The appropriateness of hero worship in America has been a subject of debate since the country's earliest days. Some argue that the notion of the 'hero' is antithetical to the spirit of popular democracy in which 'all men are created equal'. Others believe that America has a special need for heroes and, more generally, cultural mythology.

In The Hero in America, Dixon Wecter argued the latter position. For Europeans, according to Wecter, patriotism translates into a love of place. In America, however, westward expansion and a forward-looking mindset weaken attachments to particular places and pasts. The American's placelessness or rootlessness creates a need for heroes and for collective symbols like the flag and the Declaration of Independence. Heroes and symbols provide a sense of continuity in the American consciousness; Wecter believed that Europeans don't evoke their symbols or heroes as much, nor as religiously, as do Americans because the Europeans have a longer and more geographically centered sense of the past. Wecter wrote, "America's country is in his understanding: he carries it wherever he goes." (1)

Others agree. In her article about Capra films, London author Jenny Diski defined America as a "mythological place in the geography of the mind, whose boundary fences are flyposted with copies of the American Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address," a place which "retains unassailable notions of honesty, decency, goodness, fairness." (2)

Americans lack not only a sense of place, but a sense of long-held tradition. The U.S. is a country whose comparatively short history began with a break from established European powers, what some might term a break from 'the father.' Various American writers have claimed "the symbolic presence or absence of the father" to be of great importance in the American consciousness; contemporary critic Raymond Carney called America "the land of kinglessness, masterlessness, and fatherlessness" which caused "the sudden unhinging of stable, inheritable, and traditional values, an unhinging upon which this country was predicated." (3) Thus, the American's love of particular people in the country's history is, in the truest sense of the word 'patriotism', "the search for an imaginative father." (4)

Future-oriented as Americans might be, their response to historical literature and popular entertainments highlights this need for a sense of past and place. Weems's biography of George Washington, originally published in 1800, went through fifty-nine editions before 1850 and was the second-best seller of its generation in America. Through the nineteenth century, at home and at school millions absorbed American tales in McGuffey Readers, Horatio Alger stories, and dime novels.

Heroes and cultural symbols satisfy personal psychological desires, but they also serve larger, societal needs. Although he wrote Magnalia Christi Americana before the American Revolution, Cotton Mather espoused the idea of a New World community founded on principles and he bemoaned the generational disappearance of those principles. In a prefatory poem to the volume, Mather's contemporary Nicholas Noyes penned, "Children's Children suffer on that Score,/Like Bastards cast forlorn at any Door;/And they and others put to seek their Father,/For want of such a scribe as COTTON MATHER." (5) Mather lamented "our Gradual Degeneracy from that Life and Power of Godliness" embodied in the first generation of colonists and he offered profiles of "such Eminent Persons as the Lord made use of, as Instruments of his hand...for the Knowledge and Imitation of Posterity." (6) One hundred and fifty years later, Lincoln acknowledged his 'knowledge and imitation' of George Washington; Weems's biography was one of his favorite boyhood books.

Mather simplified his accounts of his "Eminent Persons" considerably. In his introduction he claimed, "It is not the Work of an Historian, to commemorate the Vices and Villainies of Men, so much as their just, their fair, their honest Actions: And the Readers of History get more good by the Objects of their Emulation, than of their Indignation." (7) Dixon Wecter notes the same simplification in the life of Thomas Jefferson. During his term as Virginia's wartime Governor, Jefferson was criticized for his treatment of British war prisoners; later he caused outrage when he demanded that Aaron Burr be hanged. During the War of 1812 he demanded that London be burned by "employing an hundred or two Jack-the-painters, whom nakedness, famine, desperation, and hardened vice, wil abundantly furnish among themselves." Wecter comments, "This is a strain in Jefferson's nature, supposedly mild and calm, which has never colored his legend and even been ignored by mostof his biographers." (8) When in the 1920s J.P. Morgan purchased a number of letters written by George Washington, Morgan and his librarian Belle Da Costa Greene burned several of them which the latter described as "smutty." Greene argued that "the fable of the cherry tree" was more inspiring than the real Washington revealed in the incinerated letters. (9)

