In Defense of American History and Heroes

by Daniel Mallock (September 2017)

50th Anniversary, Battle of Gettysburg, Union and Confederate Veterans Greet Each Other at the Scene of Pickett’s Charge, 1913


What does a nation without heroes look like?
When a nation's heroes are all re-assessed based only on their flaws and not on their accomplishments and sacrifices, what can be the consequence? Can there be any American heroes at all now worthy of statuary and memorials when the standard for "hero" appears to be, for many extremists, nothing short of perfection?
There are those among us who demand that our heroes must be stainless, and anyone who falls short of the as-yet-unpublished standards of what a hero is must be expunged from the public landscape and therefore finally from the national memory.
This is not new to history though it is for Americans. You can see them on Egyptian pharaonic temple wallsthe name glyphs of leaders out of favor with the then living generation chipped away. You can see them obliterated from obelisks, and the smashed ruins of their statues. The purpose of the destruction of public records and public memorials is to remove people and events from history, for the benefit of the present generation’s peccadillos only. Stalin did not stop at obliterating just statues from history.
There is no consideration of honor to the past or obligation to the future among the people who destroy our historyit is nothing short of the tyranny of the living. Destruction of the past is an act of theft and thoughtlessness against the future, and worse.

Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, Afghanistan. (Source)

The Taliban famously did this to the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan several months before the 9/11 Islamist terror mass murder atrocities in the United States. The Taliban used explosives to blow up those famous world-significant statues to the horror and chagrin of the entire civilized world. The history of history destroyers is long and ugly.


Recently, an angry mob attacked and ripped down a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina as if the American soldier were an effigy of Stalin, Hitler, or Lenin. The scenes were disturbingly similar, an angry mob destroying a public monument. But there is a differenceConfederate soldiers were not Stalinists, Leninists, or Nazis and we are now only in a revolutionary situation in the view of the revolutionary extremists who commit these acts (and those who cheer them on).
These were Americans fighting and dying in a now long dead but not at all forgotten war between the states. Durham is certainly not the only city affected by the revisionist mob destruction of American history whose subtleties, nuances, complexities, and contradictions, disturbing though they sometimes are, are neither appreciated nor understood by them. The Confederate soldiers were Americans, they are our forebears, whatever your view of the Confederacy or of the Civil War. Civil War history is American history. We are proud of our Civil War boys in blue and gray, disturbed by them, in awe of their accomplishments and sacrifices, and inspired by what they did.
Nancy Pelosi’s father understood this well. During his tenure as mayor of Baltimore, her father spoke these words at the dedication of the Lee-Jackson memorial in that city in 1948. From father to daughter or son, so much can change.
"Today, with our nation beset by subversive groups and propaganda which seeks to destroy our national unity, we can look for inspiration to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions,” D’Alesandro said in his dedication. “We must remain steadfast in our determination to preserve freedom, not only for ourselves, but for the other liberty-loving nations who are striving to preserve their national unity as free nations."

Gettysburg Reunion, 1938.
Now, the radical history destroyer leftist mob wants us all to re-fight an old war long ago resolved; they want us to condemn men and women who long ago were welcomed back into the fold of our country; they want to stoke the flames of race divisions and hatreds for their own purposes.
In a famous letter to James Madison of September 6, 1789, Thomas Jefferson set out a radically new viewpoint of how he believed the living generation should relate to those who preceded them.
I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.
Jefferson's central concern in this letter was that monetary debt should not be passed down to future generations and that the living should not be burdened by debts created in the past. This letter was not greeted favorably by Madison who thought it far too extreme.
This notion of Jefferson's that the living should not be burdened by the dead is an attractive one to every living generation. However, Jefferson used the legal term "usufruct" to convey the obligation that always rests with the livingto keep safe the world and the memories of the past. "Usufruct" means that the living are caretakers of the country and that changes are allowed so long as essential truths are respected and retained, and the country passed intact and relatively unchanged to the next generation. The term places the burden of self-control upon the living as they relate to their country and their relationship with its history. The Jeffersonian idea of freeing the living from the burdens of debt created by the dead now is twisted all up so that the living feel little or no obligation to the past.
John Adams, Edmund Burke, and James Madison all rebelled against this idea of abandoning their duties and connections to the past, disconnecting themselves from their forebears. Continuity of generations within a nation is fundamental to national identity and national health. This was Adams’s and Burke’s fundamental complaint with the nightmare that would become the Jacobin revolution in France; and they were right.

