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The Rise and Fall of Our Heroes

Questions of Character Have Historians Wondering If the Modern Pantheon Needs Revamping


A few years ago, UCLA professor Joyce Appleby took part in a mock trial that charged Thomas Jefferson with racism and hypocrisy for advocating the abolition of slavery but not freeing his own slaves. Appleby, the public defender for the author of the Declaration of Independence, was able to get her client off. But detecting a bit of judicial bias, she afterward asked the trial judge, William Rehnquist, whose day job is chief justice of the United States, if he had anything against Jefferson.

Well, he confided, I always thought Alexander Hamilton was underrated.

Unfortunately for Jefferson, there is no statute of limitations in the court of public opinion. In fact, the Virginian's reputation has recently been pelted by a hailstorm of abuse from critics who believe more than ever that an aristocratic Southern planter who wanted to free the slaves--only to ship them to Africa--is no longer a fitting symbol for a multicultural, post-racist nation.

"Jefferson is becoming a most unsuitable and embarrassing figure in the pantheon of the modern American civil religion," Irish historian Conor Cruise O'Brien writes in a new book, "The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800," (University of Chicago), which was excerpted recently in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. "Jefferson is a patron saint far more suitable to white supremacists than to modern American liberals. The themes of states' rights and no free blacks in America fit the positions of the far-right militia movement like a glove."

Increasingly, skeptics are asking if the time has come to revise the American pantheon. The questions come from a variety of fronts: a rising school of social historians, multiculturalists and those who simply say we should tamp down our worship of establishment figures.

The debate parallels the brouhaha of recent years over the literary canon. While an earlier generation of scholars stressed the consensus building of America, younger ones are more apt to point out competition and dissension among various groups as the driving force behind change.

Although, unlike the Catholic Church, the U.S. has never actually compiled an official list of its secular saints, a look at the monuments on the Mall in Washington gives a glimpse of the reigning trinity: Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. To many Americans it seems natural that the capital should exalt the general who led the country through its revolutionary war, the statesman who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the president who saved the union and ended slavery. But to others these icons (two of whom were slave holders) are as dated as the neoclassic temples that honor their memory.

"Plaster saints obscure the past," said Martin Duberman, a historian at the City University of New York. "I'd like our young to know a lot more about the concrete accomplishments of ordinary people and what they did for humanity."

This view reflects a trend in scholarship in recent decades toward social history, to examining the lives of average people and how they contributed to shaping events. One may still celebrate the contributions of towering figures, but it's important also to realize their limitations, said Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.

Takaki favors more obscure icons, such as the Chinese laborers whose heavy tax burden helped the state fund the University of California and whose sweat contributed to railroad magnate Leland Stanford's fortune. Or J.M. Lizarras, a Mexican union organizer who led a successful farm worker strike in Oxnard in 1903 but declined to join the gigantic American Federation of Labor when it refused to accept the union's Japanese members.

"Many of our heroes are unsung," Takaki said. "But they illuminate something important about American history and who we are, about the capacity of Americans to be more than their ethnic groups, to struggle for justice."

Consider, Duberman suggested, Emma Goldman, an anarchist and free love exponent who is a hero to feminists and gay rights advocates. In 1919 she was stripped of her citizenship and deported to Russia as a terrorist. Or Paul Robeson, a star athlete, scholar, actor and singer who traded fame and fortune for struggle and infamy as a radical activist during the McCarthy era. The State Department banned Robeson from traveling abroad, his career withered and his health broke but he never renounced his Communist politics.

"These are the kind of heroes we need as opposed to presidents who fight to win office and power," Duberman said.


While less fire-throwing scholars don't object to expanding the heroes gallery, they caution against being too critical of those who lived in a different world. "It's kind of a game Americans play with their founding fathers: who's in, who's out," said Brown University historian Gordon Wood. "It's kind of crazy to take these figures out of time and remake them for ours. One wishes we had a little better historical sense."

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