The 'ideal' American hero--simplified, streamlined, amalgamated from a dozen noble-but-grittier real individuals--has several clear characteristics which separate him from his heroic brethren in other countries. First is the American sense that the hero is an instrument of the people whose power, he must understand and publicly acknowledge, ultimately derives from the people. In Emerson's understanding the hero "has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathies with his people." (10) Wecter's hero must inspire confidence by resolute use of power, but he mustn't ever publicly admit to being more than an instrument of the people he governs. Cotton Mather revered Massachusetts governor John Winthrop for just this reason. When the colonists voted Winthrop out of office, "his Profound Humility appeared in that Equality of Mind, wherewith he applied himself cheerfully to serve the Country in whatever Station their Votes had allotted for him." In one such election, Mather charged that the election was fixed by some of the Magistrates so that Winthrop lost by six votes, "yet such was the Self-Denial of this Patriot, that he would not permit any Notice to be taken of the Injury." (11) When something he wrote offended several citizens, Winthrop appeared at the General Court to address their objections. Although he stood behind his argument in the writing, Winthrop apologized for his tone: "It look'd as if I arrogated too much unto myself, and too little to others. And when I made that Profession...though such Words might modestly be spoken, yet I perceive an unbeseeming Pride of my own Heart breathing in them. For these Failings I ask Pardon both of God and Man." (12) Wecter identified the same quality in Ulysses Grant, who he noted had no desire to run against Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential election; instead, Grant said he'd prefer to be mayor of his hometown and build a new sidewalk from his home to the depot. During his subsequent Presidency, Grant was undone by the very lack of this quality. His abuse of power through the spoils system considerably diminished his heroic qualities in the eyes of many American citizens.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission to Congress, painted by John Trumbull, 1824.
In Hero Tales from American History Teddy Roosevelt lavished praise on George Washington, the quintessential American example of self-denial. Washington's resignation at a time when he could have assumed military command of the new republic proved he was "entirely devoid of personal ambition, and had no vulgar longing for personal power." Roosevelt compared Washington and England's Prince George: "Which is the noble character for after ages to admire--yon fribble dancing in lace and spangles, or yonder hero who sheathes his sword after a life of spotless honor?" (13)

The hero's acquaintance with hardship and failure is a corollary to his avoidance of absolute power: both bring him closer to the common citizen. Wecter sensed that "our greatest heroes have given, not the impression of putting into effect a preconceived and infallible program of total solution, but of working something out, painfully and with not infrequent setbacks." He identified Lincoln, Washington, Grant, Lee, and Davy Crockett as individuals who were able to "convert practical defeat into a victory of the spirit." (14) Mather noted that John Winthrop lost much of his estate in a ship on the way to Massachusetts, buried three wives, shouldered serious debt on account of an unscrupulous servant, and knew long periods of illness. William Jennings Bryan's position as "the leader of lost or stillborn causes" endeared him to the populace, who wrote to assure him "Defeated, you are the grandest man in America." (15)

Abraham Lincoln, the Martyr Victorious, painted in 1865 by John Sartains
Lincoln is the greatest example of heroic hardship and failure. The personal sorrows associated with his family "were bound up with his grief over a nation of warring brothers, the yearning of his heart for the black man in chains, or the premonition of his own tragic end." (16)

