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Of Heroic Deeds and Hysterical Masses

Perpetual progress is no more possible than perpetual motion, an axiom unwittingly vindicated by the benighted throngs that currently run amok across America, menacing the living and long dead wherever they rage. Whereas in the final decade of the 19th century, “enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England… [and] a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries,” in the second decade of the 21st, enlightenment’s decline has unleashed a new inquisitorial spirit, no less spurious than that of old. One only can hope that someday, the witch trials of our time will constitute an embarrassing blot on our history and that two centuries will not be needed for that day to arrive.

But at present, that is but a hope and in view of the unmitigated madness with which the present teems, a feeble one at that. What renders the hope all the more dim is that so much of the madness emanates from what ought to be repositories of enlightenment. Witness Princeton’s decision to strike Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs—one more effort to correct the past, not by understanding and overcoming it, but by expunging it.

Wilson is not the sort of figure for whom I would take a stand, let alone a fall. (And I realize that in writing this, in effect I risk doing just that; that I set the stage for my own show trial.) There are ample reasons to be critical of the man, and not just because of his backward views on race, which were not exactly backward by the standards of his day and, besides, were more complex than the prevailing wisdom allows. But Wilson’s case does much to illuminate the reigning madness. (To historicize Wilson’s views is not to defend them. But historicizing them should serve to remind us of the obvious: that many positions espoused today will be considered backward in the future, the forward-thinking ones not least among them. Let it be lost on no one that Wilson belonged to, and was emblematic of, the era of Progressivism.)

Here we have one of the world’s top universities disassociating itself from one of its former presidents who, as the university’s current president concedes, did much to make Princeton what it is today. Princeton’s 13th president went on to become the nation’s 26th and is considered—or at least heretofore was considered—one of the better ones, boasting the sort of track record that should garner the approbation of liberals the nation over. This record includes (and I omit his successes in aggrandizing and bureaucratizing the state, which ipso facto also ought to please the Left): opposing colonial imperialism; championing national self-determination; devising the League of Nations (precursor to today’s United Nations); and winning a Nobel Peace Prize, the second US President to do so, and at a time no less when one had to accomplish something to earn one. That seems the sort of track record that would merit memorializing.

Lest there be any doubt that ours is an age of unreason, at this time when it is impermissible to honor the name of Woodrow Wilson, it is no more permissible to dishonor the name of George Floyd. Mind you, my aim here is to do neither. The tragic nature of Floyd’s death and Wilson’s support for segregation are so plainly established that they permit no quibbling. But upon whatever grounds the inviolability of Floyd’s name and irredeemability of Wilson’s repose, clearly they are not rational.

To this one might rejoin that Floyd has become a symbol. And to that one might rejoin, and therein lies the rub. Symbols tend to reveal as much as they conceal. Heroes themselves are symbols and heroes, like witches and the rest of us, have warts. When erecting a hero, the warts tend to get glossed over. They need not be ignored outright—scrubbed from the record—but it is self-defeating to magnify them. Perhaps there is no better way to tear down a hero than to expose that hero’s limitations; to show that he is, at bottom, human all too human and thus, no hero at all.

Washington, Jefferson: slaveowners. Jackson: slaveowner and Indian killer to boot. Teddy: incorrigible chauvinist and imperialist. FDR: presumptive anti-Semite. JFK, LBJ: womanizers. Clinton… well, you get the drift. But the question ought not to be is there anything tarnishable in people’s pasts—invariably there is—but does the magnitude of their misdeeds blot out the greatness of their heroic ones. That traditionally is what heroes have been made of—deeds. It is in part why, particularly in uncontemplative ages such as our own, heroes are men (and women) of action and not of letters. Interestingly and tellingly, Floyd’s heroic deed was being a victim of police brutality. At a time when victimhood has been elevated into a virtue, being a victim may be a necessary if not sufficient cause for heroism.

