The product of a new nation, George Washington, was a leader who shines among the best. While Thomas Jefferson was more learned, more cultivated, a more extraordinary mind with unsurpassed intelligence, Washington had a character of rock and a kind of nobility that exerted natural dominion over others, together with the inner strength and perseverance that enabled him to prevail over a flood of obstacles. He made possible both the physical victory of American independence and the survival of the fractious republic in its beginning years.
Around him an extraordinary fertility of political talent bloomed as if touched by the sun. For all their flaws and quarrels, the Founding Fathers have rightfully been called by Arthur Schlesinger, “the most remarkable generation of public servants in the history of the United States and perhaps the world”. It is worth noting the qualities this historian ascribes to them: they were fearless, high-principled, astute and pragmatic, unafraid of experiment, and – most significant – “they were convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence.”
It would be invaluable if we could know what produced this burst of talent from a population base of only 2.5 million. Schlesinger suggests some contributing factors: a wide diffusion of education, challenging economic opportunities, social mobility and training in self-government. All these encouraged citizens to cultivate their political aptitude to the fullest. Perhaps, above all, the need of the moment was what evoked the response – the opportunity to create a new political system.
Not before or since has so much careful and reasonable thinking been invested in the formation of a governmental system. In the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, too much class hatred and bloodshed were involved to allow for fair results or permanent constitutions. For more than two centuries, the American arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without discarding the system and trying another after every crisis as have so many other countries.
Under the accelerating incompetence of the career politicians – the political elite, this may change. These people are unimpressive in every way and very few of them have any character let alone character like that of George Washington. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable or when bungling is cushioned by large resources. Today, when there are fewer and fewer cushions, folly is less affordable.
The Founding Fathers remain a phenomenon to keep in mind to encourage our estimate of human possibilities (our hope), even if their example is too rare to be a basis of normal expectations.
Source: Book – The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman published in 1984
The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.