The world’s leaders are a sorry lot. They are either dictators like Assad, Kim Jong-Un; theocrats with absolute religious authority like the Iranian ayatollahs; well-meaning but inept politicians like Obama and David Cameron, buffoons like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, or lackluster, entitled pretenders like Hilary Clinton.
The Founding Fathers were nothing of the sort. To a man they were serious thinkers, men of character and principle, all dedicated to forming a more perfect union. Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Jay, Franklin, and Monroe formed a ‘genius cluster', a poorly-explained phenomenon of history.
Churchill, De Gaulle, and Roosevelt were another such cluster. Roosevelt brought America out of the Great Depression and presided over the the Allied victory in Europe. Without Churchill’s resolve, will, courage, and absolute conviction of moral right, the Battle of Britain would never have been won. De Gaulle in exile was a heroic figure to whom occupied France turned for moral and political support.
Genius clusters are not exclusively modern. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece produced Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Augustus founded the Roman Empire and presided over the long Pax Romana. While other Romans like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are better known, Augustus was the most powerful and influential leader of Rome. He was not part of a cluster, but the same question must be asked about unique historical leaders. Where did they come from? What factors enabled their rise? And how were they able to accomplish the remarkable feats of their reign?
Tolstoy debunks The Great Man Theory of history in Epilogue II of War and Peace. Napoleon might have been a fascinatingly unique character, but he was simply the product of millions of random antecedent events which, like biological evolution, happened to create a man of particular military and political genius. Yet Tolstoy’s conclusion begs the questions, “Why Napoleon? Why in 1812?” What particular configuration of historical antecedents and contemporary influences produced one of Europe’s most powerful men?
Genius clusters are a different story. Not only did the early days of the American Republic produce one genius, but many. Jefferson alone might have been an Augustus or a Napoleon; but around him were Hamilton, a man of aristocratic temperament and philosophy who challenged Jefferson’s belief in populist democracy; a man who with technical, professional, and political astuteness set up the country’s financial system. Franklin, like Jefferson, was a polyglot – a man of science and diplomacy who was Jefferson’s emissary to France.
Franklin originally expressed his doubts over the draft Constitution, but in an address to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 displayed his particular if not unique understanding of democratic rule:
In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.
I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
Both Jefferson and Monroe had a particularly astute understanding of the political, economic, and military power of the new Republic. Jefferson’s sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition to map 0ut and plat the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory provided the legal and historical basis for Westward expansion and American colonization of the West. Monroe subscribed to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were destined to expand their reach to the Pacific, and he provided political, moral, and financial support for this effort. His genius was that he saw what the country could become, and with only a necessarily sketchy understanding of territories west of the Mississippi, acted decisively.
Churchill was a historian, writer, and soldier before he became Prime Minister, and thanks to his genius, international experience, and intellectual appreciation of history, was perfectly placed to lead Britain in WWII. He understood what Hitler was about long before anyone else, knew that the Battle of Britain would be decisive for the defeat of Hitler, and saw through Stalin’s claims and predicted the Iron Curtain and the rise of Soviet hegemony.
De Gaulle was a patrician, arrogant, but dominating figure who had an almost mystical sense of his historical destiny. “La France, c’est moi” – the embodiment of 1000 years of French history and a call to arms and resistance to those who would threaten it – was genius. If Churchill was the brains of the Allied Triumvirate, De Gaulle was its Savior.
Roosevelt’s genius was in his understanding of the American character. He knew that Americans were good, strong, honest, and hard-working, but that they were suffering from a crisis which they did not create but because of which they were inordinately suffering. Roosevelt’s oratory matched Churchill’s during the Battle of Britain. In his first Inaugural Address, Roosevelt said:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.Roosevelt implicitly understood the nature of government bureaucracy and the intersection of electoral democracy and administrative management; and he was able to mobilize all the departments of government, the states, and the people in new, aggressive programs of the New Deal.
