Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
The mythology of heroes is one, if not the main, of the driving impulses in American politics. The political hero is strong, confident, courageous, resolute, compassionate, brilliant, resourceful, moral, honest, immune from corruption, patriotic, and always victorious. Heroes never waiver and always mirror our best values.
In order for the hero mythology to take root, there must be a demon villain greater in strength than the hero. People are threatened and powerless to protect themselves. Lives are at risk, futures in the balance, the perils visiting the people threaten a galactic destruction to us and our way of life. And then, from among us comes the hero, selflessly combating the demon to save us all – and winning!
The virtue of having the hero do our dirty work is that we can just go about our lives, unsullied and unsoiled. And because the hero is so noble, when the job is done she just goes away and resumes her quiet life until she is summoned once more.
It’s as though our hero is Cincinnatus, as idealized by Marvel Comics, doing battle against a demon villain in a Hobbesian dystopia. Nice story but here’s a spoiler alert – there are no heroes, at least not in the political sense.
But, arguendo, let’s say that there are heroes. Heroes tend to be solitary figures, rising from the community but not necessarily of the community. We take on faith that these heroes share our beliefs, our values, and our aspirations. We assume that when the hero arises, he arises out of a sense of noble duty. But what if we’re wrong? What if, by just a little bit, the hero ascendant doesn’t share all our values, or sees what he considers the “rot” of our lives, making us vulnerable to threats by future villains? What if our hero is less selfless than we assume? What then? How do we, the politically complacent, remove the “best” among us?
Our history is replete with hero worship. For example, our “founders” are often popularly viewed as a selfless group of men who took it upon themselves to give us our Constitution and government, along with our freedoms, all of which we enjoy to this day. Because our system of government has endured for over 240 years, it must be because the “founders” were divinely inspired.
From the mythology of George Washington as promoted by Parson Weems (no Washington did not confess to chopping down the cherry tree) to our figurative historical airbrushing of the lives of these founders, we have come to embrace an antiseptic view of these men. This is sad because the lives of these men are infinitely more interesting, and more instructive, than any mythology could recount.
Let’s take George Washington. First, he was no a great military leader. When he was young, during the French-Indian War, he ordered an encampment to be built at the bottom of a hill; unfortunately the French were based on top of the hill, forcing a humiliating surrender. Before and during his marriage to Martha, George was infatuated with a married woman. And speaking of Martha, when George courted her, Martha was a widow sitting on acres of fertile land – just the sort of “dowry” that an ambitious landowner would covet.
The reader might well say, “so what?” Washington led the Continental Army, was President of the Constitutional Convention, and was the only unanimously elected (by the Electoral College) President in our history. He formed our first government and established a governmental structure that endures to this day.
Thomas Jefferson was the one of the brightest minds of his – or perhaps, any – age. Although a poor speaker, his writings are some of the most impactful in human history. However, when he wrote “… all men are created equal…” he meant just that – all white men. He was a slave owner who had children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemming, children who were not freed even upon his death.
All Jefferson did was organize the first and oldest political party in America, become our third President, battle pirates who preyed on American shipping, and doubled the size of the United States.
Or take Alexander Hamilton, he of Broadway fame. Hamilton was born out of wedlock, an immigrant from the West Indies who settled in New York. He served honorably during the Revolution as a member of Washington’s staff. He graduated King’s College (now Columbia University) and practiced law prior to starting the Bank of New York. He served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and supported a strong central government. When Washington was elected, Hamilton became the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, and created our first central bank. And this is the short list.
Unfortunately, Hamilton became involved with a married woman, which resulted in his being the target of a blackmail scheme hatched by the woman’s husband, if not the woman herself. He formed the Federal Party and was active in New York politics. In the 1804 governor’s election, Hamilton’s candidate defeated Aaron Burr, who alleged that Hamilton had stated a “despicable opinion” of Burr (then Jefferson’s Vice-President) which caused Burr to seek and apology. Hamilton refused, attempts to reconcile the situation failed, and as we know the Hamilton-Burr duel did not go well for Hamilton.
My purpose here is not to denigrate any of our founders but to merely point out that they were human. They were men of their time, humans not heroes. Each had failings and flaws, which each overcame (save for Hamilton in 1804) and achieved great and enduring things. We are who we are because of who they were.
Our heroic founders were not heroes at all. Each was a man with prejudices, biases, agendas, and diverse and similar experiences. They did not go to Philadelphia during a hot 1787 summer solely because of some altruistic motive; they went to Philadelphia because they needed a government that worked – in many cases for them. During their deliberations they engaged in sometimes heated debate that ultimately led to awkward compromises, especially on the issue of slavery.
These were not yeoman farmers, arising from their communities to serve on our behalf and then return to their homes. These were practiced politicians and financiers, and slave-owning plantation owners who sought to protect their “peculiar” institutions. Most would serve in office after their stints at the convention, or resume their economic activities under a stronger and more stable government, making those economic activities more secure.
These were not heroes, they were men – human men. And if you’re really honest, these men with their political and personal baggage could never get elected to any office of honor in any community, state, or national government today. These were men just like us; they made mistakes of judgment and action, they sometimes spoke intemperately, and used the political system to advance personal and political agendas. They succeeded and sometimes failed. In other words, they were just like the rest of us.
So this begs the question of why we don’t celebrate that in our history classes, in our public discourse, and in our collective memory and understanding of how this country was formed and operates? The founders, like the country they founded, struggled to rise above themselves, to create something new in the world at that time, inclusive of all Americans, a work that continues with the values, ideology, and structure that is in place to ensure that one day all will be in and nobody left out.
The men discussed above, along with the countless others who succeeded them, were not heroes, they were humans; humans who overcame their short-comings to become real leaders.
So with apologies to Galileo (and Brecht), the land is not unhappy because we have no heroes, rather it’s because we don’t reward leadership when it presents itself.