among other things, that he was of mixed race), but it has been swept under the rug of popular history.

Long story short: I think there are brilliant people around today who could have rivalled Washington, Madison, Hamilton or Jefferson had they been placed in that historical moment. But today's political and social problems can't be solved by grand theoretical solutions, and are beyond the reach of gifted amateurs. Today's brilliant people are scattered around in various areas of specialization, and their voices can't readily be heard above the din of the hundreds of thousands of articulate folks babbling away in tens of thousands of publications, broadcasts and, yes, even blogs.

Where are the stately Washingtons, the brilliant Madisons, Hamiltons and Jeffersons nowadays?

Literally? Dead.

Figuratively? Private sector.

lzhnf (LAZE-enough): a satisfactory amount of relaxation. In honor of Moral Turpitude.
I wonder if Madison, Hamilton, or Jefferson ever had to be subjected to a 24-hour take-home final exam, which I might add, are FASCIST!!!!
is oscar running for office?


jrhuid = junior human i.d. (those little plastic bracelet/footlets they put on newborns in the hospital)
It seems like you've been reading this book a long time. I presume part of your review will not be, "I couldn't put it down!"

It's not polite to comment on someone's reading rate. Actually, it's a book on CD, and it's hard to crank through it on short trips around town.

gkpng -- (1) "geek-keeping": monitoring statistics relating to someone's geeky habits, such as the speed of reading biographical tomes; (2) "geek-ping": an electronic warning signal to alert friends to intervene before the geeky habit gets out of hand
I think you will find that most of the Great "Statesmen" were Senators and were great before the passage of the 17th amendment in 1913. That changed the way they were elected. They had been elected by the state governments to represent the states so they did not have to worry about offending the public because they didn't elect them. They could speak the truth and do what was best for our nation.

The 17th changed that so that the senators are now elected by the people. Now that they did have to answer to the people they have to remain "politically correct" to keep their jobs so all they do is bullshit us and because they now have to raise large amounts of money to get reelected, they are owned by special interest.
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