On a hot July 1952 afternoon, thousands of people crowded the streets of Chicago. The Republican National Convention was underway and presidential hopefuls were arriving. Word spread that Candidate Robert Taft was about to appear. His campaigners passed out song sheets which demonstrated the light in which American hero-makers want their subjects to appear. Included were "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Onward Christian Soldiers," and "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder."
Ovations for favorites have been heard frequently in America. Many are forgotten almost as soon as the acclamation is over. Like all countries, America has had its Cagliostros, who blaze momentarily and then fade. The happy tears shed for Admiral Dewey, who avenged the sinking of the battleship Maine, could have floated a ship of the line. Practical businessmen swooned when Jenny Lind hit high C. So did their wives when Buffalo Bill entered the ring on his white horse. Otherwise respectable ladies collected Rudolph Valentino's cigarette butts and hid them in their bosoms. A cordon of policemen had to stop women from taking his buttons as his body lay in state.
In June, 1927, Charles Lindbergh received 3,500,000 letters, 14,000 parcels, and 100,000 telegrams. The New York World got two bushels of Lindbergh poetry. While he was having dinner in New York, a woman broke through his guards to peer into his mouth and determine for herself whether he preferred green beans or green peas. The Hoboes of America proclaimed a thirty-day mourning period when Will Rogers died. Fifty thousand people followed the funeral procession of Sacco and Vanzetti through Boston. Over 7,500,000 pushed into the streets when General MacArthur moved across the country in April, 1951.
Well-fed Americans are starved for the pomp and ritual of older nations. We even have to improvise a pathetic little twenty-minute ritual for the inauguration of our president, the most important official in the world. Our academic rituals are dull and uninspiring, and parades (such as Mardi Gras or the Mummers) have to suffice us as a people. Those who want more form have to get it from ritualistic churches or lodges. There are no prescribed ceremonies for our Independence Day, July 4, or the birthday of the Father of our Country, February 22. Robert's Rules of Order give us about the only national rituals we have.
Such poverty explains the enormous nostalgia for Europe in America, and the mass exodus to Queen Elizabeth's crowning in 1953. For while we are proud of the democratic strain in our heroes, we want them to be as grand as those of other lands. Thus Herman Melville referred to Hercules as "that antique Crockett and Kit Carson."
As foreigners keep telling us, America has lacked many things. Yet no one can say that our people have been deficient in great memories. Without the symbols, heraldry, inherited titles, and traditions which Europeans exalt and revere, Americans have concentrated their affection on a few men. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it would not surprise us." He found public idols pivotal in American life, running out threads of relation through everything, fluid and solid, material and elemental. Because it answers an urgent need, hero worship is an integral part of American life.
We identify ourselves with greatness by means of a signature in an album, a lock of hair, a photograph, or a baseball that has scored a home run; we haunt stage doors and locker rooms; we pursue our favorites with candid cameras and sound recorders. Such scientific gadgets put only a thin veneer over the streak of credulity that goes through an America where over 10,000 rabbit feet are still carried in pockets, and 3,300,000 four leaf clovers are bought annually. P. T. Barnum noted almost a century ago that in the United States a sucker is born every minute; and the time ratio hasn't changed perceptibly since then.
Consider, for example, the "American Goliath," that wonderful ten and a half foot petrified giant "discovered" in Onandaga County, New York in 1896. Planted by George Hull near Cardiff, the. gypsum hoax spent a year buried in the portion of New York state that had been the scene of the discovery by Joseph Smith of the Tablets of Moroni; the Spirit Rappings of the Fox Sisters; and the rantings of the End-of-the-World Millerites, the Shakers, and the Publick Universal Friend Jemima Wilkinson. Hull eventually hired two workmen to dig the giant up. One of them, Gideon Emmons, made the observation: "Jerusalem, Nichols, it's a big Injun!" Tens of thousands paid to see it. The giant still attracts many visitors at the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Faith, as well as work, has made America what it is.
A trinity of culture heroes presides over the nation-- Washing ton, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The personification of our Revolution, Washington achieved in his own day as much prestige as the federal government. With his quiet faith in his fellow Americans, and his insistence on the primacy of civil authority, he represents ideals which will not be unseated, in spite of the forbidding portraits and togaed statues. On his two-hundredth birthday there were thousands of "Washingtons" on the map. The national capital, a state, 33 counties, 121 cities and towns, 257 townships, 1140 streets, and uncounted lakes, schools, mountains, and forts bore his name--a tribute which had been paid to no other man, in any country.
