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Graeve, Oscar (ed.) / Delineator
Vol. 119, No. 1 (July, 1931)

Phelps, William Lyon
Men who made America,   p. 12 PDF (512.5 KB)

Page 12

D E L I N E A T 0 R
Challenging the lofty dome of the Capitol in Washington rise
memorials to her great men: the Washington Monument, the
Lincoln Memorial and others. But, in these days of debunking
reputations, does the fame of these men survive as solidly as the
structures which honor them?
Read Dr. Phelps's vigorous reply
SLUlOsE in all human history there never was a
nation so fortunate at its founding as the United
States of America; fortunate in having at its cradle so
many first-class statesmen. It is often said that a
great crisis produces a great man; such a remark would
not be true, even if a great man appeared. A crisis never
produces a hero; sometimes it reveals a hero.
Among American leaders from 1776 to 1788, were
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin
Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams,
James Madison, and other men who would today be
conspicuous if they were members of the United States
Benjamin Franklin signed four important historical
documents: the Declaration of Independence, the French
Treaty of Alliance, the Treaty of Peace, and the United
States Constitution. I believe he is the only American
who signed all four of these state papers.
It is in no spirit of belittling the present and praising
the past that I compare our times with those. The years
11I1-1920 needed more than they needed anything else.
statesmen of genius; it is probable that the three greatest
men who emerged from the war-time were Nikolai Lenin.
Benito Mussolini, and Woodrow Wilson. They changed
the course of history. Lenin, single-handed, controlled an
enormous heterogeneous country when it was in a con-
dition of disorder and despair. Had he shared the views
of Mussolini. Russia would not now be a Soviet republic.
In other words. he shaped it to his will.
Had Mussolini been an anarchist or a communist.
Italy today would be a Soviet republic, instead of being
exactly the opposite. Mussolini shaped the ancient
country of Italy at a time when it was at the mercy of
any man strong enough to take it, to his own will; even
as Napoleon put an end to the French Revolution and to
the republic that followed it.
It is difficult to imagine any future time when the
writers of history will not give a large place to Lenin and
Mussolini. two men whose views were so contrary that
they resembled each other only in energy and resolution
As for Wood;ow Wiln, his position in the future is not
so clear and not so sure as that of his Russian and Italian
contemporaries. But if the world goes his way, that is, if
the League of Nations is joined by the United States of
Arrerica and becomes an eficient method of preventing
war, if secret treaties should be abolished and the old idea
of ' balance of power" relegated to the scrap-heap, then
the name of Woodrow Wilson will be brighter than it is
But does any one believe that during the years 1911-
1920 there was any American of the calibre of Benjamin
Franklin or of the philosophical grasp of Thomas Jeffer-
son, or of the pure unselfishness and patient ability of
George Washington, or of the creative power in public
finance of Alexander Hamilton?
The late Professor William Graham Sumner, in con-
sidering the history of the United States, our growth from
thirteen colonies along a strip of seacoast, through the
acquisition of the Louisiana purchase, through Florida,
through Texas, through the California coast. into a sol-
idly secure position between two oceans, with a friendly
power on the north and a weaker power on the south, said
it seemed incredible that any nation should have had
such good luck and such an opportunity; and he believed
that with a national folly as great as our national good
fortune, we threw them aNway by taking Hawaii, the
Philippines, and Porto Rico. But that is another story.
I agree with him that our history is almost incredibly
lucky; but I would add to our good fortune in the acquisi-
tion of land an equal good fortune in having at our birth
a half dozen men of genius, actuated by a common
How great in mind and character was Washington?
Any famous man of the past who can survive the fourth
decade of this twentieth century must have had the root
of the matter in him. These present days are bad for
heroes. The heroic figures of history are now being
submitted to a scrutiny both searching and ironical.
Many of our clever writers of novelized history believe
that standards of morality have changed: sometimes the
wish is father to the thought. Be that as it may, the
attitude toward Washington is similar to that of the
Athenian citizen who voted against Aristides because he
was tired of hearing him called "the Just." Thus the
process of "debunking" goes merrily on; for the surest
way to attract attention to oneself is not to exalt Wash-
ington and other heroes, but to befoul them.
The new chroniclers of times that are past come not
to praise a hero, but to bury him.  (Turn to page 59)
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