Confederate Cemetery, Carnton, Battle of Franklin, Tennessee (source)

Confederate Cemetery, Carnton, Battle of Franklin, Tennessee (source)

Death site of General Patrick Cleburne, Battle of Franklin, Tennessee (Dan Mallock)

The decoupling of the living generation from the past, the abandonment of all obligations to the past, to history and to the truth of what history is and means, is at the foundation of the failure of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. When the living feel no obligations to the past, the nation is adrift in dangerous waters.
This radical decoupling of the living generation from the past was at the core of the failure of their utopian, idealistic revolt against monarchy in France which devolved to mass political murder, civil and international war. After the guillotines, after the implosion of the revolution there, the monarchy in France was restored.
In the United States now some among us, loud, bitter, denialist, and angry have taken up the Jacobin cudgel of absolutism, intolerance, and utopianism.
The logic of the destruction of Civil War Confederate monuments for their association with the despicable slave system (all people of decency agree that the slave institution was despicable) must lead to Jefferson and Washington and many others. It has already begun.
And so it has come to this—deconstruction and destruction of the foundations; Washington and Jefferson, Jackson, and many others are being held to account for their slave holding and/or lack of action against slavery. This is the beginning of a dark and ugly slide toward denialism and worse.

The United States was founded on this great and finally necessary but unfortunate compromise—the Union could only be created if the promise of human equality would be delayed. This was done to assuage the demands of the slave states. The founders were fully aware that this compromise opened them and the country to the charge of hypocrisy. Without the compromises made in the Continental Congress, then again in the Constitutional Convention, to sustain the slave system so that the slave states would join and sustain the Union, the United States would never have been born.

The founders hoped that future leaders could do what they could noteradicate the slave system and retain the union. They knew that slavery (in conjunction with sectionalism) was the central issue that could destroy the nation; Jefferson referred to it as “the firebell in the night.” They knew it was only a matter of time before a bitter conflict arose, and they hoped that a solution would be found before it did–they were wrong.
In this current environment of extremism, ignorance, and intolerance every member of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention must be seen as tainted by association. The twisted logic of the history-killing mob must then be that every founder must be condemned as unworthy of remembrance and jettisoned.
Many of the present generation cannot face nor reconcile the enormous contradictions of our history and those of our heroes great and minor. That previous generations were successful in comprehending and appreciating the fact that our history is not stainless and our heroes flawed is not relevant to them.
Lessons of the past and about the past are jettisoned by the mob bent on historical vengeance are swept away as little more than ephemera, impediments to a utopian dream world built on a national history purged of moral and ethical failures—and of greatness, sacrifice, and honor as well. Destruction of our history is destruction of our foundations; a nation without foundations cannot stand.
With the defeat of the Confederacy came the end of the slave system. The defeated South was brought back into the Union, and Confederate and Union soldiers built bonds of brotherhood and welcome as the country reunified after the nightmare of the war. This post-war era of forgiveness, reunification, and national rebirth, as shown so clearly in the photographs accompanying this article, is now being overturned by the tyranny of the living generation.

75th Gettysburg Anniversary, 1938 (source)
Radicals of the left now smash Confederate memorials that were dedicated under the watchful eyes of both Union and Confederate veterans. The soldiers of both sides attended unveilings of these statues and memorials across the South and in many parts of the North to show that they, the men who had "borne the battle," were leading the charge to re-unify and rebuild the country after the horrors of the war and the defeat of the Confederacy.
These lessons of forgiveness and reunification are now forgotten to the detriment of all Americans living and dead and those yet born.

