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On American Leadership
Given upon the occasion of
The Leadership Conference of Jefferson Scholars University of Virginia
August 5, 2002

Lewis E. Lehrman

Distinguished faculty and leaders of the University of Virginia:

We gather to honor the Jefferson scholars - this an ancient custom of our countrymen who, from time immemorial, have bestowed fellowships upon the promising young men and women of each generation.

Here, at the University of Virginia, dedicated teachers will take our Jefferson scholars, for two weeks, through the lessons of leadership. The teaching of this University was designed, by trust and by example, to strengthen, in future American leaders, the self-discipline of personal integrity. This is a hard won habit of mind.

Inadequate to the task though I be, I confess to have considered carefully the teaching legacy of Mr. Jefferson and the leadership role of Jefferson scholars. The personal aspects of this issue, you will explore during the next two weeks. Now I wish, with the time you have given me, to dwell upon a plain and public truth — one which, I believe, in certain intellectual circles, is much out-of-fashion... And it is this. The common history of our country is a tale told of heroes and heroines, too many to enumerate. Like the unknown soldiers, most American stalwarts have been silent warriors of the American saga. But they did dwell upon our soil; and they did work it well... They toiled in chains, or in want, to insure our patrimony of inalienable rights, abstract propositions in 1776, made real in revolution and war by blood and sacrifice — in peace, by hard work and home-building.

These unknown heroes were Redmen who, by boat and foot, dared the Bering isthmus twenty thousand years ago; white Europeans who shipped the North Atlantic centuries back; uprooted black Africans, coerced to cross the sea through the death-bound middle passage; yellow men packed off from the far side of the Pacific — dragooned to pile drive the transcontinental railroads, forging the immigrant peoples into one nation.

We know by name only a few of those pilgrims, fewer even of the slaves and indentured laborers...

On the meaning of their trials, listen to one extraordinary leader, a former slave, whom we do know well — Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist. He it was, who, through sheer force of personality, helped to rewrite the epic American struggle of the free and equal. In trying to make sense of his own struggle — up from slavery and through civil war — he rewrote the watchword of every disadvantaged American, announcing to all: — "If there is no struggle, there is no progress..." Never did he yield either in private, or in public life to the near universal prejudice against his race. Nor did he bemoan his disadvantage.

Unlike some scholars, he had no doubt of the importance of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. It was, he wrote, "a bolt from the sky", fulfilling "the agonizing prayers of centuries..." In this prayer, Douglass gave us a first principle of American leadership declaring: "no republic is safe that...denies to any of its citizens equal rights, and the equal means to maintain them..."

As the civil war drew to a close, Douglass marveled to himself (recorded in his memoirs) that he, a former black slave, had been invited to the White House — upon the occasion of the second inaugural of President Lincoln. There, in the White House, he thought himself, in his own words, "a man among men". There, among a white multitude, distracted by the presence of this bold black man, Mr. Douglass was sighted from afar by the President himself...

Unself-consciously, Mr. Lincoln called out to him, that all might listen: — "here comes my friend, Frederick Douglass".

In these men we can study the moral fearlessness of two true American leaders — distinct by color, but united in character. Neither man yielded to the reigning errors of intellectual fashion. In their sureness of purpose, they led their countrymen, at its greatest divide, on a long road to reunion, one upon which we toil to this very day — in order to realize Mr. Jefferson's proposition that "all men are created equal". Thus also do we look up to these leaders, because they taught us to love our country not only because it is our country, but because it aspires, under law, to be a country of the free and equal.

Perhaps you now think I emphasize too much the virtues of the founders and of their successors; that I overlook their flaws... Surely, you might say, one cannot be edified by the fact that Mr. Jefferson was a slavemaster; Mr. Lincoln, equivocal, during the 1850s on the likely social equality of the black man; Mr. Douglass, a passionate leader some thought too distracted by admiring women... In response to these admonitions, may I say there is, everywhere among us today — in the academy, in the press, in the movies — the trendy deconstruction of examples of American leadership... I have no desire to deny the biographical facts of these men and women, all too human in their natures... So, I do acknowledge their flaws; but I also recommend that you read of them elsewhere, in the writings of those who, somehow certain of their superior moral rectitude, wish to focus on the defects of early American leaders whose indisputable achievements they do not seem to honor...

