The American Revolution was an exceedingly close affair — and not just in its military outcome. The caliber of the leaders who emerged through the crucible of rebellion, combat, and ultimately fractious independence was always and ever in doubt. The historical counterfactuals can be dizzying to contemplate. But it’s a bit easier to imagine what would have happened if George Washington’s army had been trapped on Manhattan than what would have happened if any of Washington’s numerous detractors had succeeded in discrediting and replacing him.
In other words, the halo effect of history makes it easy to forget that our founding generation was every bit as beset with vice as any other human generation. Washington constantly fought a two-front war: the deadly battle with the British and the political battle to stay in command of his own ranks. I’m currently reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent new Valiant Ambition, which traces the intertwined and ultimately diverging paths of George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and I’ve been struck not just by the multiplicity of the plots against Washington but also by the staggering incompetence and corruption that brought a young nation to the brink of defeat.
We were pulled back from that brink not because the colonial elite, as a class, was better than its contemporary counterparts but because its better members ultimately triumphed. By God’s providence, in the perpetual war between virtue and vice, America has been blessed by numerous pivotal examples of the better man prevailing. I shudder to think of the nation that would have emerged if someone who gained power through sheer opportunism and betrayal had taken Washington’s place.
What happens to a nation when the worst elements of the elite prevail? We’re finding out now. Though we live in an anti-establishment and anti-elite age, we do not suffer from a shortage of excellence. America’s warriors are every bit as brave as they were in generations past. There still exist American politicians with true convictions and fine minds. We have diplomats who are capable of great feats of statesmanship. We have writers and thinkers who measure up to the best minds of years past.
What happens to a nation when the worst elements of the elite prevail? We’re finding out now.
Our contemporary elite, as a class, is not worse than the elites of ages past, but its worst members have triumphed at every level of government. We live in a world where an aspiring liberal novelist shapes American foreign policy with sneering condescension, throwing away hard-earned military victories without an ounce of regret. In cities such as Baltimore, ambitious prosecutors corrupt the rule of law to appease mobs and earn 15 minutes of ill-gotten fame. And now the people who compete to sit in the office that Washington himself indelibly shaped are among the most transparently opportunistic and self-centered people ever to obtain major-party nominations.
Make no mistake, while a nation can drift along guided by such an elite for a time, it cannot do so indefinitely. Even the most virtuous citizenry can and will suffer greatly when its leaders lack character and talent. As voters, we have to delegate the extraordinarily complex tasks of governance to others. Negotiating effective trade deals requires a degree of expertise that is gained only through years of education and experience. One can’t merely pick up a rifle and lead men into battle, because modern warfare requires an enormous amount of training.
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In short, we need an elite, and we need it to be excellent.
Perhaps there’s the rub. At all levels of society, we are increasingly redefining excellence as the mere act of winning. And when we worship winning, we will see more of our most talented people tempted to abandon integrity for opportunism.
Early in his command, Washington was anything but a winner. He lost New York, and after rallying briefly in New Jersey, he went on to lose Philadelphia, the nation’s capital. Even going back to the French and Indian War, his record was far from perfect. But his defenders saw something in him beyond the immediate results on the battlefield: They saw the virtues that build an army and a nation. He learned. He demonstrated courage. He modeled humility and grace. Ultimately, he was so respected (even revered) that he could have ruled our new nation as long as he chose. But he did what modern “winners” never do. He yielded power, with words that the Broadway musical Hamilton has given new life:
Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
Men and women of that character still exist. It’s time for them to start to win, and for the “winners” to start to lose. Otherwise, we’ll face a future where 2016 isn’t an aberration but rather a harbinger, and the greatness of America becomes the stuff of history. America needs an elite. It’s up to us to make sure its members are worthy of the nation they seek to lead.