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.