The Logic of a Lack of Conviction

One of Arnold Toynbee’s missions involved reacting against the Enlightenment-inspired Whig historian that saw progress as inevitable and assured.  For this school the advance of science and the decline of religion–the influence of priests or the Church over the state–served as ‘Exhibit A’ of this march towards continual progress.  Toynbee developed an overall pattern of history that worked against this notion.  In his critique he warned against the pollyanna idea of equating the decline of religious belief with improvements in civilization.  Rather, he cautioned, failure to believe in the God of the “higher religions” would not lead to a pleasant garden of pure reason, but rather encourage attachment to the “darker gods” of tribalism and paganism.

On Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen linked to an article by Shadi Hamid, in which he wrote that,

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

Cowen added that,

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed — we humans are not worthy of it in every regard.

Hamid comments later in the article that, “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Both President Obama and President Trump inspired strong reactions from their political opposition.  Republicans seemed for the most part to simply oppose whatever policy Obama supported, and Democrats now seem to be following suit.  However effectively this rallies their political base, it leads to a steep decline in democratic practice, a rise of tribal mentalities, and a resurgence of the “darker gods” mentioned by Toynbee.  In 2018 we can easily see that neither religion, nor social institutions, nor even a common social class unites us now.  Toynbee wrote in his An Historian’s Approach to Religion that,

The erosion of the west’s traditional institutions and common outlook . . . has been progressive.  The unity of the clergy in western Christendom was broken by the Reformation.  The unity of the Western “Republic of Letters” as it had existed down to the generation of Erasmus and St. Thomas More, was broken when Latin was ousted by the local vernaculars, and it was re-established only very imperfectly when Latin was partially replaced by French in the 17th century.  The unity of the West European aristocracy–a polygot social circle knit together by intermarriage–was broken by the French Revolution, by the smothering of the aristocracy in Britain in the 19th century in the embrace of the prolific middle class, and by the rise of the United States, where the West European aristocracy had never taken root.

He penned those words in 1956, and we  might follow this up by adding that post-modernism has contributed further to this erosion.  We no longer have a common belief in progress, and even our faith in democracy itself has declined.

Machiavelli wrote during a time of political upheaval in Italy, and understood the temptation to lash out and “fight fire with fire.”  But in his Discourses on Livy he advocated a different course in a chapter he titled “Temporize with Evil.”

In connection with this league against Rome we have first to note, that when a mischief which springs up either in or against a republic, and whether occasioned by internal or external causes, has grown to such proportions that it begins to fill the whole community with alarm, it is a far safer course to temporize with it than to attempt to quell it by violence. For commonly those who make this attempt only add fuel to the flame, and hasten the impending ruin. Such disorders arise in a republic more often from internal causes than external, either through some citizen being suffered to acquire undue influence, or from the corruption of some institution of that republic, which had once been the life and sinew of its freedom; and from this corruption being allowed to gain such head that the attempt to check it is more dangerous than to let it be. And it is all the harder to recognize these disorders in their beginning, because it seems natural to men to look with favour on the beginnings of things. Favour of this sort, more than by anything else, is attracted by those actions which seem to have in them a quality of greatness, or which are performed by the young. For when in a republic some young man is seen to come forward endowed with rare excellence, the eyes of all the citizens are at once turned upon him, and all, without distinction, concur to do him honour; so that if he have one spark of ambition, the advantages which he has from nature, together with those he takes from this favourable disposition of men’s minds, raise him to such a pitch of power, that when the citizens at last see their mistake it is almost impossible for them to correct it; and when they do what they can to oppose his influence the only result is to extend it. Of this I might cite numerous examples, but shall content myself with one relating to our own city.

