- Historic Sites
A Dearth Of Heroes
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
That same abstractness was early to be remarked even in American patriotism, as by the traveller Francis Grund, who, in 1838, observed that an “American’s country is in his understanding; he carries it with him wherever he goes.” In New England and parts of the South, though both sections provided their quotas of westward wayfarers and Eden-seekers, patriotism of the traditional sort did persist; but the fiatna was usually quite local. Even at the time of the Civil War, when the Union was being saved, Hawthorne, for instance, could say that his affections did not easily reach beyond the boundaries of New England; and Lee famously gave Virginia first rank in his loyalties. The baptism of blood, the shared effort of the struggle to save the Union, and the mobility dictated by the war, reaffirmed for Northerners the national patriotism—just as for Southerners it created the “South” as a City of the Soul, an entity now safely beyond characteristic internal dissension and historical accident; but the new American patriotism, with the transcontinental railroads, the explosion of population westward, the movement toward urban centralization, and the rise of finance capitalism and big industry, became, not less, but more abstract than the older variety. Whitman grasped this fact when, in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” he hymned the flag as “an idea only”—the pure idea into which all might be absorbed, the abstraction in which all distinctions are wiped away:
The flag gave at least some sort of concrete focus for the abstract emotion, but, as again Whitman instinctively recognized, Lincoln, struck down at the moment of victory and thus redeemed from the sneer and snarl of political action, constituted an even more potent symbol. And this returns us to Wecter’s point. In our world of mobility and abstraction, heroes along with our other “collective symbols,” such as the flag, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, are more precious to us than the corresponding elements in the life of other countries in that they “nourish our sense of national continuity.” Our brand of hero worship, then, resembles or did resemble—the worship in a religion, with shrines, high places, relics, fetishes, holy books, and saints—saints especially, for we have to disinfect our heroes from all mortal frailty.
As for the Founding Fathers, Wecter sees in the trio who became our first national heroes a fascinating projection of the various, even paradoxical, aspects of the American soul. What Franklin represents is the most obvious and simple of all, and we should not be misled by President Coolidge’s tribute read at the unveiling of the hero’s statue in the Hall of Fame in 1927: “Franklin is claimed by more groups than any other person in our history.” The groups that claim Franklin are indeed numerous, including the Rotary Club (Franklin’s club in Philadelphia, the Junto, being regarded as the first “service” organization); investment bankers (because Franklin preached thrift, even if he did habitually overdraw his account) ; prohibitionists (only by very careful culling of evidence); printers (Franklin made his fortune in printing but retired from business at the age of forty to devote himself to study and public service); and organized labor (being hailed by William Green of the A.F. of L. as the “Patron Saint of Labor"); and he might well be claimed, too, by public utility companies on the strength of his experiments with electricity. The groups that claim Franklin are numerous, surely, but they are not at bottom various; they are all part and parcel of bourgeois democracy- even organi/ed labor, which aspires to the same consumer goods and mass amusements as the most wellheeled Rotarian.