His genius was instinctive understanding of America, a surprising feel for the machinery of government, and brilliant oratory.
Peggy Noonan in an article on genius clusters in the Wall Street Journal (7.3.16) interviewed a number of historians to find answers to why these clusters occur. “Providence”, shrugged one.
Far from it. What the Founding Fathers, Churchill, Roosevelt, and De Gaulle shared was a patrician, aristocratic upbringing, an inherited sense of noblesse oblige, a classical training which valued honesty, integrity, compassion, discipline, and loyal service, and societies which did not question aristocratic rule.
Jefferson and his colleagues were members of an exclusive club – an, elite, members-only club whose members understood their obligations, their duty, and the moral imperatives which guided their families for generations. Some, like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were from wealthy patrician families; but others like Franklin, the son of a candle-maker, had more humble origins. The club was not socially exclusive but admitted those who shared the same intellectual abilities, character, and commitment.
Although the Founding Fathers were the authors of the Constitution, it had to be ratified by the new states; but their representatives were men not unlike Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. The Constitutional Convention was an assembly of the like-minded who may have had differences of opinion but who operated within the same cultural and social context. The club was not so exclusive, but it operated according to the same rules.
Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle were all from aristocratic, patrician families whose patriotism and respect for classical values was inherent. Of course the popular will of the people was alive and well during their reigns, and they could not rule as autocrats. Yet they came of political age at a time when aristocratic elites were taken for granted, afforded respect if not honor. They did not have to go through mudslinging, barroom-brawl primaries to get elected; nor did they have to tailor their policies based on the views of the common man. They were given license to rule. It was no different in Ancient Rome or Greece.
Although De Gaulle might have carried this sentiment a bit too far when he claimed that he was Marianne, Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Charlemagne all in one, he nevertheless believed absolutely in his role in leading France. Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Founding Fathers were no less committed to their nation but with less grandeur.
George H.W. Bush is a good example of the noblesse oblige which has been behind leadership within genius clusters. Bush, from a wealthy, patrician family was unselfishly devoted to public service. An aviator in WWII, a Congressman, Senator, Director of the CIA, Vice-President to Ronald Reagan, and then President, Bush had the same qualities of duty, obligation, honor, and respect taught by Cato the Elder to young future leaders of Rome.
Populist democracy has ended noblesse oblige and genius cultures forever in the United States. The more electoral democracy devolves to the level of the common man, the more it becomes ruled by parochial interests, unformed or ignorant opinions, emotion instead of intellect, and image instead of character.
Because of the ‘democratization’ of the political process according to which the popular vote begins at the level of rural caucuses, old, traditional, universally-respected models of leadership are gone. Interests have become local, venal, self-serving, and anti-communitarian. Both voters and candidates exist within this same context. It is remarkable that even one legitimate leader emerges out of the street-fight, let alone a cluster.
There have been other times when influential leaders have emerged at the same time; but these may be due to more immediately understandable social factors. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both elected at the same time because of the same reasons – an electorate fed up with labor unions, big government, stifling regulations, and a deteriorating Soviet Union. The rise of Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II were, as Noonan points out, were part of this phenomenon. It was time for them and there was less about their personalities, character, or upbringing (although both from humble beginnings) to explain their coincidence than the tenor of the times.
Noonan also cites the great military leaders of WWII who rival those of the Union Army during the Civil War, but this may have more to do with military tradition, disciplined training, and expectations of leadership than any more fundamental underlying cause. In other words, who is to say that the same caliber of military strategists and and battlefield leaders would not emerge in an all-out conflict?
Although the question of genius clusters is a good one, and defining genius let alone speculating on the reasons for its emergence in one person or many at the same time is difficult indeed, the one common denominator of society after the age of institutionalized noblesse oblige (prior to WWII) is the existence of populist democracies and pluralistic societies each of whose factions increasingly demand their rights.
It is not so much that popular democracy is a bad thing or even the threat to the Republic that Hamilton envisaged. It is that it guarantees mediocrity.