- - Tuesday, December 10, 2013


By David J. Bobb
Thomas Nelson Books, $24.99, 228 pages

Humility is a virtue that often gets a bad rap, especially when an unctuous hypocrite like Dickens’ Uriah Heep lays claim to it. Moreover, living as we do in what David Bobb calls “an age of arrogance,” humility can be seen as weak and passive, while “greatness seems strong and energetic — anything but humble.” He quotes Muhammad Ali: “It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.” So, the basic questions are: Is it possible to achieve greatness, but be humble at the same time? Are national greatness and humility mutually exclusive concepts?

Mr. Bobb, founding director of the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Studies, thinks that “humility is the indispensable virtue for the achievement of greatness,” that “our greatest moments [as a nation] have been marked by humility,” and that “our future should be informed by that past.”

In the lives of the five historical figures he treats here — George Washington, James Madison Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass — he thinks there is much to be learned about humility. “Surprising as it may seem, ‘American humility’ is not an oxymoron.”

Mr. Bobb begins with a survey of the concepts of virtue as held in the classical world, moving up from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas to Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. Among the common ideas and ideals that informed our nation’s Founding, he writes, are Aristotle’s magnanimity and “the quest for greatness of soul” and Augustine’s humility and desire for moral goodness. “Each of the five Americans featured,” writes Mr. Bobb, demonstrates “that humility and magnanimity can exist in the same soul.”

He shows us a young George Washington whose “strong sense of self” would remain constant throughout his life, as would “an awareness of his own faults, along with his struggle to overcome them.” That he succeeded in doing so, that he maintained the balance between justifiable pride and humility, magnanimity and moral goodness, was evident at each stage of his career. When it was rumored that he would resign his commission after victory in the War of Independence, King George III said, “If he does, he will be greatest man in the world.”

He did just that in Annapolis in 1783, and would do much the same in declining to run for a third term as president — an office he might well have chosen to occupy for life. In the words of Henry Holcombe, a Baptist minister of the time, he was a man whose “boldness and magnanimity” were “equaled by nothing but his modesty and humility.”

“In choosing twice to leave power when he could have stayed at its pinnacle,” writes Mr. Bobb, “George Washington earned the title ‘American Cincinnatus.’”

If George Washington is viewed, rightly, as “Father of his Country,” then James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution.” In all humility, Madison insisted that it was “not the offspring of a single brain,” but the “work of many heads and hands.” But without Madison’s extraordinary efforts, there might well have been no Constitution as we know it, no ratification, no George Washington as president. Small of stature and soft-spoken, some mistook the externals for weakness. Beneath the surface, there was a great capacity for work, guided by a fierce intellect.

Abigail Adams is perhaps best known for the remarkable correspondence she and her husband, John, maintained over the years. She never held office, although her interest in politics and government was always keen, and her advice to her husband always astute, helping to keep him on keel. She was equally astute in her full-time management of the family farm, the primary source of income, and in raising her children.

“Advancing the common good can be done in grand ways,” writes Mr. Bobb. “It can also be done as Abigail did, in the steady support of her family, friends, church and local community.”

Mr. Bobb’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln emphasizes Lincoln’s humility, in which “perhaps more powerfully than that of any other figure, we see the spiritual dimension of this great virtue.” The author finds a powerful illustration in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he challenges the American people on both sides, once the war was ended, to act compassionately, and with intellectual and spiritual humility.

Frederick Douglass, “ex-slave, abolitionist leader, orator and statesmen,” was one of the Americans, writes Mr. Bobb, who listened to that inaugural address. He attempted to attend the reception, was refused entry because he was black, and petitioned the president for entry. “Lincoln immediately had him escorted into the White House. ‘Here comes my friend,’ Lincoln said, seeing Douglass approach.”

“A proud man — and a humble one — Frederick Douglass shared with Abraham Lincoln the lack of arrogance that made them both effective advocates for liberty. Beyond anything Lincoln ever endured, however, Douglass came to his pride — and his humility — by overcoming the humiliation of slavery.”

A remarkable story, one that should serve as a source of inspiration for Americans of all races. Mr. Bobb does us a service by reintroducing us to a great moral leader, as well as by renewing our acquaintances with four other notable Americans who personify the virtues about which he writes, crisply and cogently.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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