A judicious way to approach the matter would be to reflect on what you would have done or who you would have been in commensurate circumstances. The reality is—or was—that if you found yourself a wealthy, white landowner in the state of Virginia in the latter half of the 18th century, the odds were pretty high that you would have had slaves. And if you found yourself in that time and place but of African rather than British descent, odds are you would have had a master. In many ways, we are all but creatures of our time. Granted, Washington had more freedom not to be a slaveowner than William Lee had not to be a slave. But you likely delude yourself if you think you or the great majority of us would have behaved very differently. It might also be worth noting that if your skin color predisposed you toward being a slave it did not preclude you from owning one—or several. One other note, in the interest of perspective: what enabled people like Washington and Jefferson to own slaves was not so much their skin color but their wealth. If you were white in the antebellum south, odds are you would not have possessed a single slave, let alone many. Indeed, you very well may have opposed the peculiar institution, even if your reasons for doing so were not exactly high-minded.

But the owning of slaves is not what Washington is celebrated for and never was. It is a reflection of his human-all-too-human side, the side that we all share, the side that does not set heroes apart. But what of the other side; that side that prompted John Marshall to say of Washington that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” and that, in the absence of, the American experiment likely would have foundered before it ever really began? In the words of Mercy Otis Warren:

Had any character of less popularity and celebrity been designated to this high trust [the presidency], it might at this period have endangered, if not proved fatal to the peace of the union. Though some thought the executive vested with too great powers to be entrusted to the hand of any individual, Washington was an individual in whom they had the utmost confidence.

A poignant episode will permit us to appreciate how Washington earned the abiding confidence of his countrymen and became first in their hearts. At the close of the Revolutionary War, members of the Continental Army, rightfully disgruntled by their lack of pay and the general neglect they endured during the war, met in Newburgh (NY) to discuss the possibility of marching against Congress and fomenting an insurrection. Washington showed up unexpectedly and gave a speech—an exhortation to virtue—trying to allay his soldiers’ ire. The speech was not exactly well-received; the soldiers remained implacable.

Sensing this, Washington pulled from his pocket a letter from Congress that explained the financial straits the fledgling government then was weathering. As he struggled to read the small writing in which the letter had been inscribed, Washington pulled a pair of glasses from his coat pocket. Most of the soldiers were surprised by the revelation, having had no idea their general wore glasses. “Gentlemen,” said Washington, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

As one major who was present recalled, “There was something so natural, so unaffected, in this appeal, as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory; it forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.” The soldiers thanked Washington and asked him to intercede on their behalf. With an army at his command, a Caesarean seizure was well within Washington’s reach. But instead of marching on Philadelphia, he retired to Mount Vernon. It was an extraordinary moment, not only in American history, but in the annals of history—one that helps explain why the American people revered and trusted him as they did.

That is the sort of stuff that sets a man apart. In keeping with our more judicious approach to the past, we might ask how we would have behaved in those circumstances. Tabling the fact that just being in those circumstances would have required commanding a poorly outfit army of poorly trained rebels against one of the greatest military powers of the day over the course of a protracted conflict and surmounting tremendous adversity and odds to prosecute that effort successfully; that is, quelling the Newburgh Conspiracy presupposed a hero, it did not make one.

But setting all that aside, how would we have acted? We might be inclined to comfort ourselves and say that we would have behaved as Washington did. And perhaps we would have. The lessons of history suggest otherwise; that we would have been more likely to wield the power at our disposal than relinquish it. But if it is the benefit of the doubt you seek, consider it granted. However that benefit cannot be granted to the incipient despots who tear down statues and petulantly demand that present and past conform to their vision of social justice. There can be no doubt how they would have behaved in light of how they do behave with what little power they possess. Their mettle is the stuff of mobs not heroes. They are fit to destroy a nation not found one.

Like heroes, witches, and the rest of us, nations are flawed. A nation without injustice is like a man without sin—not of this world. That was the dream of 19th-century socialist utopians, a dream responsible for so many of the 20th century’s horrors to which far too many in the 21st century remain inveterately obtuse. The purity that utopians demand, a demand echoed by the perpetually aggrieved crusaders of today, betrays a want of measure that a meaningful understanding of the past would do much to alleviate. As David McCullough so admirably put it, “A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is much too much in our time. To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions.”

