Stephen E. Ambrose, in his book about the building of the transcontinental railroad during the civil war era, makes this observation: "The men who founded the Union Pacific were like Lincoln's generals, some of them good, many of them bad, most of them indifferent."
I read about men like Theodore Judah, so scrupulously honest that when California sent him to Washington and New York, he came back having spent $2,500 of his own money, and charged the state of California only $40 for the printing of his report. Judah, more than any other man, made the railroad possible and yet he died far from his home, overworked and underpaid. Reading about his life you could almost believe he was created for that one purpose; from a very young age until his last breath, the transcontinental railroad was his passion, his genius, his one obsession.
There were other men who wouldn't hesitate to submit expense reports in the thousands of dollars, to fabricate institutions and award themselves contracts. I think we've all been taught that "the Big Four" were evil men on par with modern day CEO's.
But at the same time, I look at how everything worked together to make this nation–the good men, the bad men, the triumphs and the appalling atrocities of civil war–and I wonder if there was any other way. I would like to believe that there is always an effective high road; the very foundations of my moral framework demand it.
I don't know. I don't know that in an imperfect world that there is any viable alternative to incorporating the full participation of imperfect people. And when good men err on the side of tact or timidity, maybe it takes bad men to barrel through and get things done.
From the very beginning we see God working through Man's error. Eve's partaking of the fruit was a flagrant violation of law–but had she obeyed, could she have borne children? And if not, would it really have been better if just one man and his wife wandered about the garden alone indefinitely–obedient, but stalled?
I wouldn't presume to blame God or Fate or any other ethereal entity for man's misuse of his agency, or attempt to justify the criminal–I just . . . I wonder how well we really comprehend the big picture.
English author John Ruskin said, "The first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean, by humility, doubt of his own power. … [But really] great men … have a curious feeling that … greatness is not in them, but through them. … And they see something Divine in every other man … ."
I wonder if there isn't something Divine in even our frailty, faults and failings. If somehow my life would not be as rich were you more perfect, tractable or perceptive. Perhaps we would all find a larger measure of greatness if we not only acknowledged every bit of good apparent in those around us, but bore with the faults, too–acknowledging that what we perceive as error might be courage, far-sightedness, or maybe just the only way to get the job done.