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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Humility Of George Washington And Jefferson’s Letter To The Commissioners Of The University Of Virginia

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HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week. That means it’s time for the Hilldale Dialogue. You can listen to all of the Hillsdale Dialogues dating back three years now at You can also go avail yourself of all of the offerings that Hillsdale puts online, including their amazing Constitution 101 course, which has reopened right now for free registration at And you can sign up for Imprimis, which is the newsletters of Hillsdale at But you’ll want to sit down and give a listen to this, the third in our series on the American character at the founding with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. But I have to begin this hour, Dr. Arnn, welcome, it’s always good to have you.

LA: Good to be with you.

HH: I have to announce to the world and to the audience, and to everyone who ever listens to one of the Hillsdale Dialogues that we have a celebrity in the house, because this week it was announced that Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn has been selected for the Bradley Prize for his leadership of the college where he has served for almost 15 years. And for the benefit of the Steelers fans, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation gives one of the prestigious prizes in America for intellectual and civic achievements. So Dr. Arnn, congratulations. We are glad for the Bradley Foundation’s judgment, and we congratulate you. That’s a big deal.

LA: Well, thank you. It is a big deal. I’ve known those people for a long time, and some of the people, so Charles Krauthammer and George Will and Robbie George and a bunch of people who are greater than I are on the selection committee. And they ran out of people this year. So you know, they called my dog. My dog was unavailable.

HH: I’m not buying that. I am buying that people should know on June 3rd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, you will be receiving this award. And it honors excellence in civic engagement. I’ve known the Bradley people for a long time as well, and they are very, very particular who they pick, and this is a salute to your leadership specifically of the college. When they called you up to tell you this, I am curious, I’ve never known a MacArthur fellow, so I’ve never been able to ask them, and I’ve only known Bradley Foundation people from a distance. What’s it feel like when the phone rings and they say you’ve won the Bradley Award?

LA: Well, Michael Grebe, who runs the Bradley Foundation, and whom I know well, called. And he doesn’t call me very often. And so we see each other from time to time, but so that was a curiosity, and I’d forgot that it was the season of the Bradley Prize. And people I’ve nominated in the past, including Martin Gilbert, my teacher, and Victor Hanson, a friend, and a few others, have won it. And so I send in nominations, and then I kind of lose track of it. And I wondered what Michael wanted. And so (laughing)

HH: (laughing) Well, that’s endearing, actually.

LA: And it, I said, I came on the phone, I got an email that he called, and so I called him back, and happened to be able to, I was something I can’t remember, and I called him back and I said, Michael, it’s Larry, how are you. He said very well. He said I’m calling to inform you…And that’s when I knew.

HH: Ah…

LA: You know…

HH: It’s like the draft board in the old days, right?

LA: Yeah, you don’t serve a litigation summons that way, so…

HH: Well, it’s still, do you give remarks upon the occasion of the conferral of the prize?

LA: I do.

HH: Oh, that’s going to be, that’s a high profile deal. You’re probably already working on that.

LA: Yeah, I am working on it. I saw Charles Krauthammer at a college event in, where was I, in Denver where you had just been. And well, by the way, we’re so identified with each other now, Hugh, that people come and tell me of your movements all the time. (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: Like four people walked up to me and said Hugh Hewitt’s town. I said which town? And he said this town. And I said well, I’ll email him and see if he wants to come over. But yeah, I was just with Krauthammer, and he warned me to prepare carefully, he said, because he’s a recipient of the prize. And he was on the selection committee, as I said, that picked me. And he said so you must be working on your speech already, and he said it kind of like in a professorial tone, I’d better get ready.

HH: Well, what are you going to talk about?

LA: Well, there’s a few things I’m going to talk about. I’m going to, I know that I know I’m going to talk about, I’m going to talk about the crisis that we’re in, and the place of the Bradley Foundation and its prizes in that crisis. And I’m going to style it as one of the great crises in the history of freedom, and say that the Bradley Foundation has been so staunch. So I’ll thank them in those terms. And I’ll talk about what I think we need to do to get out of the crisis and survive it. And one of those things, I will say, because my book on Churchill is like a book that you’re writing and have written, Hugh. I can’t change it anymore. So now, at last, I can say that it’s finished.

HH: That’s the only time, actually, when you can say the book is finished is when the publisher has it, they’ve announced the date, and they will not give you the galleys back.

