Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Brittany Baldwin as she considers the humility of George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Since its conception, few have accused America of meekness. In fact, many of its neighbors have agreed with Oscar Wilde’s assessment: “America is the only nation that went from barbarism to decadency without civilization in between.” Humility has not come easily to this nation—its elusive nature perplexing many, including Benjamin Franklin, who admitted, “there is, perhaps, no one of our national passions so hard to subdue as pride.”
In his book, Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, Dr. David Bobb argues that “Franklin’s dilemma is America’s dilemma,” and one worth addressing, for humility is the crowning Christian virtue that perfects the classical virtues and enables a people to self-govern. Whereas Aristotle upholds magnanimity as the greatest virtue—as it shows man excelling in all things, possessing an almost “godlike” independence, and acting as patron instead of beneficiary—Christ teaches that “he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He calls all men to imitate the curiosity and meekness of little children, to lay down their lives for others, and to submit to the almighty God. Though the two visions are not necessarily at odds with one another, the Christian understanding brings the magnanimous man to his knees, an image Aristotle never paints. It requires piety before power, contemplation before action, and reliance upon others before hubris.
Humility has been admired by many, yet adopted by few. The ideals of American government hinge upon both self-reliance and humility, recognizing that each person must work to provide for his family and participate in civil society, while also acknowledging the divine laws that order man and nature. Few have mastered the humility necessary to prevent decadence and the decay that follows. Those who have should serve as an example to us.
Dr. Bobb highlights five American public figures in his book: George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.
Washington’s reputation has been mythic since the nation’s founding. Integral to his greatness, Dr. Bobb argues, is his recognition of his limitations. At the age of twenty-one, he made several blunders during the French and Indian War. Yet he learned from his rashness, and he worked to restrain his temper. He cultivated a habit of serving his fellow-men before his own desires. He put down his sword for the new nation, and he later delivered the first Inaugural and the first Farewell Address in service of the Republic.
It is no simple task to follow the American Cincinnatus, and, in comparison, Madison seems more frail than father-like. No doubt, Madison was brilliant, graduating from Princeton at an early age and always devouring books. Yet, Dr. Bobb rightly describes his demeanor as quiet-spoken and “diminutive.” His most glorious accomplishment was being the mastermind behind the Constitutional Convention. Yet his prominent position did not necessarily imply leadership; for that he knew Washington was essential. He recognized his own limits in promoting a new governing system. Additionally, Madison’s scrupulous note-taking highlights his service to the new nation. Though his lack of social graces should not be mistaken for humility, his diligence in the convention depended upon humility.
Abigail Adams supported her husband John for all her days, whether he was being difficult or not. She missed him dearly when he would leave for months, but she kept the farm operating despite his absence. She was a strong woman, unafraid to express her opinions, stand for causes like abolishing slavery, and care for soldiers.
Abraham Lincoln came from the most humble beginnings, and he maintained a simple yet firm style of governance. As Dr. Bobb explains, Lincoln revered the laws of nature and engaged in political calculation in order to emancipate the slaves. He acknowledged that God gives all people rights, and he fought to enshrine them in a legal framework.
Frederick Douglass had suffered as a slave for many years before he escaped. As a young slave, he believed that God called him and his fellow captives to “wear their chains in meekness and humility.” After suffering under an especially cruel master, Douglass did escape and fled to Massachusetts, where he became a preacher. Though initially he was opposed to the Constitution as written, after he studied it, he came to believe that it provided the order that would allow liberty to flourish.
In these five profiles, Dr. Bobb magnifies the lives of individuals who served this nation with great sacrifice. He approaches these persons largely from an intellectual viewpoint, more so than from a purely historical perspective. In each case-study, he highlights the way in which his subject recognized a Creator, promoted the laws of nature and nature’s God, and upheld the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Indeed, all of them revered the divine and uphold the rule of law (with Lincoln as a possible exception): Washington served as the father of the Constitution; Madison as the mastermind of the document; Abigail as the matron of recognizing that all people are equal; Lincoln as the executor of that mandate; and Douglass as the embodiment of the freedom in those two brilliant, foundational documents. Dr. Bobb’s narrative underscores a political consistency among his subjects in preserving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If, however, the reader is expecting to become closely acquainted with these humble leaders, to delve into every element of their lives, to learn about their families, their pleasures, and their hardships, one will need to be aware that he will get a snapshot, but not a full view of their lives from Dr. Bobb. This, of course, is the dilemma when writing a book of “readable” length: So much is left wanting. The short anecdotes, though, do let us peer into moments of their lives.
As to my view of Dr. Bobb’s success in each case-study: I cannot argue with Dr. Bobb’s assessment of Washington, for though he struggled with pride he also fought to overcome it and succeeded through his role as a military commander and a president. Madison left me puzzled: While he recognized his own limits, he also seemed to exude more weakness than strength (and humility should follow worthiness). Abigail was content with very little and was uninterested in simply scaling the social ladder. Though her natural demeanor was one of simplicity, her ability to maintain that bearing in her prominent position demonstrates her humility. Lincoln was perhaps the only president to rise to such power from such lowly beginnings. But neither his circumstances nor his devotion to the Declaration necessitated humility. His political religion was his own genius, and while it cultivates civic virtue, I am not convinced that constructing such a thing makes one humble. Justice is required to grant freedom; I am not sure that humility is.
Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, seemed to be a man of conviction and humility. He suffered as a slave and used his story to inspire many not only to end slavery but to do so while maintaining the American form of government; this required a concession of nearly all pride, as very few people shared his opinion.
We can all agree humility remains difficult to capture. David Bobb’s book outlines the American conundrum with succinctness and ease. He offers a clear definition of humility and explains the need for it in public service. His five case-studies examine the lives of some of the greatest American leaders and illuminate the power of ideas and the need to rely upon a higher being as the first order. His conclusion exposes the arrogance of Progressive philosophy and reminds us that we could gain much from coming to our knees a bit more often.
Humility is almost never mentioned in tandem with public life, but Dr. Bobb argues it should be its first principle, so that public service is both genuine and sacrificial. We would all do well to remember this magnificent, if not magnanimous, virtue. But then we must not be too proud that we did so.
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