October 28, 2013

Humility — America’s Greatest Virtue?

By: Emma Elliott Freire

American humility is not an oxymoron. In fact, some of our country’s finest moments are characterized by humility. Today, many people have grown scornful of humility, seeing it as weakness. In his new book, Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, Dr. David J. Bobb examines the lives of five historical Americans—George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. He believes modern Americans can learn from their examples. Their lives show us that “Meekness is not weakness. Humility is an essential party of the true greatness of the soul” (p. 47).


Bobb begins with Benjamin Franklin’s definition of humility: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” (p. 7). The latter’s humility took the form of devotion to duty, which led him to accept a death sentence from his fellow Athenians. Three centuries later, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). But, at the same time, humbled himself and washed the feet of the lowly.

Bobb then gives a lightning-quick overview of the history of Western thinking about humility. He starts with Augustine, who argued that Roman pride, not Christian humility, brought the fall of the Empire. Bobb moves briskly through 1300 years of philosophy, eventually reaching Hobbes, who saw personal humility as irrelevant. This overview helps readers understand the worldview of the five famous Americans examined in the book.

The first American examined is an obvious and uncontroversial choice. George Washington is widely held up as an excellent example of personal humility. However, Bobb does a nice job of highlighting a few of the lesser known episodes in Washington’s life. For instance, Washington’s work as Commander-in-Chief was sometimes undermined by the Congressional Board of War. Instead of getting frustrated and resigning, Washington focused on rallying his men. Later, when Washington served as president of the Constitutional Convention, he mostly stayed silent. He only spoke out on one substantive matter, the ratio of constituents to representatives. This helped underscore the importance of representative government.

After looking at the “Father of the Nation,” Bobb moves on to the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison. He singles out an interesting episode from 1784. Madison showed humility in his hard work to defeat a proposal to use tax money to fund religious teaching. “In standing up for the rights of Virginia’s religious minorities, Madison embodied meekness, which counsels regard for people who are oppressed,” writes Bobb. “Madison’s vigor in Virginia’s battle for religious liberty was undeniable” (p. 97).

Bobb shifts course slightly in his chapter on Abigail Adams. Unlike Washington and Madison, she never held a powerful office. Yet she made an important impact. Her service to her family and community exemplified the best kind of American humility. “Advancing the common good can be done in grand ways, like her husband did in the halls of Congress and in the diplomatic parlor rooms of England, France, and the Netherlands,” writes Bobb. “It can also be done as Abigail did, in the steady support of her family, friends, church, and local community” (p. 115).

The most controversial inclusion in the book is Abraham Lincoln, whom Bobb admits was considered by his contemporaries to be an extremely ambitious man. A long-time law partner of Lincoln’s said, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest” (p. 134). As a prime example of Lincoln’s humility, Bobb cites his careful consideration of the Emancipation Proclamation. “Humility is not headstrong; nor is it hapless,” he writes. “It is not passive but strong. Avoiding rashness himself, Lincoln exercised a deliberateness of thought and action that, however much it sometimes made him seem indecisive, in fact proved over and over again a boon to the ends he sought” (p. 145).

The final example of American humility is Lincoln’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass. He escaped from slavery and rose to become a great leader, orator, and abolitionist. “In his first twenty years, he had more than enough humiliations for a lifetime,” Bobb writes. “Still, Frederick displayed humility in the face of humiliations through his cultivation of a quiet dignity that soon would roar” (p. 169).

Bobb compares Douglass’ experience in slavery to that of prisoners in the Communist ‘gulag archipelago’ and follows this with some thoughts on the similarities between American slavery and the Communist ideology. This is interesting but seems tangential to the rest of the book.

In his closing chapter, Bobb appeals for a return to humility, lest America go the way of the Roman Empire. He steers clear of any specific suggestions for what modern-day humility might look like. Thus, readers are left to decide for themselves how these five historical Americans are relevant to our modern day and age.

Bobb deserves credit for taking some complex philosophical concepts and a lot of historical information to produce a book that is easy to read and accessible to a wide audience. Regardless of what readers conclude about humility, this book will give them plenty to think about.

Emma Elliot Freire is an American writer based in England. Washington panorama courtesy of Big Stock Photo.