Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Vague thoughts on right, wrong and Henry Clay

I read an interesting story this morning on a sermon prep website. I doubt I'll be able to use the story in the sermon I'm preparing, but I thought I'd share it here.

It purports to be a true story about a "people experiment" done by a Virginia Theological Seminary professor named Reuel Howe.

At this particular lab, the group was given a piece of wood, and told to reach some agreement about its length, without measuring it in any way – purely an eyeball estimate. Then they were to gather as many others as possible who agreed.

One person had been told beforehand the exact length, but he was not allowed to reveal the source of his knowledge. As far as the rest were concerned, he was guessing just as much as they were.

The estimates varied widely. The only agreement was that no one agreed with the one person who had the correct answer. He tried to gather several groups but couldn't get other people to agree with him.

So eventually, he joined a group who advocated the wrong answer.
When he was asked, at the end of the exercise, why he would throw his lot in with a wrong answer, when he knew the right one, he replied, “I’d rather be wrong than alone.”
As I said, I don't know if this is true, but I find it at least possible to believe. It's such a human story: so sad, and so sweet.

"I'd rather be wrong than alone" reminded me of the quote "I'd rather be right than president," which I tracked down (thank you, Google!) as a line from Henry Clay who was defeated in his presidential bid four times. Here's Wikipedia's take on the phrase: "When Clay was warned not to take a stance against slavery or be so strong for the American System [i.e. high tariffs, anti-free-market economy, if I understand it correctly], he was quoted as saying, 'I'd rather be right than be President!' This remark has been quoted or paraphrased by several presidential candidates since, as a statement of principle over ambition."

I suspect that even if the first story didn't actually happen, there's a lot of truth in it; it's often so much more comfortable to be wrong than to be alone. And, oh, how familiar it sounds in our own current presidential race. Wouldn't you rather be right and be president? If you had to choose one or the other, which would you choose?

Picture is of Henry Clay speaking in the Senate.

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