With an eye on the elusive qualities of political greatness, American Statesmanship: Principles and Practice of Leadership considers the principles and practices of diverse political leaders who influenced the founding and development of the American experiment in self-government. Providing both breadth and depth, this work is a virtual “who’s who” from the founding to modern times. From George Washington to Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to FDR and Ronald Reagan, the book’s twenty-six chapters are thematically organized to include a brief biography of each subject, his or her historical context, and the core principles and policies that led to political success or failure. A final chapter considers the rhetorical legacy of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
From the Introduction: What Is Statesmanship?
We honor greatness in the respective domains of sports, entertainment, art, science, and finance. But what of political greatness? Of what qualities does it consist? Does it require an apprenticeship, a study of the great masters, like the successful practice of other crafts? Our Founders thought so. George Washington went so far as to propose a national university that would train future citizens and leaders alike in the rights and responsibilities of democratic governance. Likewise, in Article XVIII of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, John Adams emphasized the need for a continual return to first principles as a means to revitalize the political faith of the country:
“A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives; and they have a right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observation of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the commonwealth.”
This book is an effort to take seriously Adams’ advice in returning to those founding principles and practices that help sustain the American regime. The example of past greatness combined with the power of enduring principle prepares each generation to confront future threats to the inseparable bonds of liberty and Union. The present may be renewed in light of the success and failures of the past.
While the authors and contributors of this volume may differ over who should be included among ranks of a statesperson, they nonetheless all agree that statesmanship makes a crucial difference in the life of a nation and that its example is sorely needed today. The purpose of this volume is to contemplate the nature and legacy of American statesmanship through the speech and deeds of some of its most influential leaders. The reader should be aware that not all the leaders included in the volume have reached the high standard of statesmanship. Some fell short and are included as a cautionary tale. Others might object that reformers like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Susan B. Anthony should not be included in the volume since they pressured government from outside the citadels of power rather than ruling directly through an official position in government. While there are differences between reform leadership and statesmanship, a too restrictive definition of the latter would deprive us of studying the important influence these particular reform leaders had on the American politics and their dynamic interaction with elected officials. In what follows, we hope readers will ponder the qualities or virtues of statesmanship as displayed fully or even partially in the leaders in this volume.
As the great 20th century political philosopher, Leo Strauss, put it, we constantly need to be reminded of what constitutes political greatness, human greatness, and the peaks of human excellence. In doing so, we must remind ourselves concerning statesmanship “never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.” We must, Strauss claims, make every effort to describe and understand “these rare peaks of political life, which put ordinary and prosaic forms of leadership in their proper perspective.” True political greatness, statesmanship, does not make us despise the run-of-the-mill or transactional leaders who merely provide services to their constituents, but it does allow us to see their limits. There is a tendency, in our democratic life to homogenize reality—to ignore those qualitative distinctions that constitute political reality. The study of political greatness—statesmanship—is a good antidote to this leveling tendency of a hyper-democratic age. All forms of leadership are not the same. We must be able to make thoughtful distinctions between the ambition of the noble statesman such as Lincoln, who aimed to be worthy of the esteem of his fellow citizens, the imperial ambition of Napoleon that gradually became indistinguishable from cold despotism, and the crude ambition of mediocre or selfish politicians who crave political success pursuing custodial management or utopian dreams. As a self-governing nation, we especially must make moral distinctions and judgments about leadership, thereby recognizing political greatness whenever it occurs and fostering its development wherever possible.