Thomas Jefferson, the "Sage of Monticello," is the second member of the triumvirate. Many of his contemporaries were opposed to his ideas and ascendancy. When the 1811 convention met to name what became Louisiana, a delegate from Attakapas threatened to blow up the building if Jefferson's name were even introduced as a possibility. When Jefferson was elected president, Timothy Dwight warned the good ladies of New Haven to stay off the green--because, said the New Englander, they might now be attacked publicly. Jefferson's embargo almost precipitated a Northern secession movement decades before the South left the Union. He received little veneration in the predominantly Republican decades between the Civil War and the Great Depression.
When the Democrats finally took over in 1932, they revived Jefferson's reputation. The giant Mount Rushmore face, the Jefferson postage stamp and nickel, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Roosevelt's Monticello speeches were some of the devices used. By World War II, Jefferson had become a symbol for our endangered democracy, and the Democratic party in power. A century and a quarter after his death, scholars carefully collected and edited his literary remains. Thus finally he was given a high place on Olympus.
The last member of the triumvirate is Abraham Lincoln, about whom Richard Stoddard wrote:
"The People, of whom he was one
No gentleman, like Washington
(Whose bones, methinks, make room
To have him in their tomb!)"
Lincoln's career, from log cabin to White House and to martyrdom, personified the times in which he lived. Had Lincoln not lived, it would have been necessary to invent him. Even when the Confederates poked fun at Abe, they acknowledged his democratic appeal:
" Jeff Davis is our President
Abe Lincoln is a fool,
Jeff Davis rides a big gray horse
While Lincoln rides a mule."
History definitely favors unpretentious men on mules. The Roman emperors rode about on white horses. Christ, who entered a minor Roman provincial city on an ass, conquered the world. Richard the Lion-Hearted galloped proudly into battle. We forget it when we read of gentle mule-mounted Saint Francis, talking to the birds. Stephen Douglas spouted magnificent phrases; Abe Lincoln preferred to tell little stories. He said God must have liked the common people, since He made so many of them. Common people appreciated that.
Despite his humble background, Lincoln was much like Jefferson. Both understood the ethical nature of democracy, and of party politics. Both believed in the goodness of human nature; but Jefferson didn't reach as many levels of society as did Lincoln. Not only did the Virginian lack the common touch; he also missed the opportunity to do anything so dramatic as preserving the Union, and the chance to die a martyr's death.
John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln on April 14, 1865--Good Friday. That he died on the day Christians were celebrating the martyrdom of their Lord was an analogy few ministers missed. Protestant America had acquired a saint. Only five days before the slaying, Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Congress had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, and the slaves were free. Then the Savior who had made it all possible was called back to heaven. Lincoln's apotheosis, and Booth's damnation, are central in our heroic history.
Perceptive and ambitious, a master of the American idiom, Lincoln pointed his career along the paths of glory. Devoted admirers pleaded his cause, and historical chance completed the job. For his contemporaries he was a dying god to rank with Osiris, Adonis, or Arthur. Secretary of War Stanton spoke for the nation when he said at the death bed, "Now he belongs to the ages." Walt Whitman called his assassination "one of those climax moments on the stage of universal time, the historic Muse at one entrance, the tragic Muse at the other." In 1954, every car that traveled with an Illinois license plate proclaimed to the world that it came from the "Land of Lincoln." No one can spend an American penny without passing on his image.
To slay a hero is bad business. John Wilkes Booth's act set off a reign of terror in the United States. A brigade of infantry, and uncounted horsemen and detectives, pursued the injured Booth southward after his miraculous escape from the scene of his crime. The federal government offered $100,000 for his capture. Papers and posters stressed that "Everyone should consider his own conscience charged with his solemn duty, and rest neither day nor night until Booth is dead." The hatred shown towards Booth merely indicated the adoration accorded the man whom he martyred. Today, Lincoln is probably the most admired American who has ever lived.
Some think that Franklin D. Roosevelt will turn our trinity into a quartet. Already more has been written about him that any other man since Napoleon. A Franklin D. Roosevelt Association flourishes, and its members collect books, pennants, and buttons featuring their idol. Hyde Park, with over half a million visitors annually, rivals Mount Vernon and Monticello as a tourist attraction. Foreign esteem fostered the re-naming of a main boulevard in Paris, the erecting of a Roosevelt statue in London, and the issuing of commemorative stamps in twenty-three nations.
What explains this admiration of the most controversial figure in our political history is the fact that he (along with Winston Churchill) symbolized the struggle against totalitarian tyranny. F. D. R. is an extension of the Jefferson symbol. With the return of the Republican party in 1952, revisionist historians began to hack away at his reputation and maintain that he had "planned" Pearl Harbor. Only time can determine where the swinging pendulum will come to rest.