About 30 years ago, John Gardner popularized the phrase, “One man can do anything.” Today I am sure he would more likely say, “One man or woman can do anything.” Indeed many, if not most, of the significant events in history are associated with the name of one person. At other times, even the actions of a nameless or unknown person may bend the course of history.
One such example of this is lifted up in Paul Wellman’s great book, “Magnificent Destiny,” a tale about the life of Andrew Jackson and his vision of the westward expansion of the U.S. Wellman relates that in 1844, on the eve of Election Day, Freeman Clark of Switzerland County, Indiana lay seriously ill. He begged his sons to carry him over the mountain into town so that he could vote for David Kelso–an ardent Jackson supporter. After voting and returning home, Clark died but Kelso won by one vote.
Soon after being seated in the Indiana legislature, Kelso became embroiled in a deadlock contest to elect a U.S. Senator. After 25 tie votes Kelso offered a compromise candidate, Edward Hannigan, who won by one vote. Hannigan took his seat in the U.S. Senate amid the debate to admit Texas into the U.S. The attempt had failed twice. However, Hannigan, a new senator, provided the extra vote needed, and Texas was voted in by a one-vote margin.
Paul Wellman wrote, “Can it thus be said that the vote of a dying man in the hills of a backwoods county made Texas a state?”
Ordinarily, this concept is viewed as positive and implies accomplishment through some combination of inventiveness, creativity, leadership or a special brand of charisma. However, such is not always the case, for those same talents can also be used in a destructive way.
For example, in the last half of the 19th century, there emerged on the world scene a man with all three qualities. Ferdinand De Lesseps possessed enormous charisma, which, combined with leadership and creativity, was the driving force behind his successful building of the Suez Canal. He thus became the “authority” on canal building.
Quite logically then, it was to De Lesseps the French turned to when they undertook building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He accepted the challenge but committed a grave error. Because of the pre-eminence bestowed upon him, he ignored the advice of lesser lights in the engineering world and did not fully probe the challenges. Instead, he viewed it as just another Suez without weighing the differences.
De Lesseps thus led the people of France into a catastrophe. After spending 1.5 billion francs and wasting over 20,000 lives, the effort ended in failure and for the leaders, disgrace and prison.