So let us go on to explore these moral ambiguities of American leadership and of one of its leaders.

Nowhere in our history, perhaps, is the paradox of public achievement and private passion more clearly seen than in the rise and fall of the greatest immigrant to arrive on the shores of America... I should like to say more than a word or two about this extraordinary man, having been given leave — by the ghost of Mr. Jefferson himself — to introduce you to his most formidable adversary.

Alexander Hamilton was, in a word, a prodigy. He was America's first Secretary of the Treasury at age 32, indeed by all accounts, the first minister of the remarkable cabinet assembled under President Washington. At 19 he had been an early leader of the revolutionary party in New York. At 22 he was de facto Chief-of-Staff to General Washington...

The origins of this aspiring statesman were no less implausible than his rapid ascent. Indeed, Hamilton's very humble birth was advertised in an infamous description by President John Adams, whose self-importance was on display, when Adams referred to Hamilton as "the bastard brat of a Scot Pedlar".

It is true... Alexander Hamilton had been born out-of-wedlock into the slave and sugar culture of the Caribbean — abandoned by his father and put to work penniless at 9, then left alone at 11 by the death of his mother. Four years later, sponsored by a Caribbean merchant, he arrived in America.

Only seventeen years thereafter, he was Secretary of the Treasury in President Washington's first administration.

The exertions of Hamilton's leadership were a match for his ambitions... The Hamiltonian economic revival of the 1790s vindicated the new constitution; and the measured foreign policies of President Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury insured the independence of the new republic. In almost every major policy debate in President Washington's cabinet, Hamilton aspired to and generally played the leading role.

He, more than anyone, with the possible exception of James Madison, breathed life into American constitutional law with the Federalist Papers — two-thirds of which he wrote himself. Even his implacable opponent, Thomas Jefferson, called the Federalist Papers, "the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written".

In the austere testimony of the great judges of that era, Hamilton was regarded as an inspired lawgiver. Chancellor Kent, the American Blackstone, thought him without peer: — "[Alexander Hamilton] rose at once to the loftiest heights of professional eminence, by his profound penetration...the firmness, frankness, and integrity of his character." Judge Ambrose Spencer, a distinguished judge of New York, often in conflict with Hamilton, held him to be "the greatest man this country has produced... It was he, more than any other man, who thought out the Constitution of the United States and the details of the government of the Union..."

Having grown up in the Caribbean slave culture where black slaves outnumbered white masters, ten to one, he might have developed, early on, the advanced views he later exhibited as a young American. While on the staff of General Washington, Colonel Hamilton sponsored, with his friend Henry Laurens, a plan to raise black battalions in South Carolina and "to give them their freedom with their muskets", arguing that the prevailing prejudice against blacks "makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience". Instead Colonel Hamilton based his argument about blacks upon the equality principle: — that "their natural faculties are probably as good as ours", merely suppressed from "want of cultivation". This view he set out forthrightly in a letter to John Jay, the President of the Continental Congress. He was but 22, into his third year on the staff of General Washington. From his anti-slavery position, he could not be moved, as he went on to advocate it in anti-slavery circles after the revolution.

In many ways this precocious immigrant exhibited many remarkable traits of leadership — a luminous intellect, rigorously developed in but four years of formal education; a brave heart exhibited in a decisive battle at Monmouth; battlefield leadership wrought with the sword, as he was the first over the parapet and into the redoubt at the ultimate victory of Yorkton.

All who knew Mr. Hamilton wrote of his indefatigable dedication to work... To attain leadership, as President Lincoln reminded us: "Work, work, work is the main thing..." While Secretary Hamilton was the principal architect of the national economic plan to build the wealth of his adopted nation, he manifestly cared little for riches himself. Born poor, he died poor. His were aspirations for public service.