LA: That’s right. It’s like a contract thing now. And I, this book has been so difficult and so terrifying to me to write. And I thought, you know, it’s a penance, because I thought it would be easy. And so I feel a profound sense of relief that nothing can be done about it. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) But you know what? I think being a crass radio guy, that the Bradley Foundation ought to rearrange the schedule to coincide with the publication of the book, or your publisher ought to hurry it up so that it coincides with the giving of the award, because it seems horrible to me to waste the PR in selling of the book by separating the publication date from the award.

LA: Yeah, well, it, you’ve got a point there, but you know, I’ve had a moment, you know, because when you write a book, by the way, don’t you do this? Don’t you think it’s terrible? And you know, I’ve written two so far, and they’re, I go back and read them, and I think they’re pretty good. And so I don’t really believe it’s terrible. But it did occur to me one day just a few days ago when I was putting the final changes in it and struggling with it, I said thank God I got that prize before this stupid book came out. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) I will give you a similar story. The late Christopher Hitchens and I was commiserating one night. He invited me to his apartment and we were having dinner. And I said I’ve made a mistake in my new book, which was A Mormon In The White House. He said oh, don’t worry about that, Hugh. We all do. It’s terrible. Everyone makes mistakes. And I said well no, I started the Korean War two years early on the first page. And he paused and he said oh my, that’s quite a mistake. (laughing) So when I, he was being generous, but at some point, there are things you really cannot change. And so you might as well, you do, you just laugh about it. You’re being very humble, and that brings me to our subject today. It’s the third of our conversations about the principles and the character of the American founding. And we were talking about Washington two weeks ago. We took last week off. And we didn’t speak about his humility. And people often don’t understand what real humility is, Larry Arnn. And a lot of our founders had it. Maybe not Jefferson, but a lot of them had it. What do you think it means?

LA: Well, so you have to, to understand humility, you have you to bring up magnanimity, which in Aristotle is the virtue of knowing your own worth, and that worth being great. Aristotle even says as a magnanimous man that to him, nothing is great. But he doesn’t mean that, in my opinion, and I do know something about that book, because he amends that as time goes. The key to the amendment is that the things that he values greatly is friendship, and then later, he defines friendship to mean, in its highest sense, there are three sense, to mean admiration of the ultimate and most beautiful things together. So the reason George Washington was humble was that he could keep present in his mind the great things for the sake of which all is done and all move. And that meant that death was small to him. And also, that boasting, any form of it, was beneath him. Today, our politicians, you know, and let’s say our most prominent politician, whoever that might be, he loves to talk about himself. And on he goes, right? And he, there was a thing in the Weekly Standard a couple of months ago, three or four months ago, about he read Green Eggs and Ham to some little kids. And sitting there, the president of the United States, and he began the thing by saying this is going to be the greatest Green Eggs and Ham you’ve ever heard, you know? So he, you don’t catch great people doing that. And one of the reasons is they’re trying to conform themselves to a standard that is even beyond the human. And so Washington was very like that. And you know, you can understand Washington, by the way, I might have said this already, but I’ll say it again. People who knew Washington best knew that he was an extremely ambitious and passionate man. And it did break out sometimes, but not very often. And his self-control was mighty, and those who knew him best respected it, because there was a lot to control. So that’s the point, isn’t it?

HH: It is.

LA: That…and by the way, how can you have a friendship like, Hugh, people get the idea that we’re friends.

HH: We’ve tricked them. (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: Hold that thought. We’ve tricked them. We don’t want them to lose that thought.

— – – – —

HH: As we were talking right before the break, we were talking about Washington and his humility, and how humility is actually one of the great virtues, and how Washington understood it. You were about to say about friendship, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, you know, friendships are of three kinds. They are either useful, that is to say you know, people you buy stuff from and sell stuff to. They are useful to each other, right, and you wish each other well. And those tend to last about as long as the utility lasts. And then there’s pleasurable friendships, that is to say you delight in each other’s company or bodies. Aristotle says the young are very given to that kind of friendship, of course. And then the ultimate kind of friendship, the one that really lasts, is when you love the same thing, and that thing is high, because by the way, if you love the same thing and it’s low, it’ll corrupt both of you and you’ll turn on each other. And so Washington had that kind of friendship forged in war, although he was such a great man that there was almost nobody who could be familiar with him.

HH: You see, that’s where I would imagine part of his greatness, as it is of Lincoln and of Churchill, is in their terrible aloneness. When you’re that gifted, there are very few people who are going to get what you have and the burdens that you carry.

