Reflections on Historical Leadders
Mosher Center Logo


Reflections on Historical Leaders

July 2016

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Summer affords an opportunity for many of us to travel. Sometimes that includes venturing outside the borders of the United States to explore new lands, peoples, and cultures. That usually proves to be an enriching experience, if also a bit disorienting at first. We may initially find things to be a little too different for us to feel comfortable or “at home.” But pretty soon we begin to get a handle on how things work there and before long we are ready to make definitive judgments about the character of this new place to our family and friends. Our naïve evaluations are typically of no great help or harm to others; they usually reflect the length of our stay and the breadth of our experience.

The same holds true for foreign visitors to our own country. They reach conclusions about us that may seem hasty or incomplete, or on the other hand, overly generous. Yet throughout the course of American history a number of them have been keen observers of who we are as a people and a nation. Their writings offer some of the most telling and even brilliant insights about our values, institutions, and aspirations. An outside perspective is sometimes just what is needed to reveal something crucially important about ourselves.

One thinks, for example, of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s classic work on American race relations, An American Dilemma, published during World War Two that helped fuel a renewed civil rights movement in the postwar era. Or of Frenchman J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) which helped to define a collective American identity and highlighted the new nation’s commitments to equal opportunity, individual freedom, and religious pluralism. In the nineteenth century, prominent English visitors Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens wrote accounts (Society in America and American Notes for General Circulation, respectively) that condemned American slavery.

Most famously, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) captured the genius of our representative democracy as well as anyone ever has. His intent in part was to explain why republican government and society was a success in America while failing to that point across Europe. No brief summary can do justice to the breadth and depth of de Tocqueville’s analysis but here are a few quotes that give a small sampling of his wisdom: “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

De Tocqueville and these other foreign observers have helped us to see some of both the best and the worst in ourselves. That is a gift worth receiving and a type of leadership and teaching worth learning from.