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American Political Culture

American Models of Revolutionary Leadership


Daniel J. Elazar

Quite properly, the bicentennial commemorations in the United States have focused on American institutions -- how the American people established a federal democratic republic, the first of its kind in the world, with a constitution that embodied the principles of the new science of politics developed in the seventeenth century and subsequently, and applied them in innovative ways through a set of institutional inventions that constituted the greatest step forward in political innovation since ancient times, to launch an experiment of world-shaking import. Missing in this celebration and reassessment of American institutions has been a similar celebration and assessment of the political leadership which brought this American experiment about, for in leadership as well as in institution-building, the American revolution offered a new and different model.

The interrelationship between a polity and its leaders is the key to an effective and successful politics. A good leader diagnoses the situation properly, formulates a way to deal with it, and mobilizes the public to respond. In essence, civil society provides the potential, but leaders make the difference. They do so in part through possessing formal authority, but that authority becomes real only where they can exercise power and do so in such a way that the polity continues to accept their authority.

In democratic republics this power means the mobilization and allocation of resources in the maintenance and fostering of republican norms. In any polity, but most particularly in the democratic republic, a good leader combines engineering and bargaining in determining and developing the means to act, in his understanding of cause and effect as it relates to his actions, and in applying a technology of action. Such leaders can only be effective to the extent that they have character; in democratic republics, that they stand for a proper sense of republican virtue, both in their reputation and in their behavior. This is the source of the charisma of leadership in democratic republics beyond whatever personal charisma individuals may command. Charisma in this sense constitutes a commanding presence in light of the principles and expectations of republican virtue.

The United States was thrice blessed at its founding with that kind of leadership, with men who instinctively understood what was required of leaders in the emerging democratic republic and what was especially required of founders whose every action would set precedents and models for the future. Of those leaders, George Washington stands out head and shoulders above the rest. So he was perceived at the time and so he is again perceived today, after his reputation has gone through the twin distortions of saint-like veneration and debunking. The real George Washington, with his weaknesses as well as his greatness put on the table for all to see, remains the man he appeared to be to his colleagues in the slightly more than two decades that he lead the American cause. Any man who can command the awe of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison and the enduring respect of Benjamin Franklin has to have been very special indeed.

One need not make Washington more than human to understand how he was a paragon for his generation and for all subsequent generations of Americans. Washington should be more than that. He was a model of what republican revolutionary leadership should be anywhere in the world. In this respect his reputation has not had the circulation it deserves. Just as the American revolution is often viewed by non-Americans as so uniquely an American phenomenon that it has little to teach the rest of the world (a distinctly different view than that prevalent in the world prior to the rise of revolutionary socialism in Europe -- 1848 may be considered a turning point -- when it served as a model from Chile to Hungary), so, too, has Washington been dismissed as an important American figure but no more.

We argue in this volume that this is a mistaken view, that it is time for the world to seek out the lessons of the American revolution and its leadership, particularly George Washington, to strengthen democratic republicanism in the present postmodern epoch. Here our argument regarding the importance of leadership becomes crucial. Since the events of the late eighteenth century, virtually the entire world (the exceptions being a few Arab states like Saudi Arabia) has come to honor democratic republicanism, at least in the breach. No country today, especially none where a revolution has taken place, claims to be other than democratic and republican. Yet we all know that the number of true democratic republics does not exceed thirty and constitutes significantly less than 20 percent of the world's independent states. An equivalent percentage, principally those in the Communist bloc, but also a few others, are sheer hypocrites, claiming to be democratic republics, yet having no intention of being anything of the sort. The rest seem to be either groping toward democratic republicanism or confused.

The fate of the 60 percent of contemporary regimes that aspire but do not achieve is not for lack of formal democratic institutions. In this respect they have borrowed well, even drawing from some aspects of the American experience in the postmodern epoch. The difference seems to be to a great extent a problem of leadership. Without leaders able to foster democratic republicanism and republican virtue, the best institutions in the world will come to naught. Thus the subject of appropriate leadership, including in our time appropriate revolutionary leadership, is of vital importance. It is too easy for most of the world to continue to follow the path of revolutionary France of the 1790s, the path of least resistance, and to watch the bright hopes of a democratic dawn descend into one or another form of tyranny and exploitation. If the peoples of the world can learn from the American experience and if the leaders of the world or at least the future leaders can be inspired by it, then the bicentennial commemoration will have far broader implications than merely being an American affair.

