Historical Heroes

Albert Gallatin (1848)I don’t like Abraham Lincoln. Working in Springfield, Illinois, that’s not an especially popular viewpoint to hold. Yet it is working in Springfield, Illinois, that has really led me to that conclusion. It’s almost impossible to escape the shadow of Honest Abe here. Bronze statues sit prominently in downtown; all sorts of programs and buildings at my university bear Lincoln’s name. His face even peers out from every license plate in the state. It’s a historical cult of personality that can feel alienating to a revolutionary specialist.

(Though he does have a good nose for sniffing out dodgy car dealers.)

The previous paragraph is, admittedly, somewhat of an exaggeration. There’s much about Abraham Lincoln I admire. (After all, it would be hard not to!) What I dislike, though, is the hero worship that at times feels suffocating. The notion that if we only had visionary leaders like Lincoln today, we wouldn’t have a political system that was in such a mess. Never mind that Lincoln’s views on abolition and race were considerably more complicated than the one-line summary that he ‘freed the slaves’ (a problematic enough statement in itself). Whatever Lincoln did must be admirable; therefore he becomes reduced to a caricature, scarcely more lifelike than the bronze statues themselves.

There are other historical figures, though, who I admire almost unreservedly. Albert Gallatin features prominently in the latter part of my dissertation, and I find him one of the most compelling characters in the post-revolutionary era—a firm democrat, involved in a plethora of popular political movements whilst simultaneously taking the fight to the Federalists in Congress and, later, as Treasury Secretary to Jefferson. It wasn’t an easy balancing act; it demanded that he show greater sympathy for the Whiskey Rebels than more moderate forces in Philadelphia would have wished (and yet was too moderate for some in the west). Yet I feel very confident in declaring Gallatin one of the most popular politicians of the 1790s.

That, though, is my Gallatin. Alternative readings of Gallatin might not show him in such a good light—his attempts to ingratiate himself in the higher echelons of New York society, for example, or his land speculation plans in Ohio. Or others may find his involvement in popular politics to be self-serving; controlling and placing limits on more radical notions of popular sovereignty that limited the democratic potential of the revolutionary settlement. For me, I see Gallatin as an embodiment of a popular politics that recognized the challenges of combining governmental authority with popular activism; his experiences of counterrevolutionary or oligarchical Geneva imbued him with a commitment to democratic politics not always shared by his peers.

Other historical heroes of mine are similarly complicated. I admire James Madison, mostly for his most admirable traits—bookishness and his devoted study of constitutionalism. There are clearly other parts of his life and his political career, though, less worthy of admiration. But even though I realize that my historical heroes are complicated, I’m not prepared to give them up. Even though I think that popular histories based on exalting the leadership of “great men” of the past are distorted histories, and often dangerous in their consequences, I will stand firm in defending the character of Gallatin against those who would criticize him.

The Welsh rugby legend, and BBC commentator and radio host Cliff Morgan defended the practice of having sporting heroes. When you stop having heroes, he argued, it’s that you’ve ceased to care.  He was referring to sporting heroes, but I think the same applies to history as well. It’s not always fashionable to say this in academic circles, but I think the value of studying history lies in the fact that greater knowledge and understanding of the past helps us better inform our understanding of the present. Even if that relies on the occasional caricature, that’s not a bad thing. After all, the deepest learning comes from the desire to keep reading, investigating, and learning about the subject. Without those initial sparks of passion, the study of history is going to be a real drudge. Or, to put it another way, admiring Lincoln’s political leadership is a more engaging starting point than careful consideration of various strands of abolitionism.

The operative word, though, is occasional. After all, sports fans have their heroes, and will often use their love of their team to study and learn about the game. But sports fans are also not noted for their objectivity. It’s all well and good to admire historical figures, but only to the extent that they remain lifelike figures. Perhaps not quite warts and all, but certainly not carved into stone. I’ll keep my heroes, for without them, I’d begin to wonder why history mattered at all. But I’ll remember that heroism is also a mug’s game, and I’ll do my best to keep my eyes open to the broader questions—good and bad—raised by the lives of those I admire.

8 comments on “Historical Heroes

  1. Sara Damiano says:

    Ken, this is an interesting post and in general I agree with your argument that admiration of our actors can help motivate our research. I wonder, though, how well your point applies to those of us who don’t study what you term “great men” and who instead deal with fragments of ordinary men’s and women’s lives. I, for one, admire the savvy and determination of some of the male and female litigants whom I study. But I’m not sure that waging a lawsuit constitutes historical heroism, or that I would be comfortable granting “hero status” to someone about whom I in fact know relatively little. Moreover, while admiration of political leaders can spark discussion of important questions, idealizing ordinary women and men might lead to ahistorical lines of inquiry that blow their largely quiet lives out of proportion.

    • Ken Owen says:

      Sara, thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I actually wonder if the problem is more acute when ascribing hero status to politicians. Not least because there is a danger that those who we admire are those seen to have ‘done something’, when actually what might be needed in politics is to leave things to lie low for a little while.

      Perhaps in your case it’s easier to appreciate the limitations of heroism because we can only recover those figures in episodic glimpses? We therefore say ‘their behavior was heroic in these circumstances’ rather than labelling them as ‘heroes’ – in a way that shows appreciation for human agency without distorting it.

  2. Dave Edie says:

    Sir, great post. I think it important to keep our heroes, but to always remember that they are human beings as well.

  3. Will Monk says:

    We often forget that many of our historic figures got their position by luck or accident. Jefferson very narrowly won New York’s electoral votes, and thus the election in 1800; Lincoln was a one term Congressman when he won the Republican nomination and the Democrats split three ways in 1860; Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman were picked as V.P. by party bosses. Imagine if none of those events happened – which is easy to imagine. President Adams wins a second term; President Stephen Douglas leads a united Democratic Party; Vice President Garret Hobart does NOT die in 1899 and is renominated the next year, and becomes President in 1901; FDR dies a year earlier and Henry Wallace becomes President. Ted Morgan’s biography of FDR shows that he won the Texas delegation’s vote in 1932 because some of the state’s anti-FDR delegates were out of the convention hall. History is fickle. We see Lincoln as a man of destiny, favored by the gods to appear at the right moment, but he could have been completely forgotten but for a few unrecorded backroom deals and coincidences.

    • As important as it is to remember the important roles luck and coincidence play in history, I just want to point out a few things about the examples you give. First, Lincoln would have won the election, even if the electoral votes of all of his opponents were combined (this is not to say that his nomination was certain). Also, even if Burr won the House’s vote in 1801 and Jefferson never was elected to the Presidency at a later time, Jefferson still would be an incredibly important man, worthy of study. Indeed, Jefferson himself didn’t even place enough importance on his service as President to have it listed among his accomplishments on his epitaph. Similarly, Roosevelt was a man of such capacity and energy, even if he did not assume the Presidency in 1901, it seems unlikely that he would not continue to be influential and maybe even take the Presidency later.

  4. A comment has been removed in accordance with The Junto’s commenting policy.

  5. […] non-Mormon post of potential interest to JI readers is Ken Owen’s thoughts on historical heroes over at The Junto. His concluding thoughts are certainly relevant to readers of Mormon history: […]

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