Rushmore and the Imperfections of Heroism

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Rushmore and the Imperfections of Heroism

Published in the Maryland Daily Record May 30, 2019

For years, I’ve wanted to visit Mt. Rushmore, and not long ago I finally got the chance. The Monument, busts or heads of four presidents, is a strikingly beautiful thing. And the four great men, Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln, look as determined and visionary as we would want great men to be. I took lots of pictures, and bought a souvenir for a granddaughter.

And yet there was something disquieting to me about the Monument, and it took me a while to put a name to it.


It’s this. I must have been in grade school in the 1950s when I first saw a photograph of the four graven faces up there on the South Dakota mountainside, and at that time I was encouraged to view these men the way the artists, Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, apparently did: with uncomplicated hero worship. I look at them now, and I know that they may have done some great things, but they also did some unheroic ones.

George Washington made the Revolution militarily feasible and his resignation from power at the end of his term established a tradition of peaceful transition of power which is the envy of much of the world. Still, the man owned slaves, 123 of whom it was within his legal power to free. And he did – but only in his will. A completely heroic man would never have owned them to begin with, or freed them as soon as they came into his possession.

Much the same could be said of Jefferson, except that in his case the conflict between the nature of his heroism and the compromise that his slaveholding posed is starker. Jefferson is the principal theorist of the Declaration of Independence, the very document that first posits our commitment to individual dignity and freedoms, the very things slavery most negates. Jefferson deserves credit for insisting on and signing a law ending the importation of slaves. But own them he still did, 600 of them during his adult life. And then there is the moral complication of his relationship to Sally Hemings, the slave with whom it strongly appears he fathered children.

To modern eyes, Teddy Roosevelt may seem like a surprise member of the Rushmore grouping, but he had deep ties to South Dakota. He had been a patron of Gutzon Borglum’s earlier work. And Borglum reportedly admired Roosevelt’s key role in the development of the Panama Canal. Whatever the reasons for his inclusion, TR is also closely identified with the Spanish-American War. Historian H.W. Brands says that if a single person is responsible for pushing us into war with Spain, it was Theodore Roosevelt. And to be blunt, that was a war for empire, seizing the territories of a weak country because we could. The stated justifications, mostly a sympathy for the Cubans who were being badly treated by Spain, their colonizer, were transparently hypocritical. Somehow the emancipation of Cuba turned into an American takeover of Spanish possessions around the globe, an inconceivable outcome if the War had only been about Cuba. Imperialism has been one of the dark themes in American character, up there with racism – and TR was complicit with it.

And then there’s Lincoln, who freed the slaves (sort of – it’s complicated) and was assassinated for his pains. But even the martyred Lincoln created some dangerous precedents in his struggle to keep the country together, as we in Baltimore should know. Lincoln it was who imprisoned the leadership of our city at Fort McHenry without trial, and who defied related habeas orders from the courts. These precedents were spiritual godparents to the Japanese internments of World War II, to the ongoing disgrace of Guantánamo, and to the Trump administration’s incipient defiance of congressional orders and subpoenas.

Notwithstanding Their Flaws

So one way of looking at the Monument is: two slaveholders, a warmonger imperialist, and an underminer of the constitutional order. Was that really the best we had in the 1930s when the Monument was being crafted? There’s a decent argument that the answer is yes. Without Washington and Lincoln there might not be a country and without Jefferson we might lack not merely the phrase but the actuality of a national commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Roosevelt exemplified care for the environment, good government and sensible trade regulation. These imperfect presidents wrought and preserved an imperfect country, but still a wonderful one. Moreover, notwithstanding their flaws, each in his separate way aspired to be virtuous – a notable contrast with their present-day successor, who seems never to see the point of any virtue: probity in personal affairs, marital fidelity, modesty, truthfulness, loyalty or good manners, to name a few.

The godlike reign of the four images over the South Dakota hills admittedly is an affront to the modern and I think improved way of regarding leaders. We might wish we could go back to viewing them, or at least the best of them, as men for all seasons, perfect in every way. But we can’t do that and be honest with ourselves. We have to inspire ourselves and our youth with more nuanced but more realistic images and understandings of our great men and women.

Admiring Beautiful Monuments

To let go of hero-worship, even the possibility of it, is a loss. But perhaps we can console ourselves that the lesson our best leaders teach is still worth learning: that while no one gets everything right, and neither individual or national greatness can ever be fully achieved, flawed but determined humans and countries can at least approximate it.

And meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with admiring beautiful monuments, so long as we don’t confuse what they suggest with reality.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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