LA: Churchill, and see, that’s right, and so you know, there’s a picture in my office given to me by a fine man named Tom Farr of Washington saying goodbye to his generals at Fraunces Tavern at the end of the Revolutionary War. And it’s, the descriptions of the scene, the written descriptions, are very moving. They all wept. And when they would come up to embrace Washington, they would hold each other, because they were shaking with tears. And they all loved him very much. But he loved them, too. And they all knew that. And it wouldn’t be like them to say it so much, but there, it was evident. And you know, they had faced death for something, and they loved that something, and gave themselves to it. And see, that’s another thing. If you love things that are, you know, like if somebody gets elected president of the United States, and the first thing he does is start making speeches about himself, so Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, that is to say of course the first words as president by Ronald Reagan, he says for some of us here today, I’m paraphrasing, this is a very special event. But in the life of the nation, it is a commonplace. And that’s the greatness of the nation, see, that we have these exchanges in office and the people choose. Ronald Reagan beings his presidency by demoting himself. Now Bill Clinton’s first words as president, we meet here in the dead of winter, but by what we say and the faces we show the world, we can force the spring.

HH: Oh.

LA: He begins with an assertion of power. And so there’s the character, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: George Washington loved that mighty thing that he saw, the beauty of freedom and justice and the good so much that he longed to be the one who sacrificed the most for it.

HH: Earlier this week, Dana Perino was my guest, and I don’t know if she’s been to the college, to Hillsdale College, but she’s written a fine book, And The Good News Is…, and part of that fine book is about humble beginnings and how you get to be the White House Press Secretary and a national TV star, but really telling are her glimpses of George W. Bush as commander-in-chief. And whatever one thinks of his policies, and I admired them greatly, nevertheless his character is on display in his connection to the soldiers who served in the uniform. And there are a couple of stories. On his last day, he flies down to see SEAL Team Six. And they will not stop applauding him. They just won’t. And they said it’s the one order they could turn down. They applaud him to the end, and where he conferred a purple heart on a Marine who would subsequently die, and whose little boy said what’s a purple heart, and the President explained it to him. And the Marine opened his eyes, and the President wept, and the Marine wept, and it was, it’s a very touching, Dana told it on the show, and everybody wrote me emails about this after she was on, on Monday, because that kind of connection, I’m a civilian, right? So I don’t understand it. But commanders-in-chief and the people with whom they serve have special unique bonds that if it’s reciprocated would yield an extraordinary amount of respect, as you are detailing happened when Washington said goodbye to his generals.

LA: Yeah, and see, that’s, there are plenty of things that George W. Bush and his father both have done that I disagree with and have been critical of, but I’ve never had a minute to doubt that these are not people who are fine people and worthy of great respect. And that’s, you know, and among some very powerful people today, one doubts that.

HH: So to the character that Washington and the framers thought was essential to a free people, did they credit humility among them? They certainly knew courage was necessary and we talked about that. And if you’re going to settle the frontier, when you were in Denver on Monday, I was in Denver with Philip Anschutz, and a great man, very humble, by the way.

LA: Yeah.

HH: The condition of the interview was that we not talk about him or his achievements. Isn’t that remarkable?

LA: Yeah.

HH: And he has written a book called Out Where The West Begins: 49 Profiles Of the Men Who Settled The West, and they’re primarily entrepreneurial, but they all had this amazing courage, the first virtue. But so we credit courage. But did they count on leaders being genuinely humble for this thing to succeed? Or did they count on the occasionally, you know, bozos of extraordinary ego occupying positions of power?

LA: Yeah, you see, you can trust someone who’s magnanimous, but you can’t trust someone who’s been glorious, right? Because what pact can you make with that person that will, that you can trust that he will observe? And so, and another thing, remember also that in free politics, in our kind of politics, unlike the king, by the way, whom they were fighting with, everybody in public office is a servant of those who are ruled. And so one of the things that you may not do is use the imperative mood with the people, which both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are frequently guilty of doing.

HH: You’re going to have to explain that again.

LA: You must, you shall…

HH: You’ve got to explain that for the Steelers fans.

LA: Okay.

HH: Use the imperative mood.

LA: It just means that you can’t, you know, I mean, the famous Bill Clinton one, right? He shook his finger at the American people…

HH: Yup.

LA: …and said I did not have sex with that woman, or whatever he said, right?

HH: That’s what he said.

LA: And the thing is, you work for them. And that means you can’t order them about. And so that is a humility that is required before any sovereign. Like the closest friend of the president of the United States when the White House is occupied properly, they stop calling them by their first name the minute they get the office. Now, they’re Mr. President, or eventually, Madame President, doubtless. And that means a sign of respect. But the respect is not really to them. It’s the office, and the office belongs to the people. And so yeah, in that sense, humility is necessary above all because no one who governs in America is sovereign.