An aristocratic background or lifestyle handicaps the American hero. Mather praised Winthrop because he "abridged himself of a Thousand comfortable things...His Habit was not that soft Raiment, which would have been disagreeable to a Wilderness; his Table was not covered with the Superfluities that would have invited unto Sensualities." (17) Although not an American, Emerson included Napoleon in his study Representative Men because Napoleon "opened the aristocracy and chased it out." Napoleon possessed the advantage of "having been born to a private and humble fortune" which gave him a contempt for born kings. (18) He ran aground, according to Emerson, when his aristocratic pretensions got the better of him later in life and his material self-interests collided with the interests of the French people. In Hero Tales, Teddy Roosevelt downplayed Washington's wealth. Although Washington "started with all that good birth and tradition could give...Beyond this, he had little. His family was poor, his mother was left early a widow, and he was forced after a very limited education to go out into the world and fight for himself." (19) Roosevelt's own legend, in Wecter's account, includes the idea that he "rose above" his beginnings as "an aristocratic, sickly youth" and eventually metamorphosed into the trust-busting enemy of great wealth. (20) The handicap of wealth was potentially more damaging, in the eyes of many, than the handicap of polio for Teddy's distant relative FDR. In the 1940 presidential campaign Wendell Willkie deployed FDR's aristocratic background against him in an attempt to gain the sympathy of working-class voters. Wecter argued that FDR helped "to scrap the long-standing tradition that the poor man's hero springs from a log overcoming the handicap of hereditary rank and riches to become the forgotten man's friend." (21) Nevertheless, the aristocratic hero has to downplay his background if he is to achieve popular success. FDR accomplished this in part through his "fireside chats," speaking plainly and directly to the American public. He addressed the public as "My friends" instead of "Fellow-citizens" and encouraged a sense of immediacy in his contact with the average citizen. In his first fireside chat he asked, "Are you better off than you were last year?" When the government sent out notices about the forthcoming unemployment census, Roosevelt announced, "The postcard we are sending you on Tuesday is a direct message from me to you." (22) Frank Capra was impressed by FDR's warm manner during a meeting in 1938 and though never an FDR supporter at the polls, Capra was able to see "how a Harvard-bred extrovert had become the patron saint of the downtrodden." (23)

Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee landowner and 'hard money man' who held shares in the Nashville branch of the United States bank, had to change his image significantly before he could campaign against "a moneyed aristocracy dangerous to the liberties of the country." (24) Benjamin Franklin autobiography richly described his years as a friendless boy who rose in the world through pluck and luck, but stopped short of his years as a rich and famous adult. When he talked about his family, Thomas Jefferson deemphasized his mother's pedigree and stressed instead his father, whose "education had been quite neglected" and whose character was homespun. In actuality, Peter Jefferson served as a Justice of the Peace and a sheriff, owned considerable land, and oversaw a sizeable plantation staff. Wecter concluded: "He was no Thomas Lincoln." (25)

Boyhood of Lincoln, painted by Eastman Johnson in 1868
Lincoln is the paramount example of the inclination against aristocratic heroes. In Teddy Roosevelt's account, Lincoln's family was "not only poor, but shiftless, and his early days were days of ignorance, and poverty, and hard work. Out of such inauspicious surroundings, he slowly and painfully lifted himself." (26) The image worked to Lincoln's advantage even during his lifetime. The contrast between the candidates during the Lincoln-Douglas campaign--Douglas the aristocrat in a private railway car, the rumpled Lincoln riding in the caboose--bound him closely to the people. During a day of stumping in Springfield, after hearing his rival, Colonel Dick Taylor, praising plain people, Lincoln opened Taylor's coat to reveal a ruffled shirt and gold seals. Lincoln followed with a speech which recalled his poor boyhood and flatboat days.

American distrust of intellectualism goes hand-in-hand with antipathy towards the upper classes. Native, instinctive, practical intelligence is better than a degree; athletic, vigorous pursuits better than bookishness. Newspapers told readers that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic aided only by a compass and a page torn out of a school geography textbook. This image earned him the affectionate nickname "The Flying Fool" and glossed over months of physical training and calculation in preparation for the flight. Thomas Edison was self-taught and scorned academicians. Henry Ford shared Edison's distrust of conventional education; Ford felt that "history is bunk" and declared, "I don't like to read books; they muss up my mind." (27)

When Harvard University awarded Andrew Jackson a doctor of laws degree, John Quincy Adams labeled the act an "insult to learning" honoring a man "who could hardly spell his own name." James Parton, Jackson's biographer, retorted, "The calamity of the United States has been this: the educated classes have not been able to accept the truths of the democratic creed...Hence, in this country, until very recently, the men of books have had little influence upon public affairs." (28)

