A review of "The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation",
by Daniel J. Mahoney (Encounter, 242 pages , $30.99)

Statesmen at the Helm

With epic understatement, James Madison wrote in 1787 that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” prophetically consoling his future countrymen for the catastrophic presidency of Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr

In his new book, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, Daniel Mahoney writes not just about “enlightened statesmen” but about great-souled statesmen, with philosophic gifts and the full complement of cardinal virtues. Such men and women are not just unusual. They are rare—and indispensable: “On rare but vitally important occasions, democracies need such men of virtue and honorable ambition to preserve and perpetuate free and civilized human life.” 

Mahoney thinks Solon, Pericles, Cicero, and George Washington were such statesmen. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Nelson Mandela, for all their gifts, virtues, and importance, were not. Daniel Mahoney takes seriously his highest duty as a student of politics—to remind himself and his readers of true greatness. He offers chapters on Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and Václav Havel, with helpful “Sources and Suggested Readings” at the end of each chapter. 

Whatever their various and instructive human limits and imperfections, these men are “heroes of Western civilization.” Such men seem to arise in “crises of one sort or another”:

Solon addressing civil strife and class conflict in Athens in the sixth century BC; Pericles steering a middle path between imperial grandeur and prudent restraint in resisting the expansion of the Athenian Empire at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War; Cicero . . . in an ultimately failed attempt to save the remnants of Roman republicanism from the threat of Caesarian despotism; Burke . . . warning . . . against the proto-totalitarianism of Jacobin France; Washington leading the American people to their rightful station among the peoples of the earth . . . ; Lincoln preserving the Union and putting an end to the evil of chattel slavery . . . ; Churchill . . . defending liberty and law and all the achievements of the “English-speaking peoples” against the dreadful barbarism of Nazism.

When Madison wrote his famous Federalist 10 essay, America faced a crisis, one of those “rare but vitally important” occasions when, in this case, the fate of the American experiment in freedom was at stake. The still very new American constitutional order was failing, and only “irregular” or revolutionary means, for which there was no legal or constitutional authority, could provide the needed remedy. Madison, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, and their fellow revolutionary founders rose to the occasion and changed the course of history. Without them, we would not have come through that crisis as we did.

Madison’s more immediate point in Federalist 10 was that those looking for “republican remedies” for “the diseases most incident to republican government” should look not to “enlightened statesmen” who would not always be there, but to “the extent and proper structure of the union.” In Mahoney’s words, Madison and the other founders “aimed to establish political institutions . . . that would make political greatness less necessary if not superfluous.” They designed a constitutional order that would help secure the blessings of liberty even when enlightened statesmen were not to be found. 

That constitutional order became the greatest achievement of political freedom, so far, in the course of human events. Tocqueville, who came to consider himself “an old and sincere friend of America,” thought the failure of America’s “great experiment in self-government” would be “the end of political liberty on earth.” 

The great experiment is certainly not over, but Mahoney, like anyone not locked in a closet, sees that the political institutions invented by the founders’ statesmanship are battered and tottering, and “in the emerging dispensation that is replacing our old constitutional order,” America will be no country for great men, or free men.

The heroes of the party currently wielding illegitimate and tyrannical power in practically every institution in this country and more broadly in the West are no heroes of Western civilization. As the party’s nihilist storm troopers desecrate and tear down statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, the party elite erect and kneel before sacred monuments to a criminal—violent and petty—drug dealer, addict, and aspiring porn star. 

If we want to recover “free and civilized human life,” we will need to overcome the reigning “culture of repudiation” (Roger Scruton’s phrase) and recover the greatness that is Mahoney’s central subject. Is there anything more appealing for men and women of virtue and honorable ambition to do? 

Mahoney’s wise and noble book offers not just instruction but inspiration for the great work ahead.

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About Christopher Flannery

Christopher Flannery is one of the founders of the Claremont Institute.

Photo: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images