Cosimo de’ Medici, to whom the house of the Medici in Florence owes the origin of its fortunes, acquired so great a name from the favour wherewith his own prudence and the blindness of others invested him, that coming to be held in awe by the government, his fellow-citizens deemed it dangerous to offend him, but still more dangerous to let him alone. Nicolò da Uzzano, his cotemporary, who was accounted well versed in all civil affairs, but who had made a first mistake in not discerning the dangers which might grow from the rising influence of Cosimo, would never while he lived, permit a second mistake to be made in attempting to crush him; judging that such an attempt would be the ruin of the State, as in truth it proved after his death. For some who survived him, disregarding his counsels, combined against Cosimo and banished him from Florence. And so it came about that the partisans of Cosimo, angry at the wrong done him, soon afterwards recalled him and made him prince of the republic, a dignity he never would have reached but for this open opposition. The very same thing happened in Rome in the case of Cæsar. For his services having gained him the good-will of Pompey and other citizens, their favour was presently turned to fear, as Cicero testifies where he says that “it was late that Pompey began to fear Cæsar.” This fear led men to think of remedies, and the remedies to which they resorted accelerated the destruction of the republic.

His advice is sound, but it requires conviction to heed.  We can’t “temporize” unless we know equally well what we want to happen as well as what we wish to prevent.

Immigration and American Identity

The machinery of modern states sometimes makes things harder, not easier.

Coming to a proper solution for the immigration question is one example of this.  A variety of sources and polls indicate that most Americans favor allowing more legal immigration and have for years.  Back in simpler times one could enter a land, ask the king to stay, usually he said “yes,” with not much fuss. Perhaps one took an oath of fealty to his person.  Now, we have a whole mess of courts, paperwork, etc., etc. that make coming legally quite difficult.  The good intentions of most Americans gets lost in the morass of modern civilization.

Incremental reform of the system seems unlikely to lead to dramatically different results, so I have great sympathy for the argument made by Prof. Bryan Caplan.  As a libertarian Caplan believes in limiting government as much as possible, but his stance on immigration comes from a strongly moral place.  He would like to essentially eliminate the morass but eliminating almost every test that could prevent someone from working and living in the U.S.  He argues that

  • No one chooses to be born in a particular place, and almost always the best way to get out of poverty in a poor country is to move to a rich country, where your labor has a much greater value.
  • Those in the rich country benefit from their birthplace, which they also did not choose.  They have no moral right to deny someone something they did not earn or choose themselves.
  • As long as 1) An employer consents to have someone work for them, and 2) A worker consents to work for that same person, then no good moral reason exists for denying both people the right to hire/work.

Caplan breaks his argument down into even simpler terms:

  • Someone wants to come in my house, but I do not want them to.  Ok, then, they cannot come in.
  • Someone invites someone in, but they don’t want to come.  Ok, they can certainly refuse to come.
  • Someone invites someone into their house, and they accept, but a 3rd party–i.e., the Government–tells them that this cannot happen.  This, Caplan argues, makes no moral sense and yet this perfectly encapsulates our current immigration policy.

He made these points quite well in this debate below:

As well as Caplan argued (and we can note the contrast between the more intense, east coast, suit-wearing Caplan, and the laid-back Californian Wellman), I found myself siding with his opponent.  Their debate has the added bonus of illuminating much about our identity as a nation and our past.

The title of the debate, “Is Immigration a Human Right” might slip past us but the very idea of human rights as opposed to “A Right of Americans” represents a fairly radical shift in thinking.  We see this same shift in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  When colonists protested the Stamp Act in 1765 they talked of their rights as British subjects.  By the time we get to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argues that King George III has violated their human rights, that “all men are created equal.”  On the one hand, because we believe that God has created all mankind in His image, the clarity of Jefferson’s Enlightenment inspired prose makes perfect sense.  But it also makes things muddier—for incarnating this idea politically means different things to different people.  Treating all people equally from different political communities makes the whole concept of political communities irrelevant, aside from posing many other questions.

Even within a family, parents will love all their children equally but treat them differently as their circumstances require.  And when Joey argues that Billy’s parents let him stay up late, every parent knows the classic retort, “Well, you are not in Billy’s family.”

Interestingly, both Caplan and Wellman agree that societies do not exist via consent and that governments do not therefore derive their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed” per se.  This slips by without much discussion but I find it a crucial point.  The fact that the colonists failed to consent to certain British measures inspired many to revolt.  But even a moment’s thought about the concept of consent regarding the whole of society renders it a bit silly.  We “consent” to very little that shapes our lives.  We do not choose to be born, we do not choose our families, our gender, our personalities, or our looks.  We receive them, just as we do not consent to where we are born.  Nor did any of us in America today “consent” to our system of government. Imagine the chaos if everyone had to consent to their governments in some kind of purely rational vacuum.  Even the most die-hard supporters of consent would likely not want continual plebiscites to determine whether or not we should be governed by our Constitution, or a king, or an oligarchy.