This book is designed to be a contribution to that end, exploring the political leadership in American and other democratic societies. The emphasis is on the transition from revolutionary to stable democratic leadership. It begins with an overview by this writer dealing with "Contrasting Models of Revolutionary Leadership" in which the special character and contribution of the American revolution is spelled out. It then turns to George Washington as a revolutionary leader with chapters by Garry Wills on "Power Gained by Surrender"; Forrest McDonald, "Washington, Cato and Honor: A Model for Revolutionary Leadership"; and Barry Schwartz, "George Washington and a Whig Conception of Heroic Leadership." Wills looks at the style of Washington's leadership, McDonald at the sources of Washington's inspiration, and Schwartz on the impact of Washington on the civil society which he led.

In Part Two we turn to the contrasting models themselves, beginning with an article by Moshe Hazani on Samuel Adams and Saint-Just as contrasting examples of professional revolutionaries in the American and French revolutions. Hazani takes the two men considered in their time the most extreme of the significant revolutionary leadership of their respective revolutions and contrasts their world views and actions in fostering revolution and dealing with it when it came; to show how Adams' contribution was to move from the stability of the old regime to revolution to a new democratic stability, while Saint-Just sought to move from the old regime to revolutionary turbulence as a means of social transformation without considering what came after -- in other words, a kind of permanent revolution. Hazani's piece is followed by that of Morton Frisch on "Revolutionary Leadership and the Problem of Power," which focuses on Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the two rivals for Washington's favor, each of whom represented a different view of organizing power in a revolutionary context for a post-revolutionary regime.

The final two selections in this section are Gary Schmitt's "Jefferson and Executive Leadership: Revisionism and the 'Revolution of 1800,'" and Rozann Rothman's "Albert Gallatin: Political Method in Leadership." Both men were leaders of the second American revolution -- the "Revolution of 1800" or the first peaceful turnover of government from one party to another. As Henry Adams has deftly portrayed in his History of the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, the latter took office with the intention of conducting a democratic revolution to overthrow the entrenched federalist elite. His style of executive leadership was designed to foster a new spirit of democratic republicanism while systematically dismantling the Federalist power bases. Yet he, too, had to take extraordinary actions as chief magistrate to serve American interests. In this, he was amply assisted by Gallatin, who brought a special wisdom to bear for the Jeffersonians. Dr. Schmitt traces Jefferson's response to the dilemma of executive power in a democratic republic, beginning with his differences with Hamilton during Washington's presidency and continuing through his own. The chapter brings out the contradictions in Jefferson's thought and behavior brought on by the realities of governing. Dr. Rothman considers the revolutionary leader as organizer of government, which was Gallatin's special role at the end of the revolutionary period. Gallatin, the only major figure of the founding generation born on the European continent (he was Swiss), made his mark first in the organization of the legislative branch of the new federal government of the United States in the 1790s and then, after the election of Jefferson to the presidency, on the executive branch between 1801 and 1809. In those two decades he became one of the architects of post-revolutionary stability that embodied rather than rejected the ends of the revolution.

Part Three focuses on issues of leadership in subsequent generations. In his famous speech to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln recognized the special nature of revolutionary leadership, of those people who " the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle" and whose ambitions require that they be given special challenges rather than being asked to trod already beaten paths. Then he poses the question of how do democratic republics deal with such vaulting ambition? Perhaps he was thinking of himself in his remarks. Certainly he rose to a challenge similar to that of Washington and the founders in his struggle to maintain the Union, an event which he acknowledged in his Gettysburg Address as nothing less than the equivalent of the revolution itself. J. David Greenstone explores the grounding of Lincoln's leadership in "Lincoln's Political Humanitarianism: Moral Reform in the Covenant Tradition in American Political Culture." Finally, Steven Spiegel brings us up to date in "Where Have All the Leaders Gone? -- Ruling Elites and Revolution Since World War II," in which he explores the contemporary situation and how, even in the United States today, it so often stands in sharp contrast to the model of revolutionary leadership provided by the American founders.

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