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March 4, 2009

The Great Man Theory of History

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Even before his election to the office of the president last November, many in the liberal chattering class were already using hype and hyperbole that then-Senator Barack Obama was destined to be one of our country’s greatest presidents.


If there has been anything close to a silver lining in the midst of the election of our country’s most liberal president in history, the end of the “Bush era” – the eight tumultuous years of the presidency of George W. Bush, and the current financial crisis – it has been a renewed interest in American history.


The downside of this dynamic is that much of the conversation that is being promoted as “history” is being written by non-historians eager to revise the record to suit a particular political agenda.


This comes to mind because, in the last number of weeks, I have been interviewed by several reporters about presidential history, the legacy of President Bush, and the attitudes of conservative Carroll County over the election of a liberal black president.


To my surprise, the “Great Man Theory of History” came up a number of times. That theory has not been held in high regard for several decades.


Nonetheless, I say, “to my surprise” somewhat disingenuously as I have certainly read about a resurgence of the Great Man Theory in the past six months.


I’m not sure that there is any single structure that can be applied to any systematic study of history, although I tend to understand history best as events that are the result of economic dynamics and stressors.


As an aside, I have found that history is more easily digested when it is offered in the context of a corresponding date in history, especially if the events of the past have a relationship with the what, why and how of today’s events.


However, more often than not, the events of the past are best told to non-historians through the lives of the prominent historical characters who were a part of the events.


The question as to whether I subscribe to the great person theory of history was a fair question except for the fact that the various reporters were fishing for whether or not I found either President Obama or President Bush qualified for such a designation.


Although both individuals are extraordinary individuals, neither is eligible to be designated as a “Great Man of History.” It is simply way too early to tell.


For the academically curious, the “Great Man Theory of History” is usually associated with the work of the 19th century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. He determined that the “history of the world is but the biography of great men.”


Mr. Carlyle believed, according to some old notes, that “heroes shape history through the vision of their intellect, the beauty of their art, the prowess of their leadership, and, most important, their divine inspiration.”


As far as the legacy of President Bush, I am forever amused by the scribes who insist that his legacy may be authoritatively written so close to him leaving office.


I find the pundits who believe that his legacy may be determined at this point as quite suspect, as it would appear that they only wish to further a particular political polemic instead of having a scholarly discourse.


The interview over the attitudes of conservatives over the election of a black president was a bit contentious. I asked as many questions as the person who was doing the interviewing.


One of my first questions was: Would we be having this conversation if the black president in question were to have been Michael Steele, Condoleezza Rice or Clarence Thomas?


An entire column could be written about the attitude toward conservatives on the part of the reporter as this person had not a clue as what “conservatism” is all about.


Another column could be written as the reporter’s complete bewilderment as to why many conservatives are proud of the fact that an African-American was elected president.


And that, as loyal Americans, President Obama has our respect, if for no more reason than the office of the president is to be respected.


That is, as opposed to the liberals who disagreed with President Bush and in a manifestation of Bush Derangement Syndrome, hated him.


To state the obvious, it is possible to admire and respect the individual and yet disagree with their politics. I’m not sure that the reporters understood that.


To further complicate the conversations, when pressed, I identified President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a great man in history although I disagree with his economic politics and feel that his approach to social democracy has had a deleterious impact upon our nation.


This was greeted with silence.


Upon being further baited, I answered that although I did not know President Abraham Lincoln, President Obama is not President Lincoln, nor does he want to be.


But I am way off on a tangent. Refocusing on the Great Man Theory itself, the interviews went circular, as if I did not understand the approach of being asked and re-asked a series of questions in search of an answer that fit into their article; I was thereupon specifically queried if I subscribed to the Great Man Theory since I often write about prominent historic characters.


Actually the answer is no. I often like to write about great men and women in history because I find them fascinating.


All that said; the study of history through the lives of individuals is best put into context by retired General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who once said: “…There is no such thing as a born leader. …. Most great leaders are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.”


Although it is easily accepted that President Obama and President Bush are not ordinary people, it is an understatement to say that they were thrust into extraordinary circumstances.


We all certainly hope that history deems them to be great men in history, but only time will tell.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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