The question then remains as to whether or not the fact that we do not really consent to our society supports Caplan or Wellman’s position.  For Caplan, the fact no one chooses where they are born and how they are governed means that everyone should have the freedom to go where they please and pick a place where they actually do consent to a particular society.

But Wellman has a powerful counter to Caplan’s “house” analogy mentioned above.  He poses a scenario of him leaving for a week and returning home to ask his wife what happened during his absence.  “Well, let’s see,” Wellman imagines his wife replying, “On Wednesday, I went to yoga class. On Thursday I met Carol for lunch.  And on Friday, I adopted a young man named Bob into our family.  Here he is, meet your new son.”  Wellman goes on to ask rhetorically whether or not she and Bob, as consenting individuals have the right to do this.  Caplan’s house analogy, he argues, needs more nuance.  Caplan’s argument above has a fair amount of moral force, but it would also overthrow our entire conception of the state as a community.  Unwittingly or not, Wellman’s analogy hearkens to the older Aristotelian idea of the state-as-family analogy, hence the notion that the king served as a “father” to his people.  One cannot simply alter the composition of the family at will, nor make unilateral decisions as “sovereign,” consenting individuals apart from the family at large.

Here we see how truly radical the American Revolution was and glimpse why it had such an impact on the world.  The notion that the state in fact was not a family perhaps finished off Aristotle’s formal influence in the modern world, a process begun in the Scientific Revolution.

And here we see something else–why the immigration issue poses such a difficulty for us.  If any nation could apply Caplan’s form of the “house” analogy, it is the United States.  As a “nation of immigrants” our belief in universal rights is woven into our DNA, however poorly we have applied it at times.  But pushed as Caplan wishes to push it, the idea becomes non-sensical. His vision of the state primarily as a conglomeration of free-floating individuals renders the idea of “society” almost meaningless.

The same Enlightenment ideas that inspired the idea of “human rights” also led to the creation of modern democracies.  The irony, perhaps even the tragic irony, with this issue, is that cutting red tape and making legal immigration much simpler could be achieved much more easily with a monarch than our federated democracy, with its attendant slowness, interest groups, and the like.  We might even reflect that minorities and outsiders (i.e. African-Americans and Native Americans) fared somewhat worse in the aftermath of our victory in the American Revolution.

 

Dave

 

From Puritan to Yankee

Recently I found myself talking politics with a Trump supporter.  Interestingly, he mentioned very little about his policies or personality.  Rather, he seemed drawn to him because of the multitude of attacks against him.  No one, he argued, deserved what Trump receives from at least some in the media.  Politics had very little to do with this, for this same person said that he liked both Obama and Hillary Clinton for much the same reason–in his mind of them have been attacked to an unfair extreme.

I have no great love for the Puritans, and perhaps this might explain why I sometimes seek to defend them.  I certainly felt this way at the start of Richard Bushman’s From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765.  When describing Puritan society in the first chapter he invariably uses words like, “austere,” “imposing,” “monolithic,” and that most dreaded word for an academic who originally published this book in 1967, “conformity.”*

Later in the book Bushman shows his excellence as a historian of a certain type, but I did not like the first chapter.

We naturally have difficulty in understanding and evaluating the Puritans.  They look like us in many respects, but then part with modern society in other radical ways.  It is the heretic, rather than the unbeliever, who always poses the greater threat.  Hence, our natural distaste for the Puritans.  But we must keep certain things in mind.

First of all, the Puritan ideal of social order oriented around religion hardly broke new ground.  They borrowed from the medieval idea of the “great chain of being,” and in orienting their society around religion they merely did what most civilizations practiced up until that point.  Numerous examples of this exist, with the Egyptians, early Romans, the Mezo-American civilizations, and the aforementioned medievals to name a few (this should clue us in on the radical nature of post-Enlightenment western society–more on this later).

