At the time of the American Revolution, the future United States was a small, colonial backwater on the world stage. Yet it somehow produced an array of talented, creative thinkers who forged this republic we still inhabit.
It’s not just that they began the effort of crafting a new nation. They also designed it. We’ve never really matched the convergence of political creativity and insight produced by that era.
There are plenty of caveats. The leaders of that time failed to confront and find a way past the stain of slavery. Their blind spot when it came to the treatment of Indians was just as troubling. And one of the great what-ifs of American history is what this country would have looked like had women been able to hold and exercise political power.
Nonetheless, I’m struck by how the founders stand out after almost two-and-a-half centuries. So I’ve been reading up on them again, and as I do, another thing strikes me: the qualities of leadership I discern in their biographies have never really gone out of style.
Above all else great leaders of democracies seek to build a consensus. They’re inclusive. They don’t try to shut people out of the process. They’re good listeners, and ask a lot of questions.
At the same time, they’re articulate: describing problems understandably and approachably is a key part of leadership, as is persuading others that you’re right. They usually think in terms of practical options: what’s the problem, what are the facts, what options do we have for dealing with the problem?
Many of our greatest leaders have had a kind of energy that most of us can only admire — the sort of perseverance and wide-ranging breadth of effort that people like John Adams displayed. Politics is not a game for low-energy people.
We have a form of government that encourages ordinary people to solve the problems of their communities, states, and the nation as a whole, and yet effective leadership is vital. To get anything done, to harness the collective energy and wisdom of ordinary Americans, we need leaders who possess at least some of the qualities and conscious public-spiritedness of our founders.
I don’t know if we’ll ever produce another generation of leaders like our founding generation. What I do know, however, is that every time we enter a voting booth, we have the opportunity to try.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, https://corg.indiana.edu. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.