Much of today’s madness results from the failure to impart that lesson, a failure in which those ostensible repositories of enlightenment (the nation’s institutions of higher learning), obstinately committed to inflaming self-pity and self-importance, are indisputably and indefensibly complicit. It is not a moral compass that America lacks, far from it; rather, it is a sense of history and proportion with it. Not the least disconcerting aspect of our times is that history is being rewritten by those who grasp so little of it. If left unchecked, it is not only the past that will be lost, but the future too.


David A. Eisenberg is an assistant professor of political science at Eureka College. His online work has appeared at VoegelinViewPublic DiscourseFront Porch RepublicMerion West, and the Agonist, among other places. His first book, provisionally entitled All Things Being Equal: Nietzsche and Tocqueville on the Democratization of Humanity, is slated to be published in 2021 (Lexington Books).


  1. A good essay and well-written. It is said that when George III asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after the war, West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

    According to the account, George III responded "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

    On the subject of the Bill of Rights, and most particularly the First Amendment it seems that a silent majority of Americans now fear saying things they believe for fear that others might find them offensive, and have a very real fear of their careers being harmed for what until recently would have been relatively innocuous statements, or simply possessing relatively mainstream opinions.

    My thanks to Tim Pool for highlighting the effects of the tyranny of the small minority, in these modern times.

    One glimmer of sunshine, in a cultural sky of dark clouds, Nick Buckley MBE, has recently been reinstated as the head of his own charity, after being sacked for describing BLM UK as "post-modern, neo-Marxists” who were “call[ing] for the destruction of Western Democracy and our way of life” in a recent blog post.

    By all accounts, one of the conditions of his return, was the resignation of the Board of Trustees that sacked him. A case of those who would enforce cancel culture, finding that the cancellation backfires on them. Hopefully, a sign of things to come…

  2. Lucid and nicely written. Thank you for this article.

    I would take issue with the following claim:

    The social justice zombies and the woke professors who manufacture them lack any sense of decency. They are blindly self-righteous as only an imbecile could be and behave like Marxist automatons. I’m not seeing the morality in this woke religion.

    You have let the universities off too lightly. Our universities have become cancerous and the disease has metastasized to the broader society. The damage they have done may well be fatal.

    The universities must be dealt with post-haste, preferably in a ruthless manner. Defund them or tear them down quickly because they are propagating a plague.

  3. And he didn’t grovel and scrape or retract his views on Black Lives Matter.

    Toby Young’s Free Speech Union has done well and overturned Buckley’s cancellation.

    This Free Speech Union could be a useful tool in fighting back against cancel culture and should be supported. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Youth charity boss forced out by trustees for criticising BLM’s ‘neo-Marxist’ agenda is REINSTATED after they ALL resigned

  4. I would like to point out that this does not start in the universities. It is amplified and given a stamp of approval at the university level, but here in the U.S. wokeness is introduced in public K-12 where state politicians and unions work to install woke programs in history, environmentalism, etc. The adaptation of the NYT’s 1619 Project by some schools is a case-in-point.

    I suspect that by the time a public-school educated youth reaches university he/she is already woke and expects nothing less from university course - or else.

  5. Another glimmer, the WSJ just responded to a petition criticizing their editorials, telling the petition signers to pound sand:

    My favorite quote: “… we won’t respond in kind to the letter signers. Their anxieties aren’t our responsibility in any case.”

  6. By all means, we need to get rid of the Parthenon/Acropolis and the Coliseum as these were about polytheism of racist, non-feminists (though perhaps pro homosexual), and about slave fights complete with abusing wild animals.

    Time to remove all those Japanese temples that promoted the war-mongering, raping and pillaging Emperor. Germany and Israel should just be returned to nature because of Naziism and Zionism, along with shutting down most other countries for all their past and current evils.

    Perhaps America should just go away, too, what with it being a stolen nation and the killing off of natives by disease, then war, and finally their concentration camps where they at least are somewhat in charge of their asylum.