Secondly, many moderns, progressive or otherwise, would likely admire some of the main goals of Puritan society.  The Puritans sought to live a common life together by minimizing  (though not eliminating) economic competition and distinctions in wealth.  Bushman himself notes that in the early days of settlement even the richer members of society lived much in the same way as their neighbors, working fields and milking cows like anyone else.  Bushman and others may not realize that such a society cannot exist with modern notions of liberty that tell us to “find our own way,” “follow your heart,” and so on.  Societies like the early Puritans must get their formation from shared conviction that only comes with religious belief. You cannot have one without the other.  One Puritan stated, “Law should serve free exercise of just privileges.  Without this, lives and liberties would be a prey to the covetous and cruel.”  Modern notions of liberty, in the view of early Puritans, would lead to exploitation and alienation.

Bushman himself cites early in chapter two that this shared communal life allowed government in Connecticut to be, in his words, “flexible” in ways that “minimized local conflicts.”  This hardly seems “austere,” or “monolithic.”

True, certain “upper-crust” Puritans (apologies for the emotionally laden word choice) had a fear of any of the “lesser sort” getting into political power.  We can snub our noses at this.  But we should remember that it is 1700.  Puritan Connecticut was more democratic than the England of William and Mary, and infinitely more so than Louis XIV France or Frederick the Great’s Prussia.  Almost every other European society at the time shared these same fears of “lesser men” ruining everything. We have good evidence that many of our founders decades later had these same fears, as of course did every major western political thinker from Homer on down the line.

Finally, nearly all the early Puritan settlers came from the same east-Anglia towns and villages.  They knew the content of Puritan theology, they knew Puritan leadership.  It’s not as if the Puritans pulled a bait-and-switch on the journey across the Atlantic–“You thought you signed up to run wild and free in the woods, but no!  Now that we have you in the middle of the ocean, welcome to John Calvin!”

If some settlers grew frustrated with Puritan leadership, well, they knew what to expect.

So yes, the Puritans need criticism, but criticism with the right context in mind, and aimed in the right place.

After chapter one, Bushman shows his great skill at sifting through data to form larger conclusions.  He puts the focus on the problems settlers faced due to a growing population, which would necessitate an inevitable territorial expansion of the colony.  Some civilizations, like the Romans, link most everything in life to land.  Some see the beginning of the  Roman Republic’s political problems beginning the moment land in Italy disappeared for their soldiers.**  Not every civilization operates with this mentality.  Carthage, for example, and possibly Periclean Athens, largely freed themselves from land as a measure of identity (they had different problems).  But our early settlers fit well within the Roman mindset.

In the first generation or two land distribution remained equitable.  The size of the colony allowed everyone to attend the most important churches pastored by the acknowledged town leaders in piety and purpose.  The population’s proximity to these churches and to town hall bound the colony together politically.

But time marches on, and fathers want the same for their younger sons as for the oldest. In a settled mostly aristocratic society like England of the time, the younger sons of even minor aristocracy join the army or perhaps the clergy.  You see this even in Austen’s novels 100 years later.  Settlers in the new world, however, believed in equality, more or less, and wanted everyone to have an equal chance.

Expanding the size of the colony meant greater distances from the town center.  Naturally those predisposed to want to lead the settlement would stay close to its center.  Those with some disaffection towards leadership might more easily head a few miles outbound.  With this even small scale migration came an inevitable tension, and an inevitable choice.

The colony could either, a) Split off in different settlements and grant autonomy to each.  However, this came with the problem of effectively ending the Puritan dream.  Those who left for outbound land tended towards a more enterprising, individualistic mindset.  Or they could, b) Increase the power of the original settlement’s leaders and weaken the participatory democracy carefully crafted by the original settlers.

As is typical of most any democratically government they chose neither absolutely, though probably favored option ‘b.’  Everyone recognized that the social order had suffered due to increased wealth–a wealth occasioned by expansion (again, similar to Rome ca. 200-75 B.C.).  But try as they might, too many things swirled in conflict with one another to make sense of it all.  In the end tensions increased between eastern and western settlers in most religious and economic matters.  Once they let the’Yankee’ mentality of individual enterprise get its foot in the door, their social construct had its days numbered.

