What America lacks today is statesmanship. It seems that our present
leaders no longer inspire us with confidence, but reading our
preferences in various opinion polls, their method is to win election
through flattery. In other words, they tell us what we want to hear.
Even more disappointing, for many decades our national leaders have
lacked the wherewithal to write their own speeches and develop their own
insights. Recent presidents have not only surrounded themselves with
pollsters, but they have become dependent on writers and social
scientists. These people have dominated national policy with a
mish-mash of disjointed and unproven academic theories — like achieving
peace by negotiating arms control treaties with aggressive
dictatorships, or adopting a trade policy that disables our own
industrial economy in the face of foreign competition.
Our leaders lack greatness. They lack vision and statesmanship. But
even more alarming, the American public may have forgotten what a great
leader is like.
History provides us with many examples. But there is one statesman,
above all others, who merits our attention. He was the first of his
kind — a man who served as a model for all those who would later employ
eloquence in the service of democratic patriotism. I am referring to
the Athenian statesman of the fourth century B.C., Demosthenes.
Being frail in body, the young Demosthenes was unfit for military
service. So he trained himself as an orator. But he had a speech
defect. He was inarticulate and often stammered. Nevertheless, being
encouraged by a young actor, he memorized lines from Greek poetry and
drama — from Homer, Euripides and Sophocles — and he practiced making
speeches before a mirror.
Unfortunately, this did not help. Demosthenes’ first public speeches
led to ridicule. Instead of taking his statements seriously, the
audience laughed. But despite the humiliation, he developed a method of
organizing his thoughts. He had mastered the strategy of
argumentation. Perhaps he could not deliver a perfect speech, but he
could write one. So he became a paid speechwriter. And this is what he
did to earn a living, winning the respect of the wealthy and the
In those early years of writing speeches, Demosthenes followed events
closely and developed a vision of what his country ought to be. One day
he noticed that Persia was threatening war, and Athens preferred to do
nothing. So Demosthenes, at the age of 30, ventured to persuade his
countrymen to make a sacrifice. “Let us build up our naval strength,”
he said. “There is no need to threaten war, but we should show our
readiness to oppose aggression.”
Demosthenes then proposed a more acceptable method of taxation in
order to pay for the enlarged navy. The speech was so effective that
Demosthenes immediately became a respected leader — an advocate of
liberty and national independence.
Demosthenes said that a free country should always oppose an
aggressive and warlike empire. Countries threatened by aggression
should band together and pool their resources. This would prevent them
from falling, one by one. He also said that Athens should never abandon
a victim of armed aggression, however great or small. “A statesman
should be ahead of events,” he said, “and not be compelled to follow
But his ideas were opposed by certain moneyed interests. The
merchants of Athens preferred peace at any price. Here was their
argument, which still has powerful advocates today: If our country goes
to war, if we enrage the world’s tyrants, our trade will be cut off, we
will lose our foreign customers, and our taxes will be higher.
Therefore, why should it matter who dominates the world? Let us
accommodate the aggressor and preserve our wealth.
One can see the logic of this thinking. By placing personal gain
ahead of the public interest, the wealthy merchants and their hirelings
advocated a corrupt foreign policy.
Demosthenes was one of the first great orators to speak out against a
policy which claimed that the economy should have primacy. National
security should come first, he said. When noting the grave threat to
Athenian liberty, he anticipated what others would say. “This does not
make pleasant hearing,” he admitted. “But it is nonetheless despicable
to pursue self-deception and postpone unpleasantness at the expense of
Demosthenes was worried about King Philip of Macedon. He could see
that Philip intended the conquest of Greece. Yet the Athenian public
was unconvinced. There was a tendency, even then, for democracy to
ignore a threat until it was almost past remedy. Worse still, many
Athenians favored appeasement. Because of this, Philip’s aggression was
encouraged. Like Hitler in the 1930s, Philip built his war machine
while annexing one territory after another.
“We are always reacting to Philip’s aggression,” argued Demosthenes.
“We have no strategy of our own.”
Demosthenes attempted to shame his countrymen, referring to the
stigma and disgrace that appends to weakness and cowardice in foreign
affairs. He reproached Athens for letting the armed forces fall into
disrepair, saying, “When the commander is given a few miserable men
without pay … what can be expected?”
Demosthenes realized that an aggressor is always intoxicated by
success. If he is not stopped at the outset, an aggressor will become
insatiable. But Demosthenes failed to rouse the Athenian people. They
clung to their own comfort. They believed what they wanted to
believe. Philip soon advanced into Chalcidice, threatening the city of
Olynthus. Demosthenes warned the Athenians of the danger. But the
Athenians were apathetic.
“I am surprised,” said Demosthenes, “Our country once defended the
rights of the Greek states. We sacrificed our wealth for the security
of others. And now we are slow to defend our own possessions. We do
not stir a finger to prevent the worst.”
Why had Athens sunk to such weakness?
“You know the answer,” said Demosthenes. “Our country has spent
itself in procrastination, in optimism, in recrimination, condemnation
and yet more optimism.”
Making matters worse, Philip was bribing Athenian politicians under
the table. He was purchasing complacency with silver and gold. But
this subversion could not continue forever. At long last Philip’s
treachery and aggression could no longer be denied. The Athenian people
rallied to the defense of their country. Unfortunately for them, it was
too late. At the battle of Chaeronea, in 338 B.C., the Greek alliance
was smashed by Macedonia’s invincible war machine.
Two years after his victory at Chaeronea, Philip was assassinated.
His son, Alexander the Great, succeeded him. The career of Alexander —
who came to believe in his own divinity — has been recorded by
historians. He was a bloody conqueror who eventually sunk into madness
It should not surprise us that Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler fashioned
themselves after the likeness of Alexander. But Demosthenes served as a
model for democratic statesmen — like Marcus Cicero, who opposed
Catiline and Caesar; and Edmund Burke, who foresaw the rise of Napoleon
out of the French Revolution; and Churchill, who spoke against the
appeasement of Hitler.
History teaches us what a tyrant is and what a statesman should be.
A statesman is one who sees danger before others apprehend it. A
statesman is one who opposes bad compromises and false optimism.
In this context, if a genuine statesman appeared in our country,
would we recognize him? Would we follow his lead?