HH: On that moment, ruminate on that, America, and I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are collected at

— – – – –

HH: Thomas Jefferson was the founder of a university as you are the president of a university, Larry Arnn. And in 1818, he wrote a report to the commissioners of the University of Virginia. And that report was brought to my attention by the estimable Kyle as being necessary for us to discuss. And you know, I’m not much of a Jefferson fan. And so why did you tell Kyle that we had to talk about Jefferson and the report of the commissioners of the University of Virginia? I’m a fan of the Declaration, don’t get me wrong, but Jefferson, I have mixed emotions about.

LA: Well, you know, Jefferson was a great, great man, and also, sometimes, terribly foolish. You know, I mean, he, you know, while he was in Paris, and while James Madison was getting ready to write the Constitution of the United States, Jefferson sent him a letter and said that every law and every contract and every human act should be made to sunset every 33 years.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So that’s dumb.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And…

HH: Don’t say that in your Bradley speech (laughing)

LA: (laughing) You know, oh yeah, okay, right. Let’s run things that way, huh? And Madison, you know, who was the best friend Thomas Jefferson ever had, and corrected some of these things, wrote him back and said well, okay, yeah, but it is after all the purpose of constitutions to prejudice the next generation, why don’t we go ahead and do that? And Jefferson said oh, yeah, right, let’s do that.

HH: (laughing)

LA: So you know, it wasn’t his greatest moment.

HH: That, well you know, that relationship between Madison and Jefferson makes me laugh. Lynne Cheney wrote that fine biography of Madison, and I hope she’s at your Bradley Prize award. I’m not sure if she’s been the recipient before. But you could talk about Madison all day. Madison must have put his head in his hands occasionally upon reading a letter from Jefferson, Larry Arnn, like you and an undergraduate at the table when I was at Hillsdale College asking you about Hegel. I just think sometimes, Madison must have grown weary of his friend’s enthusiasms.

LA: And you know, Madison himself was not the really greatest president. And you know, but good, I think, and certainly a very great man. But yeah, the practical sense of Thomas Jefferson would fail him. And this thing that we’re reading here is a beautiful, one of the most beautiful statements about what education is about by any statesman in human history. It rivals some wonderful things that Winston Churchill wrote. And you know, today we can’t, we are incapable in either party of writing that the purpose of education is to develop the virtues and the soul of a person so he may govern himself and participate in the governance of others.

HH: You know, and if I can read the mind of the Bradley Foundation selection committee, they have awarded you this prize because you do not tremble at that mission. And indeed, you announce it, and if you fail at it, you’ll call it a failure, but you will have an ambition to achieve that.

LA: Yeah, well, you know, if you can just get established in the mind of everybody that they ought to learn how to be good, they’d take over the job themselves. You know, I had some boys be naughty the other night. And these boys are signatory to the Hillsdale College honor code. And they are mortified at their behavior, and I am, too. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but I, you know, they wanted to come in and apologize to me, whoever they are, and I said to my secretary, the great and mighty Victoria…

HH: Oh, yes.

LA: She and Kyle make my life successful, so far as it is, I said no, I said we’ll do that next week, and they can wait a week. I’m too busy to be apologized to for that today.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) And that’s the point, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: They’re going to make it right. And I hired a basketball coach the other day, and a women’s basketball coach, and he’s just fabulous, this guy. And I said tell me about coaching. He said well, mostly in coaching we try to control the wrong thing. And I said explain that to me. And he said well, these girls, he’s a girls basketball coach, he said they’re human beings, and they’re going to play. You’re not. And so they have to learn everything about the way the game works. So then there are five thinking people out there at all times. And you can control practice, but you must not try to control the games. And I said to that guy, I said when did you read your Aristotle? (laughing)

HH: (laughing) Was he surprised that he had?

LA: He was, very. But he had.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so that’s what Jefferson knows, right? There are beautiful and good things to know, and you must seek them and want them for yourself.

HH: And when we come back from break…

LA: And everybody needs that.

HH: …we’re going to talk about Jefferson’s report to the commissioners of the University of Virginia and what he instructed about primary education and citizenship education.