In early twentieth century surveys, the public ranked Teddy Roosevelt as the most 'typical' American by virtue of his "cheerful aggressiveness, energy, decisiveness, love of adventure, and daring." (29) Roosevelt's athleticism is characteristic of other heroes as well. Roosevelt himself praised Washington as "a leader in all outdoor a young man he became a woodsman and hunter" who "outdid the hardiest backwoodsman in following a winter trail and swimming icy streams." Roosevelt called him "an educated, but not a learned man. He read well, and remembered what he read, but his life was, from the beginning, a life of action, and the world of men was his school." (30) When Dixon Wecter compared two war presidents, Wilson and Lincoln, he found that Wilson had less hold on the popular imagination; Wecter argued this was true because Lincoln "was homely while Wilson was academic, humorous where Wilson seemed stiff, and loveable in lights that made Wilson appear the precisian." Wilson described his own boyhood as the sedentary, bookish childhood of a "laughed-at mamma's boy." (31)

When the American hero is conventionally schooled, he must put his education to practical use. George Santayana commented, "The luckless American who is born a conservative, or who is drawn to poetic subtlety, pious retreats, or gay passions, nevertheless has the categorical excellence of work, growth, enterprise, reform, and prosperity dinned into his ears." (32) According to Wecter, the hero must not be cynical, effeminate, cerebral, or hesitant if he is to appeal to a public which values hard work and character over eloquence and intelligence. Thus, Washington was great because he "always looked facts squarely in the face and dealt with them as such, dreaming no dreams, cherishing no delusions, asking no impossibilities." (33) Emerson praised the conversational tone of Montaigne: "for blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence." (34) For Emerson, Montaigne's skepticism represented the perfect balance between a completely abstract, philosophical outlook and a cynical, materialistic disposition. Either extreme is flawed, for poets are "usually proud and exclusive" and materialists "weigh men by the pound" for their "athletic and animal qualities." (35) Emerson respected Plato for the same balance. Plato had "a strong solving sense to reconcile his poetry with the appearances of the world, and build a bridge from the streets of cities to the Atlantis; " he "slope[d] his an access from the plain." (36)

Raymond Carney's study American Vision placed Frank Capra within the American Romantic tradition. Carney argued that many writers, filmmakers, and artists of the early twentieth century labeled as 'realists' were actually heirs to Emerson. Carney contended that like Emerson, "the greatest works in American art tensely inject vision into society, rather than treating it as an alternative to society...imagination is never "pure"; it is savagely impure, since it is forced to be mediated in practical, social forms of expression." This, in Carney's estimate, separates American "antitheoretical, practical, and pragmatic" art from European "aesthetic elitism...escapist and hermetic." It makes American Romanticism "truly democratic, as perhaps only Americans could dare to believe possible...ordinary people can break free of the limitations of history, society, past roles, and identities, not just he mystics, poets, artists, and social outcasts." Because it is so very much in the world, this effort is "audacious...very radical." (37)

Emerson, it should be noted, was wary of too much practicality. He wrote, "In this country, the emphasis of conversation and of public opinion commends the practical man," but he cautioned that often, "Men's actions are too strong for them." Emerson argued for reflection: "the measure of action is the sentiment from which it proceeds. The greatest action may easily be the one of the most private circumstance." (37) As we will discuss shortly, Emerson's reservations about American pragmatism were connected with reservations about the wisdom of the masses. He wrote Representative Men as an antidote for a society "taught to aim at low objects." (38)

Wecter summarized of the practical value of art and culture in America as follows: "If the axiom of the ancient Greeks was "know thyself," that of Americans is more likely to be "know thy stuff." Instinctively, we admire the doers, "habile" men, vigorous practical minds." (39) Wecter attributed this to the chronic shortage of labor in an era of expansion, which forced Americans to invent machines. However, I think it can be explained more satisfactorily by the American's effort to differentiate himself from effete European culture.