Memorial to Union officer and mortally wounded Confederate General Lewis Armistead on the field of Gettysburg. (source)
The great challenge to Americans is that we have no choice but to embrace the contradictions of our history, of our heroes, and accept the simple and obvious truth that they were not perfect. There can be no standard of perfection demanded of anyone by anyone, there can only be an openness to learn the lessons of the past and give honor and remembrance to those who paid staggeringly high costs fighting and dying for what they believed in.

Monument to Sergeant Richard Kirkland (CSA), giving wounded Union soldiers water and aid on the battlefield after the Battle of Fredericksburg, 1862. (Source)
We might say that our founders succeeded and failed, we might say that our Confederate ancestors chose poorly; though these points are controversial and open to discussion and argument we can say this with certainty: we, the living generation, are failing now.
The greatness of our people and of our heroes resides in the fact that we can learn and we do learn. We have come a long way since 1861.
The monuments of the boys in blue and gray are stark reminders to us of sacrifices, bravery, courage, honor, error, and bitter, painful lessons learned. These were all left by the then living generation of Americans as a reminder to us and those who follow us of the lessons they learned so that we who followed them would never forget.
Can there be now any American heroes at all when the standard is perfection? Are there any humans living or dead who can meet this standard? There are none.
Every American statue and memorial is now at risk because none represent perfection.
What does a country look like without heroes? A country without heroes is a building without foundations, a house with a shattered middle that cannot stand.
Our heroes tell our national story—they illustrate our victories, our defeats, and the sacrifices that our people are willing to make for their friends, their fellow citizens, and for our country.
The great contradiction that the United States was founded by slave holders is now an impossible one for many on the political left to accept. That this is the painful truth of our country’s founding is irrelevant to them.
Our obligation as the present living generation is to forever appreciate where we have been and how far we have come, the sacrifices made and the lessons learned. This is the demand that history places upon us, and upon those who will follow us.
The Hippocratic oath is to “do no harm;” our oath ought to be something like this: we are caretakers of the present and the past and we will pass down to our descendants the painful lessons learned, the stories of sacrifice, courage, and character; we will protect our history and our heroes so that they remain forever as an inspiration for us, our children, and for the world.

Recumbent Robert E. Lee, Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee University (Dan Mallock)
All American heroes of the past are now at risk from the absolutist mobs of angry history destroyers and denialists who obstinately refuse to resolve the contradictions of American history.
What will happen when the mob marches up the slopes of Jefferson's mountain and stands before Monticello with their torches and pitchforks?

Monticello (Kendra Mallock)

Jefferson Memorial (Dan Mallock)
What will happen when the mob marches to Mount Vernon and stands before Washington's home screaming, burn it down!

Mount Vernon (Dan Mallock)
When do we retreat from the precipice of the destruction of our foundations and admit the truth—that our forebears were not perfect and neither are we, and that our temporary status of the “living generation” does not give us the right to obliterate what we owe to the future, that is, our heritage and national story.
These places, these people, their mistakes and their accomplishments are all part of our history and our heritage. Their destruction is an irreparable loss to the nation now and to the future, it is a national disaster.
What does a country look like that has no heroes? What does a country look like that can have no heroes? These are rhetorical questions.
“Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it” so goes the famous saying. More pertinent to us now: those who destroy their own history do not know of what they are made and condemn the future to ignorance.
A country without heroes, a country that cannot accept its own greatness built upon tragedy, sacrifice, courage and compassion, and the painful lessons they learned for us; a country that cannot fulfill its promise of lasting appreciation and remembrance to its history and its heroes is a country falling.

Gettysburg Peace Memorial (source)

Battle of Nashville Peace Monument (source)


Daniel Mallock is a historian of the Founding generation and of the Civil War. He is the author of Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution.
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30 Aug 2017
Joe Preps
Couldn't agree more with you regarding these fascist brown shirts. They want to take down the heroes and symbols first, make every founder illegitimate, and then delegitimize the founding docs, as well. They need to be treated as the enemies they are. Also read the author's book, Agony and Eloquence, last month and enjoyed it thoroughly. Hope there is more coming.

30 Aug 2017
Send an emailRebecca Bynum
This essay should be assigned to all college students, but it won't be. The painful truth is, that is was those of our own generation who taught these young anarchists to hate their country.