— – — –

HH: And again, I have confounded Kyle, because our plan was to do this in two weeks, and I’m going to extend, because I refuse to do the Electric Cord speech in one segment. That’s going to have to be next week. But we have eight minutes, Dr. Larry Arnn, to tell people about the report that Jefferson set to the commissioners of the University of Virginia. So I’m just going to yield you the floor and let you tell or hint or illumine what it was he thought was crucial to the country and to primary education.

LA: Well, you know, it starts out with primary, and it’s just a lovely list. I’ll read you the first three or four. To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing, so you’ve got…

HH: Literacy.

LA: …To improve by reading his morals and faculties, right?

HH: His morals, yeah.

LA: And what your morals are, by the way, don’t think of your, of some decrepit grandmother preaching at you. Morality or virtue is the description of the properly functioning human being.

HH: Right.

LA: And those human beings are capable of happiness. Others are not. To understand his duty to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates. Do you see what that means? By the way, you are going to live in a free country. Most of the things you do are going to be under your own command. You must carry in your soul the ability to command yourself well.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And then if you can do that, then you’re on your way to being able to pick the people, which you must do, because you are right to do it, who will govern and make and enforce the law. And so do you see how this starts with ordinary stuff, and right away, the comprehension of the universe and all its purposes is included. And we’ve only been four steps.

HH: And you said, and you left off reading there, after you said choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates, that means their representatives, and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment. And I think that may have gotten lost along the way, that we no longer notice with diligence, candor and judgment what our elected representatives are doing.

LA: That’s, and see, that’s, and remember, every, the virtues, which are necessary to the good living of every human life, they have to be possessed by those in office. But those for whom they work have to possess them in order to see. And you know, Churchill writes a really great thing about cartoons one time, political cartoons. And he says, he makes that point, makes the point there as he does in other places, that people used to read the politics section the way they read the sports section now.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And they looked to see who was doing a good job. And they heard the arguments, and they discussed them among themselves. And then they formed their own judgments with their fellow citizens.

HH: And you know, Larry, right now, England is close to an election, and I’ve been following it, as I follow most English elections, Great Britain, and it’s a very barren thing compared to some of the great campaigns of the past. It really is impoverished. Have you been following it?

LA: Yeah, and I just had a long talk with Andrew Roberts….

HH: Oh.

LA: …historian, really great guy who was…

HH: A really great historian and a really great guy, yeah.

LA: Yeah, and he knows all these people, is friends with two of them. And he doesn’t think it’s going to go the way a conservative would want it to go. But he and I were making the same point. Where are the great themes, you know? Poor Britain is more regulated and more taxed than we are, and that’s really saying something, and not hugely more anymore, but still more. And one of the parties is wanting more of that, and the other party’s wanting a little more of that.

HH: And the opposition to them comes from some parties with a grave imperfection. I don’t know what UKIP thinks about some of these things, and of course, to the greens are without that capacity to exercise with order and justice the authority that they might get. I just don’t think they have any practice at it or any concern with it. So it really is kind of a desperate election season in Great Britain.

LA: Yeah, God, you know, I mean, there’s such a, it is such a wonderful country, too. I mean, one wishes it well, and our own country, and we’re both not doing well right now.

HH: Before, next week, we’ll come back and we’ll finish the Jefferson thing. But let’s talk about number six, the elements of primary education, in our last two minutes. In general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. What does that mean, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, what is it to be a good citizen? The word citizen in Latin, people who know Latin tell me is civitas. And that’s cognate with the word civil, and also civilian, and also civilization. And so in a civilized society, people know things that make them capable of judging so you can rely on the person next to you even if you don’t know him in general to be likely to make good judgments, and to be courteous and fair with you, and to have that in a society and have it reign in a society, that makes everybody better. It’s the reason our college works, by the way. You just have to promise the right stuff to get it. And it’s not easy to get in. And that means everybody you meet, you can figure they’ve got some serious reason for being there. And that, so what he’s saying is you have an obligation to others to cultivate those qualities in yourself. And think how opposite that is from the impulse constantly to demand from the public, because somebody else has something, because you want more, because of a thousand things, right?

HH: It’s the exact opposite.

LA: Exact.

HH: And because of that, we are burdened with demands, and not many people willing to step up and deliver what is necessitated by them. Dr. Larry Arnn, we will continue with Jefferson and go to the Electric Cord speech next week. Again, hearty congratulations on receiving the Bradley Prize. I will try not to inflate your head every week by mentioning it, but I might a few more times between now and June 3rd. And as Dr. Krauthammer told you, I think you ought to go work on that speech some, because we’ll be talking about it.

LA: Thank you.

HH: Thank you.

End of interview.


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