Having started to read Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, I became impressed with Washington’s modesty. On two occasions, he was appointed to a position of supreme command. Both before Virginia’s House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress, he told these bodies that he was unequal to the task. For me, what was even more surprising was that Flexner commented that this response was not calculated to increase the Continental Congress’s confidence in Washington.
When I read this very modern response to Washington’s humility, the degree to which the virtue of modesty must be defunct struck me. We are so spineless these days! We desire so many reassurances! Why should Washington exude confidence to the Continental Congress? The Revolution is a desperate enterprise! It would rather have smacked of insanity for Washington to declare that the Red Coats would be whipped in short order!
Yet, today, we care so much for the appearance of things. We choose people who make us feel most comfortable rather than the people who would do the job best. If George Washington were up against Obama for election today, he would lose. We would say, “He seems kind of cold and aloof. He doesn’t outright and say that he’s the best man. He doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Look at Obama! He has a plan! He’s well spoken! Hope and change, man!” Yet, if Obama’s administration is renown for anything in history, it will be infamy.
Our society has become more pagan. We look at David and Goliath and expect the giant to win. We root for the superman–the man who looks superior–instead of the underdog. The man of bluster and soothing words is superior to the man whose words and deeds are one. Do we not know that this is why Athens fell? Because people preferred to listen to Aeschines tell Athens that Philip of Macedon held no designs of imperialism instead of Demosthenes’ enumeration of the evidence for Philip’s duplicity and ambition for empire. I have recently read a biography of R. E. Lee which praises its subject thus: “Lee was not word; Lee was deed.” The man of deeds does not need to adorn himself with words: his actions speak for the man. In short, the man of deeds wraps himself in modesty and silence. The man without deeds needs to ostentate himself.