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Richard Brookhiser | Wiki­media

Hillsdale College requires all of its incoming freshmen to begin their higher edu­cation by reading Founding Father, a biog­raphy of George Wash­ington by Richard Brookhiser. This year’s grad­u­ating class should com­plete the circle by inviting the author to deliver the com­mencement address that will for­mally con­clude their edu­cation at Hillsdale.

Brookhiser began his writing career shortly after he turned 15-years-old by penning an article in “National Review” on anti-Vietnam protests at his high school. After grad­u­ating from Yale Uni­versity, he joined the staff of “National Review” as a columnist and even­tually began making forays into the history of the American Founding with his popular biogra­phies of prominent statesmen (including a book on John Mar­shall to be pub­lished this fall). He described his focus on American statesmen as a natural out­growth of his jour­nalism career: “After writing about modern politi­cians, it didn’t seem a stretch to write about dead ones. The founders are our fathers; they are also our con­tem­po­raries, present in so much of what we think and do.” 

Brookhiser writes of such figures for the purpose of intel­lectual and moral edu­cation. The biogra­phies of the great leaders whom he chron­icles are not meant as pre­sen­ta­tions of antique curiosities from a bygone age with little modern rel­e­vance. Instead, Brookhiser offers moral biog­raphy in the tra­dition of the clas­sical his­torian Plutarch, through which his intention is to “shape the minds and hearts of those who read it — not by offering a list of 200-year-old policy pre­scrip­tions, but by showing how a great man nav­i­gated pol­itics and life as a public figure.” 

Fun­da­men­tally, Brookhiser grounds his approach in a con­viction that the words and deeds of statesmen such as Wash­ington, Hamilton, and Lincoln hold timeless lessons for those who would wish to learn from their example. The cir­cum­stances facing each man were par­ticular to his own sit­u­ation, yet each sought to act upon changing con­di­tions in light of unchanging prin­ciples and virtues of char­acter. Wash­ington alone bore the weighty respon­si­bility of leading the new nation as its first Com­mander-in-Chief, and he care­fully nav­i­gated through uncharted waters as the United States faced chal­lenges from without and ten­sions from within. His example demon­strates the essence of states­manship: the appli­cation of unchanging prin­ciples to uncertain and changing cir­cum­stances. 

As an example of Washington’s lead­ership, Brookhiser includes a crucial account of Washington’s response to growing unrest among the sol­diers over Congress’s failure to pay the Army at the end of the Rev­o­lu­tionary War. Wash­ington called a meeting of his officers, and in their presence he reminded them of the sac­ri­fices they had made for their common cause and urged them to con­tinue to support the gov­ernment. Though some of his officers — observing the weakness of Con­gress during the war — even desired to elevate him as a king, Wash­ington dis­suaded them from this course, and he demon­strated his char­acter with his decision to resign his com­mission and return to private life. 

Edu­cation, in addition to imparting knowledge, should shape the char­acter of the student. In embracing a liberal arts edu­cation, we seek to form men and women of exem­plary virtue and under­standing who will be pre­pared to act as respon­sible cit­izens and heirs of the intel­lectual legacy which has been passed down to them through their edu­cation. 

This process of forming char­acter depends, to a large degree, upon the edi­fying power of example to impress the mind with demon­stra­tions of the desirable virtues and warnings of the vices which can lead even the most capable and intel­ligent persons astray. Indeed, the study of history for the purpose of moral edu­cation forms an indis­pensable element of a proper liberal-arts edu­cation. The ultimate aim of studying figures such as Wash­ington goes beyond the knowledge of their achieve­ments; we seek to know what gave them the capa­bility to act as they did so that we too may model their excel­lence of char­acter and judgment. What better way to con­clude such an edu­cation as we have received than by inviting Richard Brookhiser to remind us of the timeless impor­tance of moral virtue and pru­dential judgment as we prepare to go forth from this place?

William Turton is a graduate student at the Van Andel Graduate School of States­manship.