The colonists may have been compensating for a sense of inferiority and for the crudeness of their New World surroundings; they may have felt genuine pride in the experimental, enterprising spirit of their settlement. Whether it was one or the other or some mixture of the two is, for our purposes, irrelevant; the distinction's durability is our chief interest. Benjamin Franklin is one of the earliest examples of the phenomenon--the plain man in the coonskin cap who held his own in the courts of Europe. When Franklin traveled to France in 1776 he wore a fur cap "in lieu of a wig, the mark of Old World caste." The fact that Franklin wore chose the cap instead of the wig due to eczema of the scalp didn't deter the French from hailing it as "the frontier badge, the oriflamme of democracy." The French thought him "a sage from the primeval forests and Quaker meetings of the New World." (40)

Not all Continental receptions were as flattering, and colonists often reacted defensively. According to Wecter, Jefferson "grew more aggressively American" abroad; he felt England was "an aristocracy besotted with liquor and horse-racing, and France a land where marital fidelity is "an ungentlemanly practice."" Jefferson stumped for the colonies in France. He told Crevecoeur "ours are the only farmers who can read Homer." (41) Cotton Mather reacted defensively to English insults: he replied, "Tho' the Reformed Churches in the American Regions have, by very Injurious Representations of their [English] Brethren...been many times thrown into a Dung-Cart; yet, as they have been a precious Odour to God in Christ, so, I hope, they will be a precious Odour to His People." Mather proceeds, "No doubt, the Authors of those Ecclesiastical Impositions and Severities, which drove the English Christians into the Dark Regions of America, esteemed those Christians to be a very unprofitable sort of Creature. But behold, ye European Churches, There are Golden the midst of this Outer hath arisen Light in to be Darted over unto the other side of the Atlantick Ocean." (42)

In time Americans identified the American east coast with European effete culture. Wecter noted that the winning of the west seemed more American in the folk mind than the settlement of Jamestown and Plymouth: "Europe, as Emerson knew, stretched to the Alleghenies; America lay beyond."(43)

This America fared no better in the European estimation. Foreign travelers encountered the backwoodsman in the early part of the eighteenth century. In a study tracing the evolution of southwestern humor, Constance Rourke noted, "From these [European travelers] the backwoodsman culled the phrase "child of nature" and applied it coyly to himself...the British traveler gained his monstrous impressions of the West through Western waggery." In retaliation, Western dramatists showcased Frances Trollope as "a gross and gullible witch-woman who was stuffed with tall tales." Rourke further noted, "the opprobrium of New England was often as marked as that of Great Britain." (44)

The frontier figure responded by jubilantly exaggerating his faults and contrasting his vigor and common sense to the overcultured, effeminate Easterner. In his boasts, the frontiersman's self-assurance "thus talked back to the highbrow and snobbish East." (45) Characters like Jack Downing, Sam Patch, Samson Hardhead, Sam Slick, and Colonel Nimrod Wildfire entertained theater audiences across America and in Europe, often to public acclaim. Some of these figures blended the earlier characteristics of the Yankee--a colonial response to English snobbery-- with the backwoodsman. Where the Yankee was spare, the frontiersman was effusive and gregarious; however, they shared a propensity to exaggerate their faults and a relish of homely metaphor. The backwoodsman gained popularity through the figures of Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett; through the stories of James Fenimore Cooper; and through the dime novels, each of which had an initial printing of 60,000 copies. Through these means, the American hero has become a quintessentially small-town, backwoods-backwater character whose native intelligence and vigor serve him in his battle against entrenched, often corrupt, forces in the city. Lincoln is a fine example. His humor and appearance, among other things, prompted James Russell Lowell to designate him "the new birth of our new soil, the first American." (46)

Engraving of Jackson's Inauguration
Lincoln's plainness and lack of pretension brought him into closer relationship with the American people. John Hay, Lincoln's secretary, wrote that "anything that kept the people away from him he chief executive was ever so accessible." (47) Wecter's description of Jackson's Inauguration echoed this sensibility: "white and black, frontiersman and farmer and day laborer, thronged the halls which they had never seen before. Even Jefferson, as an earlier "People's President," had been for them, not of them--and an incursion such as this was unthinkable in his day."(48) According to Wecter, Jefferson maintained "that only the sickly timid Tory fears the people, whereas the strong leader loves and trusts them." (49) A sense of relationship with the public relates to all the characteristics previously described--self-deprecating exercise of power, experience with failure and hardship, anti-elitism, practicality--but it is in many ways the most problematic part of the hero's job description, because it calls up the tensions inherent in the idea of 'democratic hero.' Jefferson, for instance, fought against making his birthday a holiday; he cautioned against "transferring the honors and veneration for the great birthday of the Republic to any individual, or dividing them with individuals." (50)

