AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
This week the conservative educational foundation ISI announced its 2023 Conservative Book of the Year. Known as the Paolucci Book Award, it has been bestowed in recent years on volumes by such worthies as Victor Davis Hanson, Wilfred McClay, Angelo Codevilla, Andrew Roberts, and Philip Hamburger. This year’s recipient, the eminent political philosopher Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation (Encounter Books), is a fitting meditation for the holiday we will celebrate Monday—Presidents’ Day—and for the beginnings of the presidential race for 2024.
Though assumed by many Americans to be a celebration of all of our commanders-in-chief, Presidents’ Day, celebrated on the third Monday of February, is actually officially titled Washington’s Birthday. Though Congress rejected changing the federal holiday’s name to Presidents’ Day, the proximity of Washington’s birthday (February 22) to Lincoln’s (February 12) has led to the holiday being a celebration of both of these great statesmen. Individual states have titled the holiday variously, some using Washington’s and Lincoln’s names, some using “Presidents” or “President’s” or “Presidents’.” Of Mahoney’s portraits, only Lincoln is given a full chapter, though Washington is a presence throughout the book.
What is it that makes a politician a statesman? The subtitle gives us a hint: greatness, courage, and moderation. The greatness in question can be perceived by the statesman himself: both Charles De Gaulle and Winston Churchill believed themselves from an early age to be destined to play heroic roles in their own countries. It can include ambition; Lincoln’s law partner famously described the future president’s ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.” And it does not preclude mistakes or require a life of personal morality that is flawless. Mahoney defends Churchill against his latter-day “progressive” critics but notes a number of his mistakes, some serious, in a life of heroism. Similarly, he observes of the Czech dissident-cum-president Vaclav Havel that he seemed to have imbibed some of the 1960s beliefs about sexual infidelity as a true species of freedom.
If a spotless soul is not required, “genuine depth of soul” is. While few of the figures treated by Mahoney were serious orthodox Christians (the prayerful Catholic de Gaulle is a notable exception), almost all of them believed in a God who was much closer than the 18th-century deists’ god, who wound up the world and watched from a distance. Aristotle and Cicero could not, for obvious reasons, but all of the post-classical figures found their moral foundations in Christianity even if some of their theological beliefs were somewhat ambiguous or vague. They had an understanding of the tensions between Christian ethics and classical honor and, more broadly, between mercy and forgiveness and the need to use force to keep public order and defend one’s country. Statesmen know that the line between petty revenge and rightly ordered aggression can be a thin one in certain cases.
True political greatness is a quality of the soul that Mahoney describes as the power to act according to a plan that is not limited to simply fulfilling “the lower impulses of his soul,” for that is the way of tyrants. The “evil greatness” of tyrants is opposed to the greatness that manifests itself in the power to think and act decisively out of “a public-spirited concern for the public good.” Mahoney quotes the 19th-century American thinker Orestes Brownson: “What is especially needed in statesmen is public spirit, intelligence, foresight, broad views, manly feelings, wisdom, energy and resolution.” Notable in this list are the intellectual virtues necessary. True statemen may not have to be academic philosophers, but they do have to be thinkers who can see what is needed and what must be done to get there.
That virtue of seeing the ends and the means is called prudence. Mahoney’s look at the 18th-century Anglo-Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke reveals a man who understood already the burgeoning myths of “change” and understood why they were opposed to true prudence. While “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” at the same time it is also true that “to innovate is not to reform.” He famously sounded the alarm about the French Revolution’s failure to bring the liberty its leaders were bragging about, writing to one French correspondent, “You may have subverted monarchy, but not recovered freedom.” He knew that civilization needed a defense. A movement that proclaimed the freedom of the will from our God-given moral nature would result in slavery and the destruction of the civilization the revolutionaries claimed to be reforming. That destructive nihilism still stalks the world today.
True statesmen need to be able to tell which movements in a society must be absolutely rejected and which can be accepted. Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville rejected the French Revolution’s ideas (though the latter believed its earliest phase was less harmful), but they accepted and tried to tame the worst aspects of commercial and democratic trends. Both saw the need for a market-oriented economy but were worried that a political culture focused too much on private profit would lose sight of the public good. They also saw the democratic spirit as unstoppable and, to some extent, good but worried about the tendencies of mass democracy to bring about a “tyranny of the majority” in which God-given rights and duties were shoved aside in favor of what the people want. So too Churchill worked to provide basic government assistance for the poor but fought against a fully socialist state.
One way of describing the gift of the statesman might be this: the true statesman sees and works with what the people want but does not simply go wherever they want to go. The true statesman is not represented by the 1980s British television show Yes, Minister’s depiction of Prime Minister Jim Hacker, who memorably says: “It is the people’s will. I am their leader; I must follow them.” True statesmanship is exemplified by our sixteenth president, of whom Mahoney says, “Lincoln had to pay due respect to public opinion, as all statesmen must, but he always led that opinion upward and never catered to its grossest prejudices.”
Both Washington and Lincoln are subjects today of potential and sometimes actual cancellation for their perceived racism. “Washington’s undoubted greatness of soul, his noble and prudent leadership in times of war and peace, and his unflagging commitment to the cause of free, constitutional government,” Mahoney recounts, “is dismissed in one fell swoop as the vanguards of political correctness succumb to a moralistic rage that owes little or nothing to authentic moral and political judgment.” Even on the subject of Washington’s slaves, there is little understanding of his freeing them in his will and his provision “for their educational and economic sustenance for years to come” on the part of “the progressive school boards and activists who wish to erase Washington’s name from every school and building in the nation he did so much to establish and sustain.”
So too with Lincoln, who did not own slaves but who is condemned for out-of-context quotations. Yet his task was to preserve the Union and also to do what he could to get rid of an institution, chattel slavery, that was ultimately inimical to the Declaration’s claim that “all men are created equal.” That he could not follow the Abolitionists was not because he did not believe in this equality. Instead, it was because of his prudence and moderation. He saw that their rejection of the Constitution “made it much more likely that slavery would be endlessly perpetuated if the slave-owning states went their own way, as they would indeed do in 1861.”
These two abiding figures in our nation’s history provide examples of ambition that is channeled into the common good of our nation, an attention to virtue, and a dedication to truth as the only possible bedrock for founding and preserving our country.
As we give thanks for them and think about their examples this Monday, we ought to think more deeply about what we are looking for in leaders in a time that sometimes seems almost as fraught as the times of Washington and Lincoln. While we might not have one of these two available, we need to be praying for and looking for politicians who are true statesmen.
Those who have the courage to reject the woke nihilism and “Manichaean racialism” plaguing our country—and the prudence to battle them in our government, our schools, our medical establishments, and in the marketplace. Those who have the moderation to fight these battles without hatred for our fellow Americans, many of whom are confused and need someone to lead them upward. Those who have the vision and greatness of soul to plot a course forward in a time of decay and chaos.
Mahoney sees few statesmen in our time, but he wants us to choose again to reject the “culture of repudiation,” that despises our past and the truth, and “once again open ourselves to human excellence in all its forms.” If we do that, we may yet see one who will, like Washington and Lincoln, lead us on a new path that involves not mere change but reform—change that allows us to recover what is best in our heritage and forge a new path of ordered liberty.
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.