Let us give credit where due.  Bushman’s work should help us to see certain larger issues with more clarity.  For example, Thomas Jefferson bucked historical convention in his belief that a republic should have lots rather than a little territory.  He hoped that the Louisiana Purchase would allow everyone to practice self-government and live free and independently on their own land.  But–if everyone can live free and independently from one another, how can we maintain order?  Only by doing as the Puritans attempted to do–by increasing executive authority.  If we want the kind of liberty envisioned by Jefferson, let us count the cost.  Rome saw this same increase of executive authority as their territory expanded beyond Italy.  Whatever our uniqueness as a nation, we cannot escape history.

But in the end I think Bushman misses the real point.

Bushman mentions religious issues and gives them due treatment, but he gives pride of place to the decline of Puritanism to land and economic issues.  He deals with the source material masterfully.  But he seems to argue that certain geographic and social issues caused the religious issues to manifest themselves later.  We can acknowledge the influence of geographic and economic factors.  But in the end, I think he puts the cart before the horse.  The key to Puritan disintegration must be found in their religion.

For example . . . the Roman Republic experienced some of the same stresses faced by the CT settlers, with a much larger population over much larger territory.  Yet, the Republic maintained its central identity for at least two and perhaps three and half centuries, in contrast to Puritan ideals lasting no more than  two generations.  Egyptian civilization also had some of the same issues regarding land, and though obviously not a republic, maintained their identity for perhaps 1500 years.

Yes, democracies traditionally have a problem maintaining identity and cohesion.  One can a make a good case that Pericles built the Parthenon primarily as a way to reestablish unity by calling people back to their religious roots, whereas we today tend to look at this period in Athens as the pinnacle of democratic experience. This “pinnacle of democratic experience” may have had more cracks than we initially assume.  Athens at this time certainly had lots of money, which tends to work ill upon democracies.  If Thucydides tells only mostly the truth, they did not have much social cohesion. Rome lasted longer than CT or Athens with similar geographic and economic factors at play, and so I feel a reason exists beyond land distribution and the expansion of trade that Bushman focuses on.^

In the Puritans particular case we should note that their theology departed from traditional orthodox Christianity in certain respects.  Their emphasis on the will of God rather than the love of God reduced their faith to more of a philosophy, a handbook of propositions for life.^^  They had no appreciation for sacraments and thus no way for the grace of God to be made manifest in their lives except by how they thought. This led to impersonal abstractions gaining sway.  The famous (or infamous if you prefer) 5 Points of Calvinism work on the mind like a geometric proof, inexorably moving toward a foreordained conclusion.  Abstract ideas, however, are slippery things, and ideas floating in the air don’t always land on the ground in the same form for repeated generations.  Like a point in infinite space, various lines can connect with it and go almost anywhere.

Interestingly, Puritans created a government structure that tended toward defending an abstract notion of rights.  As the colony expanded, Bushman documents a swell of lawsuits and disputes centered around the “claims” of one settler vs. another.  Communal relationships disappeared as “rights” dominated public discourse.  Religious revivals like the Great Awakening followed this pattern in some ways..  The religious impulse coming from this revival did not push people back into communal life.  Rather, we see a rise in the individualistic idea of the “liberty of the conscience” gaining the upper hand among the (formerly) Puritan settlers.

Whatever the merits of my very incomplete analysis above, by the early 19th century New England certainly had adopted a vague mixture of theism and deism as its unofficial religion–a death by abstraction.

We see hints of 1776 as this abstract notion of rights grew.  In time colonial corporations made grants of land to settlers.  When royal officials came over and examined these title deeds they annulled them outright.  No “corporation,” they argued, can grant title to anything.  What is a “corporation” after all?  It’s surpra-personal identity meant it had in effect no personality, and with no personality, how could it truly exist?  A king can grant title, for the king is an actual person, and actual people can own things and give them to others.