In Representative Men Emerson argued that heroes weren't antithetical to the aims of a democracy. He believed that "great men enrich the understanding of all men by proxy" by adding "points to our map" and by stirring the public to action. The great men collectively make up a constellation so that no one of them is too great: "the study of many individuals leads us to an elemental region wherein the individual is lost...this is the key to the power of the greatest men--their spirit diffuses itself." Because there will always be "other great men, new qualities," they serve as "counterweights and checks on each other." Further, he argued that the genius was supported by his fellow citizens: "what is best written or done by genius in the world, was no man's work, but came by wide social labor, when thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse." The hero is not unlike other men, and all men have different talents in equal share. "Every talent has its apotheosis somewhere," according to Emerson--it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The true hero recognizes this by not abusing his power or knowledge over other men. Thus, Emerson 'democratizes' the labors of the hero and distributes the fruits of the labor to hero and commoner alike.(51)

Emerson was clear about how democracy could coexist with heroism, but considerably less clear about how democracy could survive without it. If circumstance didn't call forth an individual of great talent, what happened to the populace of equal but average men? Emerson doubted their collective ability to surmount their individual averageness. "Enormous populations," he declared, "if they be beggars, are disgusting, like moving cheese, like hills of ants or of fleas--the more, the worse." Great men are necessary to "correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate...what they know, they know for us," who wear "the fool's cap too long." Masses left alone tend to grow more alike; great men are "saviours from these federal errors...a foreign greatness is the antidote for cabalism." (52)

When Raymond Carney claimed that Frank Capra "transformed himself into what Emerson would have called a representative man of his culture," he was arguing that Capra shared Emerson's belief in the individual's power to transcend and transform his environment. (53) However, Frank Capra also shared Emerson's uneasiness about a hero's relationship to the people in an American democracy. Capra's understanding of the heroic qualities of the American 'representative man' and his Emersonian ambivalence about the hero's relationship to the people are abundantly evident in his films and his own life story.


	1  Dixon Wecter, _The Hero In America_, 2.

	2  Jenny Diski, "Curious Tears," _Sight and Sound_, August 1992, 18.

	3  Raymond Carney, _American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra_, 41.

	4  Carney 52.

	5  Cotton Mather, _Magnalia Christi Americana_, 70.

	6  Mather 65, 68.

	7  Mather 99.

	8  Wecter 153.

	9   qtd. in Wecter 142.

	10  Ralph Waldo Emerson, _Representative Men_, 122.
	11  Mather 218, 219.

	12  qtd. in Mather 222, 223.

	13  Theodore Roosevelt, _Hero Tales From American History_, 7.

	14  Roosevelt 5.

	15  qtd. in Wecter xxi, 371.

	16  Wecter 259.

	17  Mather 216, 217.

	18  Emerson 152, 154.

	19  Roosevelt 2.

	20  Wecter 375.

	21  Wecter 446.

	22  qtd. in Wecter 445.

	23  Frank Capra, _The Name Above the Title_, 346.

	24  Wecter 206.

	25  Wecter 150.

	26  Roosevelt 325, Wecter 240, 225.

	27  qtd. in Wecter 420.

	28  qtd. in Wecter 213.

	29  Wecter 391.

	30  Roosevelt 12, 13.

	31  qtd. in Wecter 394.

	32  George Santayana, "Materialism and Idealism in American Life,"

	33  Roosevelt 14.

	34  Emerson 106.

	35  Emerson 97.

	36  Emerson 38.

	37  Carney xiii, 19, 7, 37.

	38  Emerson 170.

	39  Emerson ix, Wecter 415.

	40  Wecter 64.

	41  qtd. in Wecter 154.

	42  Mather 93.

	43  Wecter 182.

	44  Constance Rourke, "The Gamecock in the Wilderness," online.

	45  Wecter 45.

	46  qtd. in Wecter 236.

	47  Wecter 246.

	48  Wecter 212.

	49  qtd. in Wecter 154.

	50  qtd. in Wecter 158.

	51  Emerson 8, 9, 21, 17, 127, 15.

	52  Emerson 4, 13, 16.

	53  Carney xi.