Statesmanship as Soulcraft

Titular regards to George F. Will.

There is a profound difference between ‘statesmanship’ and ‘politics.’ Within a representative democracy, we distinguish a ‘statesman’ from a ‘politician’ by three criteria: (1) a moral compass and a bedrock of principles that at times stymies one’s acquisition of power; (2) a vision of society that transcends one’s time in office; (3) a humanitarian impulse that enables one to identify with the common man as he trudges through mundane existence and then give him a heroic vision of what he is and might become. This is to say that all statesmen are to one degree or another poets, speaking etymologically.

Lincoln was a ‘statesman.’ The same can be said for Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Churchill, Gandhi, and Mandela. William H. Seward was a ‘politician,’ as are Bill Clinton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and President Obama. The great tragedy of democracy is its insatiable propagation of ‘politicians’ relative to ‘statesmen.’ Aristocracies may have produced General Dyer and the Amritstar Massacre; yet they also produced Lord Lyons, the best friend America ever had.

It is a peculiar shortcoming of American society that ‘elitism’ has become an inherently pejorative term. If it connotes a disdain for and an indifference to the plight of the downtrodden, a sort of pre-epiphanic Scrougism, I applaud the application of the epithet. But all ‘elitists’ are not birds of a feather. In fact, much of my disgust with the American aristocracy today (crede experto) derives from the fact that its composition does not reflect the ‘natural aristocracy’ of which Jefferson spoke, and for which he established the University of Virginia.

The distinction between pride and vanity that Mr. Darcy embodied gives us some notion of what a wholesome ‘elitism’ might look like: it is, as Benjamin Disraeli once said, an abiding faith in ‘rule by the best,’ in ‘down-and-out inegalitarianism.’ But this ‘elitism’ places as much emphasis upon the feats performed post partum as the genealogical or financial pedigree of the womb out of which one comes. Aristocratic ethos and entitlement become the provence of those who would take the responsibilities and obligations of ‘natural aristocracy’ seriously. This is the ‘elitism’ that led Grover Cleveland’s wife to reply scornfully to a reporter’s query about her husband’s unwillingness to speak as if he belonged to the commonalty of mankind: Why should he? ‘He graduated first in his class from Harvard.’ Hence Cicero and Alexander Hamilton.

This is the ‘elitism’ that impelled William B. Travis to sit behind a desk in an abandoned mission and declare, ‘I will never surrender or retreat. VICTORY OR DEATH.’ Social historians cringe at such Romanticism; let us not forget that their work is vital, as well. But the truth of diplomatic history, if obsolete in some people’s eyes, is no less profound.

If my propensity to babble has obscured the point I meant to convey, I apologize. You must remember that the first seventeen years of my life made me intimately aware of the failings of aristocracies and the need for their reformation.

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