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.