- Historic Sites
A Dearth Of Heroes
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Franklin is, in fact, the perfect hero of a bourgeois democracy, the very model of the Industrious Apprentice who, by pluck (not luck), thrift, self-denial, temperance, prudence, and a streak of hard, realistic calculation (not often mentioned), rises, without social, financial, or intellectual advantages, to high solvency and world fame. But Franklin embodied not only the universal bourgeois virtues, but also some special American ones. Hc had, for instance, a truly democratic spirit of tolerance (far ahead of his time, and ours), and he represented in lull flower the American passion for gadgctry, being the inventor of, among other things, bifocal glasses, the lightning rod, and the stove known by his name; and more American still, if he was learned in science, he did not get bemused byairy speculations but sternly put science to work. And through everything he remained the plain man - but the plain man who, without fuss or feathers, wearing his old fur cap, put kings in their places and was adored by duchesses, and then went on to tell everybody else how to get ahead, too. He was the Alger hero in the flesh, long before poor Horatio, that failure in life, held up his private daydream of success as a mirror to the great public daydream of America.
I have dwelt here on Franklin because of a peculiar and ironic fact; if he does seem to be the perfect hero for our bourgeois democracy, sprung in full bloom in the heroic age of the founding, he was never quite a hero of the very first rank. Perhaps he is, after all, too perfectly the projection of our personal daydreams of worldly success. Perhaps he is too close to us. Perhaps what he stands for is, after all, too likely to prove attainable, at least in some measure. Perhaps we dimly realize, in some deeply significant way, that, as Bertrand Russell says, the essence of the ideal is to be not real. Perhaps there is in us a forgotten, secret, starved yearning for a poetry of grandeur, for the freedom of selflessness, for the exaltation of vision. And so we have Washington and Jefferson.
Indeed, in a world where Franklin as hero seems what you yourself, with just a little luck, might be, Washington is clearly what you know you could never be. He is, after all, something beyond the range of daydreams. He beckons, but from a great distance, like a snow-covered peak in sunlight.
Washington was, as Wecter says, “glacial.” In peaceful times he could lay off from his farming to go deer hunting, was a devoted rider to hounds, acted in amateur theatricals, loved to dance for hours at a stretch, and was not above taking his ease and eating watermelon on the front porch of his farmhouse, known as Mount V’ernon. But nobody ever regarded him as folksy or ever dared to slap him on the back or dared, more than once, to lav hand to his sleeve. He stood, also, at the distance of great wealth, holding, as John Adams put it in praising him for leaving luxury for a hazardous struggle, one of the “first fortunes upon the continent.” It was a fortune which, in addition to that acquired by marriage, he had accumulated in ways very different from Franklin’s and dispensed in a way even more different — that of the great squire and not the burgher. As a commander he never courted favor but was a stern disciplinarian, fair but tough; once he erected a gallows forty feet high and used it. Even his self-command was, somehow, unhuman in its reach. And he lacked all arts of the orator. Unlike Franklin, who was a master of the art of persuasion, supposedly so fundamental to power in a democracy, Washington never lifted a finger or opened a lip to persuade anybody.
Yet this man became the prime hero of a raw democracy. Somehow, from early manhood, an air of destiny hung about him, and after the first bullets had whizzed harmlessly past him (“I heard the bullets whistle,” he said, “and believe me, there is something charming in the sound”), he seems to have believed in his destiny. Destiny aside, what he did have to show the world was a massive self-certainty, studiously modelled on that of the Roman stoics, a cold serenity in the face of defeat, the impression of power in reserve, fixity of purpose, and devotion to principle (which meant, in the end, devotion to “liberty”), with selfish concern and ambition absorbed into the concept of duty. When the time came to lay aside command, he could do it as casually as though taking off an old coat.
If Franklin was a hero who sometimes seemed to be created in the image of a gifted Folonius, with a dash of Sam Slick added, Washington was a hero created in something close to the image of God. Franklin might tell you how to live and get rich. Washington might, if need arose, teach you how to die. As for Jefferson, he—who had never heard even one bullet whistle past his ears —could teach you neither how to live nor how to die; but he could teach you how to envision a world worth living in or dying for.