    We once thought Washington a hero, even if the British though him a traitor. I guess the left wish we had just remained part of an empire instead. They clearly don’t value liberty and equal protection with government’s primary role be to preserve our rights and provide national defense.

  7. For years and years, I kept hearing from my elders that the real world wouldn’t deal with these snow flakes’ nonsense and crying about everything. Once they got to the real world , it would straighten them out and they would have to toughen up. Welp… here we are… the real world hasn’t toughed them up, they managed to wrestle control and weaken it. Now, they are the managers and the professors, further rotting the foundation. Each generation after this will get weaker and weaker, dumber and dumber.

    Does anyone think there is anything we can do at this point? I agree with defunding the schools and tearing down their influence, but most people are brainwashed into thinking that a University education is the only path to success, so it would seem like we are just attacking their only path out from the heel of the oppressors, which fits so nicely right into their postmodernist ideology. Hate to be a pessimist, but I think we lost this battle a while ago…

  8. Every poster and author on Quillette, whether progressive, conservative, libertarian or Wiccan when viewed through a contemporary lens 200 years from now will be judged a barbarian or troglodyte.

  9. I’m gonna have a huge piece of dead cow tonight.

    That’s complete nonsense. There is nothing wrong with the meat industry that a little de-concentration can’t fix. I’m a happy carnivore. Every time I eat bacon, which is daily, I think of the former partial owner of that bacon. I get another slice.

    Humans are carnivores. That’s a fact. If you are not a carnivore, you are probably deficient in many amino acids, which leads you to make silly comments.

  10. I remember a biographer once stating of Vladimir Nabokov that Nabokov was, in the final analysis, an okay guy. And I remember Nabokov’s son remarking in fury “the absolute temerity!” Imagine biographer of a great man believing himself his subject’s superior. And so it is now. These men so derided now possessed an iron fortitude amid great adversity. Social justice warriors are unable to contemplate this. Their rebellion carries none of the danger Washington’s did. They risk little, and sacrifice not themselves, but others, for goals that are dishonest. Any pigeon can crap on a statue. Washington created a sovereign state.

  11. And while I don’t support the root cause of the confederate’s call to arms during the American Civil War, I sure as hell stand in awe of the hardness, resiliency, and, to re-quote you, iron fortitude of those men. Half-starved and uneducated, barely trained, little to no hope of victory; yet they walked, marched, and rode into vicious battle. Whether or not they believed in a poor cause (probably not, because most of the men behind the rifles were fighting to get the north out of the south’s business since none of them would ever be rich enough to own a slave) they surely should be admired for their courage and resolve.

    We are all-too-ready to dehumanize those that came before us and held different beliefs. Hell, we do it now. But we are all just humans. Flawed to the core, bias to a fault, and ready to grasp anything that feels right. I feel sorry for these people that keep pushing these ideas. If only they knew it will be their memory that will be trodden upon and dragged through the mud in the centuries to come.

  12. I suspect that General Washington was one of those singular types of men in this world whose real life greatness would eclipse even his own legend. Washington is much too grand a spectacle to be debased by the likes of these morons. This is not much different than blotting out the sun with your own thumb…

  13. It’s hard for normal people to hear, but the only (peaceful) solution to the long march through the institutions (this side of either martyrdom or capitulation) is a long counter-march through the institutions.

  14. I can see one way to stop the rot, make professional degrees undergraduate degrees with no requirement to do any humanities whatsoever. This would immediately cut the number of people doing BAs. It would also destroy the influence of those who teach in the grievance studies area, as fewer people would have to go through the four years of tripe that such people teach.

    If you fill your law schools and medical schools with the best high school graduates, you shut out those who have been indoctrinated by studying the humanities.

    This would also help people get into the workforce more quickly and thus mature more quickly.

    This system has always been the way it’s done here in Oz. It has served to reduce the radicalisation of our undergraduates to some extent.

  15. It’s known as magical thinking. Humanity spent 500,000 or so years in it. In the last 500 years it began to wake up and use science (yes, I know damn well the story is not that simple, but still.) But those scientists were white men, so it’s bad. Let’s go back to witchcraft.

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