A Grey Champion must step forward and lead. Who will it be? Where will they lead us? These are the questions of our time.
By: Strauss & Howe
One afternoon in April 1689, as the American colonies boiled with rumors that King James II was about to strip them of their liberties, the King’s hand-picked governor of New England, Sir Edmund Andros, marched his troops menacingly through Boston. His purpose was to crush any thought of colonial self-rule. To everyone present, the future looked grim.
Just at that moment, seemingly from nowhere, there appeared on the streets “the figure of an ancient man” with “the eye, the face, the attitude of command.” His manner “combining the leader and the saint,” the old man planted himself directly in the path of the approaching British soldiers and demanded that they stop. “The solemn, yet warlike peal of that voice, fit either to rule a host in the battlefield or be raised to God in prayer, were irresistible. At the old man’s word and outstretched arm, the roll of the drum was hushed at once, and the advancing line stood still.” Inspired by this single act of defiance, the people of Boston roused their courage and acted. Within the day, Andros was deposed and jailed, the liberty of Boston saved, and the corner turned on the colonial Glorious Revolution.
“Who was this Gray Champion?” Nathaniel Hawthorne asked near the end of this story in his Twice-Told Tales. No one knew, except that he had once been among the fire-hearted young Puritans who had first settled New England more than a half century earlier. Later that evening, just before the old priest-warrior disappeared, the townspeople saw him embracing the 85-year-old Simon Bradstreet, a kindred spirit and one of the few original Puritans still alive. Would the Gray Champion ever return? “I have heard,” added Hawthorne, “that whenever the descendants of the Puritans are to show the spirit of their sires, the old man appears again.”
Posterity had to wait a while before seeing him again—the length of another long human life, in fact. “When eighty years had passed,” wrote Hawthorne, the Gray Champion reappeared. The occasion was the revolutionary summer of 1775—when America’s elders once again appealed to God, summoned the young to battle, and dared the hated enemy to fire. “When our fathers were toiling at the breastwork on Bunker’s Hill,” Hawthorne continued, “all through that night the old warrior walked his rounds.” This “old warrior”—this graying peer of Sam Adams or Ben Franklin or Samuel Langdon (the Harvard president who preached to the Bunker Hill troops)—belonged to the Awakening Generation, whose youth had provided the spiritual taproot of the republic secured in their old age.
Hawthorne wrote this stirring legend in 1837, as a young man of 33. The Bunker Hill “fathers” belonged to his parents’ generation, by then well into old age. The nation had new arguments (over slavery) and new enemies (Mexico), but no one expected the old people of that era—the worldly likes of John Marshall and John Jacob Astor—to be play the role of Gray Champion.
“Long, long may it be ere he comes again!” Hawthorne prophesied. “His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invaders’ step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come….” Although Hawthorne did not say when this would be, perhaps he should have been able to tell.
Had the young author counted eight or nine decades forward from Bunker Hill, or had he envisioned the old age of the young zealots (like Joseph Smith, Nat Turner, and William Lloyd Garrison) who had recently convulsed America’s soul, he might have foreseen that the next Gray Champion would emerge from his own Transcendental Generation. Seared young by God, Hawthorne’s peers were destined late in life to face an hour of “darkness, and adversity, and peril.” The old priest-warrior would arise yet again in John Brown, damning the unrighteous from his scaffold; in Julia Ward Howe, writing “a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel”; in William Tecumseh Sherman, scorching Georgia with “the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword”; in Robert E. Lee commanding thousands of young men to their deaths at Cemetery Ridge; and especially in Abraham Lincoln, announcing to Congress that “the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation.”
Were Hawthorne to have prophesied yet another eight decades further ahead, he might have foretold another Gray Champion whose childhood would begin just after the “fiery trial” of Hawthorne’s own old age. This generation would come of age scorching the elder-built world with its inner fire—and then, a half-saeculum later, complete its self-declared “rendezvous with destiny” as “the wise old men of World War II.” By adding FDR’s Missionary Generation to the recurrence, Hawthorne’s Tale would have been not Twice, but Four Times Told.
When ancestral generations passed through these great gates of history, they saw in the Gray Champion a type of elder very different from the bustling “senior citizens” of America’s recent past—and from the old “Uncle Sam” Revolutionary War survivors of the 1830s, when Hawthorne wrote his tale. Who were these old priest warriors? They were elder expressions of the Prophet archetype. And their arrival into old age heralded a new constellation of generations.