In Praise of Modesty

Author: Gary Hart

One of my most admired friends, Billy Shore (founder of Share Our Strength), has a kind habit of sending me books.  Most recently it was American Ulysses, a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Upon his death, movingly described at the book’s conclusion, his funeral procession in New York City stretched nine miles.  As the Union’s general-in-chief and later President, he was proclaimed by the press as inhabiting the pantheon with Washington and Lincoln.  His memoir, concluded as he was dying, is considered a classic.  Yet today, he is seldom spared a thought.

Grant possessed that rare combination of inner self confidence and modesty seldom witnessed in today’s era of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.  In recent times Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman also come to mind in this respect.  Like Grant, they had inner strength but enough self-awareness, including about their own faults, not to lapse into self-promotion.

Perhaps the entertainment industry, including professional sports, has permeated public life to the degree that politicians need to publicly pound their chests like football players in the end zone, seeking credit for victory even in a team sport.

Another word for modesty is humility.  Not humility as humiliated, but humility as humble.  Few if any of us can truly claim credit for accomplishments that so many along the way have helped bring about.  In his engagement reports, Grant gave effusive credit to fellow generals, especially Sherman and Sheridan, as well as to his troops.

Great leaders seldom seek acclaim for success, knowing that if it is deserved it will be recognized.  Pomposity, credit-seeking, self-aggrandizement are all characteristics of the weak and insecure.  My mentor, Mike Mansfield, was the epitome of modesty yet a truly great leader and legislator.  It was a mark of his great stature that he quietly promoted younger leaders.

It seems profoundly confusing that great figures, those who excel at what they do, are also often very shy.  The professional is one who excels and makes it look easy and natural, then avoids the limelight.  “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?,” indeed.

Following the Civil War, Grant sought occasions to deliver kindnesses to his former foes.  He was magnanimous in victory towards General Lee and his officers..  He saw no need to crush the defeated under his heal.  They never forgot.

His Administrations were, with rare exceptions, focused on reconciliation and national restoration.  Confederate generals, Joe Johnston, who came all the way from California, and Simon Bolivar Buckner, rode in his funeral cortege, as did Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, together riding with Grant’s favorites, William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, side by side.

One of Grant’s initial foes and then longtime personal friends, Confederate general James Longstreet, said of Grant: “He was a great general, but the best thing about him was his heart.”

Thus another mark of greatness of spirit, modesty combined with magnanimity.  Unlike many others, but like Lincoln, he insisted that North and South were still all Americans and insisted that former Confederate separationists be treated honorably and respectfully.

Respect for Ulysses Grant was international.  At his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, demand for seats far exceeded available space.

Thus, a man who’s venture into business, like Harry Truman thereafter, was unsuccessful, whose early Army career was as a quartermaster, who, during early battles, was derided by much of the Northern press, rose, through force of character and generosity of spirit, to become what many at the time and some even today believe to be one of America’s greatest leaders.

If Providence is kind, we may yet see his likes again.

3 Responses to “In Praise of Modesty”

  1. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    The following observation, is in my view, the one vision which informed everything President Grant intended to realize.

    “Grant never doubted that there was, ultimately, only one race–the human race.”

    Geoffrey Perret, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President.

    There are many people with vision in this nation. Their voices will and are being heard and in time I am confident that the light they share with us will penetrate even the darkest corners of this land. Should one individual rise above the aggregate, and touch the hearts of the People in a way that elevates their Spirit, it will be because that individual embodies and reflects the many lights around them in the most perfect way.

  2. Bill Pruden Says:

    Thank you Senator for a thoughtful and moving tribute to both a great and undervalued American and an important and undervalued human attribute, one that is so often central those imbued with greatness. Grant was not perfect, but as you so rightly note he was a man whose greatness stemmed from a humanity that was well reflected in the line from Geoffrey Perret that Mr. Borg has highlighted about Grant believing that “there was, ultimately, only one race, “the human race.” In a time when selfies, Facebook, individual websites and twitter accounts, not to mention the race to accumulate followers and “friends,” seem to overwhelm the realities of human interaction, it is nice to be reminded of those whose character was so obvious that they do not need to tell us about it, but instead they simply demonstrate every day, in every way, We need to remember those types as we try to return to our roots and reestablish our direction as “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as another great and modest man, Abraham Lincoln once said. Indeed, as a new year begins, and as so many of us despair at our current state of affairs, it might be wise would be wise for us to remember and draw upon the examples of the modest men and women of earlier times whose mark on our nation’s history is both immeasurable and inspiring.

  3. Neil McCarthy Says:


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