30 Aug 2017
I'm still surprised we have let them get away with everything they're doing. Never would have imagined people would be fighting for totalitarianism, less freedom. Sickening.

31 Aug 2017
This excellent essay hits the nail on the head. It's only a matter of time before this madness spreads to Europe and a mob in Paris gathers around Rodin's statue, Le Penseur, chanting: "We think you had too much to think!"

31 Aug 2017
Send an emailfergus
Nice piece. Students might even learn something. Lee is a tragic not triumphal figure, he didn't support secession, knew nothing could justify slavery (even if he shirked the necessary conclusion)but felt he had to chose kin over country. Lincoln saw all this.

31 Aug 2017
Send an emailSamuel Hux
The "correct thinking" people who tend to lump the monuments' defenders together with the white-supremacist/KKK/neo-Nazi crowd should read this extraordinary piece. Don't hold your breath. Were Edmund Burke alive he might have composed this essay. I can't be the only person thinking "I wish I had written this!"

2 Sep 2017
Send an emailMarvin Pucci
I'm sharing this with everyone I know. This is a great article. I just read that LA is replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day, upsetting my liberal Italian family. Hopefully, maybe this will knock some sense into their brains.

5 Sep 2017
Dr. James Lasky
I passed this along to my students last week. They believe the monuments deserve to be taken down and destroyed. By the time we were done discussing it in class- over the course of two days- over 70% agreed they should remain. Of course this was a controlled environment, so I don't expect all cultish Leftists will change their opinion in a four-hour span, but it's a start.

12 Sep 2017
Dennis Larkin
If the Founders are reprehensible, then so too the fruits of their creation: three branches of government, two houses of legislature, federal and state governments, Bill of Rights, free press, etc. If the Founders are discredited, then a fortiori so too are their works. Which is bad for the protestors as for us all.

12 Sep 2017
Maggi Laureys
Dan Mallock does a gorgeous job of relaying the importance of retaining and respecting our history without imbuing the reasons for this with either right or left ideology. Rather, he takes on the subject from a philosophical and historical perch. This essay takes the reader on a journey through American history and lets us hear no less than Thomas Jefferson on the concept of how to regard things from the past. On this point, Mr. Mallock eruditely breaks down a term which Jefferson had used and which I just learned via reading this essay: usufruct. The essay also has the added pleasure of accompanying photographs that speak so powerfully of our history -- with all its myriad flaws and glory. The photographs, of and in themselves, nail down why they need to remain. What a shame the silly Mini-Marxists have decided to spend their summer vacation this year knocking them down.

19 Sep 2017
Send an emailDavid Gontar
Dear Daniel, Thanks so much for this incisive and important contribution to the monument debate, from which I have learned a great deal. I believe the attempt to identify slavery exclusively with the South is a fraud. General Lee and his associates were defending their homeland from invasion and decimation, and had every right to secede under the Declaration of Independence, the object of Mr. Lincoln's embarrassing sophistries. Slavery and the slave trade were in full swing in the NORTH as early as 1636. Massachusetts legalized slavery in 1641 and Connecticut followed suit in 1650. Mr. John Brown of Rhode Island founded Brown University with some of his immense profits in the slave trade, yet that university has not been torn down by leftist mobs. The fact is that slavery was an important part of Northern life for 200 years. When industrialization did away with the need for Northern slaves in the mid-19th century, Yankee hypocrites sought to do away with it in the South, whose entire economy rested on this system. Had the abolitionists exercised a modicum of patience, slavery would have disappeared in the South too. Instead, the North chose to ravage the entire South, and we are still dealing with the consequences. All those brave Southern monuments point to truths the Left will never be honest enough to recognize. Thanks again Daniel for exposing them.

20 Sep 2017
Barry Goldstein
What an excellent article I'm sharing at several places. Every day I hear leftists complaining about our history and I'm so tired of it. Great arguments here for the preservation of all our history, good and bad. Excellent site, too. I have NER bookmarked and hope to see more from Daniel Mallock.

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