The colonists may have nodded “sure!” to these royal representatives, but likely crossed their fingers behind their backs. Though kingship has the advantage of being personal, a king across an ocean has perhaps even less personality than a corporation.  In any case, they no longer had a connection to government rooted directly in either religious belief or social ties. They put their eggs in propositions, in “rights,” in “liberty of conscience,” which no one can touch.  Their point in infinite space must be free to go where it pleases.

A standard debate among historians of the American Revolution involves the question of whether or not the founders were radical or conservative in their ideas.  Years ago I would have answered with the latter, but not anymore.  Bushman’s work accompanies Bernard Bailyn’s and Gordon Wood’s thesis that our stodgy, wig-wearing founders had radical ideas.  For the first time, society would not be oriented around God/the gods.  Nor would social order have its roots in personal relationships, i.e., feudal society, or the lives and patronage of prominent families.  Now for the basically the first time, society would be organized around certain ideas, or we might almost say, geometric axioms.  What Bushman’s book shows us is that you don’t need to go to 1776 to see these principles at work.  If you wish, you can content yourself with a small CT settlement, ca. 1700.

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*Here I must give credit to the playwright Arthur Miller.  His work The Crucible certainly criticized certain aspects of Puritan society.  And yet in his preface to the play he spends most of his time trying to get the reader to sympathize with the Puritans.  This sympathy, in fact, serves as the only solid basis for critique.

**I think the land issue a contributing factor accompanying deeper causes for Rome’s Republic, much in the same way I think Bushman overstates land issues as the primary cause for the collapse of the Puritan ideal.  In Rome’s case, one can see a shift in religious belief occasioned by their contact with Greece and the Mediterranean as the precursor to their political and social fragmentation.

^This is another great example of how Bushman’s book shed’s light on larger issues.  Most every commentator on Plato’ Laws calls Plato a grumpy old fart for banning trade from his theoretical realm.  But increased trade undeniably negatively impacted CT’s social order. Farmers deal roughly with the same soil and the same weather.  Surplus food grown by one poses no real threat to other farmers.

But trade seems to encourage more of the competitive spirit.  Trade deals more with luxuries than necessities, so unsold surpluses can ruin a merchant.  Hence, the extra competition to sell, and so on.  The rise of money and trade certainly played a role in the demise of Rome’s Republic.

^^I realize that this one sentence is hardly a reasonable defense for my views on Puritan theology,   My apologies–to defend them here is a bridge too far for me.  If I am correct, however, there are some  similarities in Puritanism to Stoicism (I stress “some”–the Puritans probably gave much more room for the emotions than the Stoics), a religion for Greece and Rome’s intellectual elite, but not for the masses.

 

 

A Leopard Cannot Change His Spots

I originally write this in January 2013, so don’t be too puzzled by the very dated football playoff reference!

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It’s playoff time in the NFL, and many talking heads now say that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has “made the leap” by engineering a late game comeback against the Seahawks this past Sunday.  Having won the “big game,” Ryan can now join the club of “clutch” quarterbacks.

But if Matt Bryant had missed the field goal, we would be having a different conversation, one that focused on Ryan’s crucial 4th quarter interception that helped lead to a Seahawks comeback.  I agree with Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.  A lot depends on context.  After the Falcons lost to the 49ers, thanks in part to a Matt Ryan fumble, Barnwell wrote amusing follow-up here.

What is the stuff of leadership?

Any visitor to a library can get stuffed to the gills with theories of leadership, and while I admit to judging these books by their covers, I don’t think I buy any particular “theory” of leadership.

Of course all good leaders demonstrate the same basic characteristics.  They show firmness at the right time, or flexibility at the right time, or the willingness to listen and adapt at the right time, or to maintain the strength of their convictions at the right time, and so on, and so on.  But anyone can write this without any special talent.  Add to that, much leadership theory presupposes that people can fundamentally change who they are, that “type B” leaders can become “type A” leaders whenever the situation arises.  I doubt this happens much.  The same firmness and clarity of vision from Winston Churchill that helped save Europe in W.W. II also led him to be nearly all wrong on the Indian question throughout the 1930’s.

Bernard Bailyn’s book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson demonstrates that people who might be great leaders in certain circumstances are utter failures in others.

