“I remember when I was a freshman, one of the teaching assistants in a government course I took said, ‘It’s in the cards for you to become a political scientist,’” says Harvey Mansfield, the 2007 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. “I don’t remember ever seriously considering any alternative.” In this issue, he talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the more than forty years he has spent teaching and writing about political philosophy. In recognition of his career, Mansfield is receiving the highest honor given by the federal government for achievement in the humanities.
For Mansfield, political science means grappling with the works of philosophers, such as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Niccol Machiavelli. In their writings, he locates the genesis of many of the elements and debates that define our political system today. Burke argued that political parties should be regarded as legitimate components of a free society, rather than symptoms of political rot. Tocqueville worried that democracy would promote intellectual conformity, thereby laying the groundwork for majority tyranny. He also fretted that American idealization of individualism would lead to “big government” “To him, it was a disease of democracy that people felt incompetent or impotent among a mass of other people,” says Mansfield.
As for Machiavelli, Mansfield finds him troublesome and potentially dangerous. “He’s very bad on the surface, but underneath, he’s worse,” says Mansfield. “He wants” Mansfield holds Machiavelli responsible for introducing the idea of exercising power in the name of someone else as a way to obscure your actions. “This is something that had not been thought of or invented by the ancients, by Plato and Aristotle, it’s a modern idea,” he tells Cole.
In this issue, we also look at those who took an entrepreneurial approach to fame and fortune. “Entrepreneurs,” observed Machiavelli, “are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.” Alexander Hamilton, the subject of a new NEH-supported film, transcended illegitimacy and a difficult upbringing to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp and a hero of Yorktown. Hamilton parlayed his notoriety and organizational prowess into a seat in the Continental Congress, a role in drafting the Constitution, and an appointment as the first secretary of the treasury. His luck famously ran out at the end of Aaron Burr’s dueling pistol.
Margaret “Molly” Brown gained a national reputation for her “unsinkable” attitude during the Titanic disaster. Myths and musicals have portrayed her as a saloon girl who lucked into a marriage to a miner who struck it rich. A new exhibition by the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver aims to correct those notions. In reality, Brown received a solid education, was well-versed in civil rights by her Irish mother and abolitionist father, and met her husband at a church picnic. While she enjoyed the riches that flowed from her husband’s gold strike, Brown hardly lived an idle life. She founded one of the first humane societies, campaigned for workers’ rights, and organized relief in France during World War I.
Hamilton and Brown played out their careers in the public eye, giving Americans a front row seat to their ascent. Scott Sandage shows, however, that you didn’t have to be famous for your career to be closely scrutinized. In the mid-1800s, a network of informants working for what became Dun & Bradstreet, kept tabs on whether businessmen—ranging from prominent merchants to local cobblers—made good investments, foolish acquisitions, or cheated on their wives. How very Machiavellian.