His were also the brilliant legal arguments for the implied powers of the constitution, ultimately relied upon by our greatest Chief Justice, John Marshall, who held Alexander Hamilton to be, after Washington, the first man of his age. Indeed next to Hamilton, the preeminent Chief Justice felt himself but a candle "beside the sun at noonday". It was no accident that President Washington asked Hamilton to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — which he declined.

In the words of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a leading scholar-politician of a later era, Hamilton "was the embodiment of [American] nationality", a decisive idea at the crucial moment when "the principle of nationality meant nothing..." And "there is no single man to whom" American nationality "owes more than to Hamilton". It is hard to grasp the revolutionary importance — at that moment and at this — of the novel idea of American nationality. It is a notion so commonplace today. But one cannot emphasize enough that, until the ascendancy of Washington, Hamilton, and Marshall, in war and in peace, almost all power was concentrated in the individual colonies and states. Most loyalties of the ruling squirearchies were pledged to their parochial state-based privileges, power, and property — all safely protected by the state legislatures they tended to dominate.

The Hamilton record is, however, in more ways than one, a guidepost for American leaders who would grasp for the brass ring. In his inspiring, but melancholy, story let us now look, not only for his accomplishments but also the outcome of his character flaws.

In the end Hamilton's leadership faltered, and the ghost of Monticello moves us to ask why... For young Hamilton was handsome, winning, and articulate. But such is not in every case the best preparation for the unforgiving trials of leadership. Hamilton was brave and self-confident; but he was proud to a fault. He had a deep sense of honor; but he carried his dignity to a vanity. To his gift of tongues, he joined an equal gift of the pen; but he deployed these rapiers with the deadly design of an artillery captain — in places where prudence would have wisely constrained his thrust; for example, in his assault on President John Adams and in his public extenuation of an extra-marital adventure with Maria Reynolds.

As a leader, Hamilton most assuredly had his flaws, and like his talents, they were outsized.

To President Washington himself, therefore, I leave the ruling in the case of Alexander Hamilton. "By some", the founding father declared, Mr. Hamilton "is considered an ambitious man, and therefore a dangerous one... That he is ambitious I shall readily grant, but it is of the laudable kind, which prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand."

Excellence was one mark of the leadership of Alexander Hamilton. But his code of honor did not restrain his imprudence; indeed, both carried him to the fall — to a duel and to death...

This then, I believe, is the Hamiltonian lesson. In the best leader there is a well-developed code of honor. But it is a great trial to maintain it. For the passions must be regulated, not spent. And the intellect must be focused, not dissipated. If a man or woman aspires to leadership, and if he knows that his appetites cannot be restrained — and yet he be wise — let him embrace the guidance of those who will harness his talents, tame his passions, and vindicate his code of honor.

It is mete, and I hope, it is fitting, at this time and in this place, to say that the security of our homeland depends upon this very code of honor, itself born of the academic integrity and the athletic distinction inspired by the teachers and coaches of the University of Virginia. I think it not too much to insist, that whenever men and women of UVA defend their countrymen, victory on whatever kind of battlefield should have been prepared by the academic and athletic curriculums of Mr. Jefferson's university.

In these days, after September 11th, we have learned again what our forefathers well knew — that in bounteous eras, we must not weigh too lightly the perils of war — and the determination of an implacable foe. A free people, and its citizen-warriors, must ever prepare for the call-to-arms...

Jefferson scholars: It was on December 6, 1864, that President Abraham Lincoln delivered his final message to Congress, which I beg you, in coming years, to read well. The timeless phrases of his message, then, are meant, today, for you — even as they were the animating spirit of our 16th President's war leadership.

I quote the great man: —

"In a great national crisis, like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable... We [Americans] are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely...

Material resources are now more complete and abundant than ever. The national resources, ...are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible... On careful consideration of all the evidence...it seems to me that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good... He does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves... Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory...

Men and women of the University of Virginia, it is an honor to be among you.

Thank you.

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