Bailyn begins his book by revisiting the worst of the riots over the Stamp Act of 1765.  A variety of British officials received threats and intimidation, but none received the level of concentrated violence as Thomas Hutchinson, the Lt. Governor of Massachussets and also the Supreme Court justice.  Looters ransacked his house methodically for three days straight, taking several thousand dollars in cash and valuables, while causing another few thousand dollars damage to his house.

With this in mind, we would naturally make many assumptions about the man.  He probably gave loud and hearty support to the Stamp Act.   He probably displayed a haughty character.  Maybe he was even not native to the land, but a British import.  Probably he lived ostentatiously and lorded it over his fellow men.

But nearly all of our natural assumptions about him would be wrong.  His portrait reveals a man of some reserve with the pleasant “Smile of Reason” the Enlightenment philosophes had down pat.   His house was nice, but not over the top.  He was born and bred in the colonies, and even wrote what is considered to be the best contemporary history of the Massachusetts  Colony.  He never published it. He commented to a few friends that it had too many flaws.

Thomas Hutchinson

The Hutchinson HouseAdd to that, he opposed the Stamp Act!  As Chief Justice he commented that he thought the Stamp Act bad policy and sure to fail.  He earnestly hoped that the British would see reason and cease their plans for the doomed tax.

But he, more than any other, received the laser-like focus of wrath from the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams, along with James Otis, vilified him in print year after year, and Hutchinson, perhaps totally flummoxed, never seems to have responded in kind.  How did this happen?  Why did such a mild-mannered man as Hutchinson cause so much anger and resentment?

John Adams rarely passed up an opportunity to call Hutchinson a “courtier” — someone of no account who fawned his way to the top of society.  True, the marriages within his family aided his cause, but this form of social climbing was hardly unknown even in the colonies, and certainly known in England.  For what it’s worth, Hutchinson appeared to have a very good marriage, and he grieved long and hard for his wife who died in childbirth.

Others point to the fact that in 1765 Hutchinson held two offices, Lt. Governor and Chief Justice, and thus ran afoul of the emerging doctrine of the separation of powers that would make itself manifest in the Constitution.  But Hutchinson never sought a position on the court.  The governor nominated him, and he initially refused, claiming that he “had not the necessary legal mind” for the job.  He took it only reluctantly after repeated entreaties from the governor himself.

But Bailyn holds that the main cause of Hutchinson’s singular failure lie in his personality.  His love of careful compromise, his lifelong aversion to stirring the pot unnecessarily, made him singularly unsuited to leadership in a revolutionary age.  Indeed, had Hutchinson held power in England, we might very well be reading about how his careful, compromising leadership helped King George avoid war with the colonies.  But in America, that shoe did not fit.

We get an idea of the temper of the times when colonists criticized Hutchinson not for being for the Stamp Act, but for being against it for the wrong reasons.  Where people like Adams and Otis saw deep-seated principle at stake, Hutchinson saw misguided policy, and this attitude led to Hutchinson’s most unfortunate and damaging mistake.  Bostonians drew up  an eloquent and passionate objection to the Stamp Act to send to Parliament, but Hutchinson put on the brakes.  He argued, tinkered and pleaded for a month to change much of the tone and some of the substance of their entreaty, while still sharing their objections to the tax.  In the interval, other colonies gained fame and glory by publishing their own heated objections, making Boston look weak and tepid.  Between their first headstrong and final lukewarm drafts, England settled their minds and began the road to enforcing the Act.

Boston was not amused.  They vented all their considerable anger directly at Hutchinson.  Many of them suspected him (erroneously) of merely stalling for time and not really being against the Act at all.

If the revolution had never happened, who’s to say that the colonies would not in time have developed their essential independence along the lines of Canada? Such a smooth, uneventful and gradual transition would have tickled Hutchinson pink.

What Hutchinson never saw, however, was how his own mindset and personality had been shaped by a revolution 75-100 years prior — the intellectual paradigm shift known as the Enlightenment.   All that calm reasonableness would not have fit within the late 16th century any more than it did in late 18th century North America.

Alas for Thomas Hutchinson, a good and decent man, but one decidedly not of his time — a leopard who could not change his spots.