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Blog: Reimagining Gettysburg

Discovering the Heroic in Democracy

January 22, 2020

We sometimes tear down the heroic present, such as criticizing the efforts of a young woman with autism for giving voice to the scientific reality of global climate change. 

And as commentator George Will keenly observed in his keynote speech at our Gettysburg Gala last fall, we often tear down the heroic past too. Will believes "one of today's most unattractive aspects is the absence of sympathy, affection, and respect for the people who struggled with the problems of the past."

Gettysburg Foundation Board Member George Will, Gala Keynote Speaker, Oct. 5, 2019

Perhaps it is endemic. The dominant impulse of any democracy is individual equality, making it almost counterintuitive to acknowledge the truly exceptional person, an idea given expression in the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville in his magisterial work, Democracy in America.

Or maybe our lack of respect for the heroic these days is more situational: part of a culture of anonymous social media slamming, doctored images, suspicious website links, and increasing acceptance of the proposition that reality should bend to fit personal opinion rather than our opinions being molded by reality. Heroism is hard to find when reality is lost.

Here in Gettysburg, we struggle with the diminishing of heroism. For this borough was blessed with the presence of two towering figures in history, with two men who led discernibly heroic lives in spite of the human imperfections we all share. President Lincoln successfully guided our nation through a bitter Civil War, preserving American democracy while extending freedom to those who were not yet free; President Eisenhower guided our nation through a Cold War, and in his earlier role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, led the successful fight against the Nazis in World War II.

What is so remarkable about these two men is that even during their successful prosecution of the horrific wars of their time, they comported themselves with personal dignity, maintaining civility and decorum. Perhaps the clearest expression is found in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, coming near the end of the Civil War, as he speaks forgivingly and poetically of helping the war's wounded, widows and orphans, and of "malice toward none, with charity for all."

A "diverse, continental democracy" like the United States needs such heroes, argued Will in his remarks at Gettysburg, wistfully adding there is "...something awfully small about someone who cannot admit that some other people [in history] were exceptionally large."

And this is where we find ourselves: tearing down almost anyone with a public profile, scanning their earlier lives for misconduct or inconsistency, as if changing one's mind about some matter in the public domain is a fatal flaw. And as more and more private lives are recorded, preserved, and easily searched digitally, scrutiny only increases and chips away at the heroic. 

Perhaps the best solution is to focus on the fact that heroes still exist in droves locally–in our personal encounters, in all walks of life. Notable Gettysburg examples would be Quaker nurses and Catholic nuns who rushed to the battlefield from adjacent communities to care for soldiers on both sides. Or consider Clara Barton, who risked her life at Gettysburg before later founding the American Red Cross. Currently, the 22,000 "Friends of Gettysburg" and philanthropists like Bob and Anne Kinsley provide a range of financial and non-financial gifts to quietly preserve the stories of the local heroes of Gettysburg.

Daughters of Charity exemplified humility, modesty and charity serving as nurses and caring for wounded soldiers at Gettysburg.

A once-popular bumper sticker read: think globally, act locally. In a way, that's what thousands of young men did at Gettysburg: preserving governments of the people all across the sweep of world history by fighting locally in rural Adams County, Pennsylvania.

Will castigates academic historians for diminishing American heroes, for reducing the study of history to broader social forces. It's one theme of his recent book, The Conservative Sensibility. He raises an issue that deserves more dialogue among professional historians, but that seems less urgent than his broader observation that America lacks a set of collective heroes even as we struggle with unsavory changes reshaping our democracy.

Until we figure out how to indulge heroism of imperfect people on a national stage once again, we're well served to embrace and remember it at a local level.

Matthew C. Moen, Ph.D.