Reassessing American ‘Heroes’

American “heroes” often were hailed in their time but are viewed differently through the lens of history, as is happening to racist presidents Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

It seems as though some of the heroes of the United States are losing their bright reputations. It’s just as well, for they are really bad examples for us all. Of course, you might ask, if that is the case, why were they heroes in the first place?

Part of the reason might be that the negative nature of their attitudes and actions was simply not widely known, owing to both the primitive state of communication and the prevailing racist ideologies of their times.7aj_header

Because conditions and outlooks change, the status of many heroes is provisional – admired in a specific place and a relatively limited time. The American heroes I am thinking of may well have seemed exemplary for their day. However, by today’s standards those times were marked by open bigotry and imperial/colonial ambitions. Let’s hope that we are outgrowing such attitudes.

Consider past luminaries associated with political office and the exercise of power. Despite their celebrated actions, their social attitudes are anathema by modern standards. Thus, while some may still see them as heroes, others certainly have come to see them as scoundrels. That is not the sort of balance that promotes a permanently heroic reputation. Standards change and so does the balance of perceptions.

Against this background let’s take up the recent challenges to the hero status of two past U.S. presidents:  Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.

Andrew Jackson (aka Old Hickory)

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was the seventh U.S. president, serving from 1829 to 1837. His fame is based on misleading legends and the fact that his face has been on the $20 bill since 1928 (which is ironic, because Jackson always opposed the issuance of paper money).

There are two deceptive beliefs about Jackson that have fostered his “great man” image. One is that he was the “common man’s” president, a notion that grew up largely because he was the first president to come from west of the Appalachian Mountains – an area that was then thought of as the “frontier.”

Actually, while born poor and orphaned during the Revolutionary War, Jackson became a wealthy man by the age of 30, lived in a rural mansion on his Tennessee cotton plantation and owned hundreds of slaves, from whose labor his wealth derived. This made him the sort of “self-made man” Americans love to admire.

The second deceptive belief is that he was a great soldier. This is based on his bloody victory at the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812, and his brutal campaign against the Indian tribes along the Florida border.

Actually, Jackson’s victory at New Orleans had much more to do with his opponent’s misjudgments and fatally out-of-date tactics than his own military skills. The British marched their men straight toward the American defenses in an open fashion developed for the Napoleonic Wars. They allowed themselves to become overly exposed and this led to the disproportionate number of British casualties when compared to those of Jackson’s forces.

Jackson’s subsequent behavior as the officer leading the campaign against Seminole and other Indian tribes was characterized by genocidal brutality and insubordination. He consistently disobeyed the orders of his superiors.

Nonetheless, all of this helped earn him the presidency in 1829 and, a hundred years later, a place on the $20 bill. However, the real Andrew Jackson was a racist and the Nineteenth Century equivalent of a “thug in a suit.”

He saw himself above the law, which is always particularly dangerous for a democratic leader. This was most clearly seen in his very public disregard of the Supreme Court’s decision favoring the right of the Cherokee Indians to remain on their land in the state of Georgia. Jackson ignored the decision despite its having the force of law, and used the U.S. Army to forcefully remove the Cherokees – not the last time a president would make himself a criminal to much popular acclaim.

There are still some today who protest against any public  airing of these accusations, calling them “libels against Old Hickory.” However, that has not prevented a reexamination of Jackson’s hero status, and as a result, the man’s true nature and actions are being met with the condemnation they deserve. By 2020 Jackson’s face will no longer appear on the front of the $20 bill. He will be demoted to the bill’s reverse side.

Woodrow Wilson (aka The Schoolmaster)

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the 28th president of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921. He was also president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910 and governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. His fame is based on the flawed notion that he was a great champion of democratic government. After all, he led the United States into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.”Unknown-4

There was only one very big problem with Wilson’s conception of democracy – it was a deeply racist one. As it turns out Wilson was a Southerner transplanted to the U.S. North. He was born in Virginia and spent a good part of his formative years in Georgia and South Carolina. Not all white Southerners of his time and class were racists, but Wilson certainly was.

There is plenty of evidence for Wilson’s racist state of mind. Here are some examples: as president of Princeton, he refused to allow the admittance of African-American applicants; as president he refused demands to desegregate the U.S. military (desegregation was finally achieved under Harry Truman in 1948); also, while attending the Paris Peace Conference he restricted his famous World War I pledge to support national independence and democratic government for all the peoples of the defeated Central Powers (the German and Ottoman empires) to the white populations of eastern Europe. He thus abandoned the peoples of the Middle East to the imperial rule of Britain and France.

But times have changed. In November 2015, Wilson’s racist legacy finally broke into the open when Princeton University’s African-American students, seeking an improved racial atmosphere on campus, occupied the university president’s office. Among their demands was that Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings, a mural depicting him in one of the university dining halls be removed, and that the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs be changed. So far, Princeton has agreed only to remove the mural. But that at least is a beginning.

New Heroes

There are plenty of other U.S. heroes of political renown and aggressive poor judgment, such as Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the U.S., who, while founding U.S. national parks and wildlife preserves, managed to find time to help engineer the Spanish-American War and the imperial seizure of Cuba and the Philippines.

More recently there was John Kennedy, the 35th president of the U.S. He was handsome and young and, in the early 1960s, inspiring of the nation’s youth. However, he initiated the catastrophic U.S. intrusion into Vietnam and, taking up Teddy Roosevelt’s mantle, launched his own invasion of Cuba.

You might argue that all of the above were men of their times, and you would have a point. However, conditions have changed and with them laws and mores. Today’s professed standards of behavior really demand that we start questioning the appropriateness of these figures as national heroes. Their demotion will, hopefully, help us maintain a more humane and principled standard for our times.

All this means that we are in need of newer, more culturally and historically relevant heroes. Men and women such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, Rachel Carson, Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Daniel Berrigan, Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, to name but a few.

Certainly one may be able to find skeletons in the closets of these people, but they will not override the humanitarian achievements that make them relevant heroes for our time.

Each of us should give serious consideration to the promotion of new heroes. And, the resulting lists can be easily customized to one’s own ideals and goals. With such an effort we help define ourselves and help make our time better than a very flawed past.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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23 comments for “Reassessing American ‘Heroes’

  1. Joe Tedesky
    May 2, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    As much as I do agree with this authors views about America’s tainted heroes, I feel bad that this fine author mentions JFK in the light he does. Although, an early President Kennedy did help escalate the Vietnam war effort, it goes without saying how he also was in a process of removing our troops from that terrible conflict. NSAM263 was approved by John Kennedy in October of 1963. This directive would have ordered a withdraw of American service people to end with a complete American evacuation by the end of 1965. Two days after Kennedy’s assassination LBJ signed NSAM273, which reversed JFK’s NSAM263. Johnson’s NSAM273 of course was an order to increase the manpower, and weaponry in Vietnam, and the rest is well known history. Some historians even accredit JFK’s plan for withdraw, as being the final nail in his coffin. I just had to mention this, because I regret how John F. Kennedy is often portrayed, and I feel that it is long overdue to revisit his time in office, since I also believe he may have been a true American hero.

    • Zachary Smith
      May 2, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      As much as I do agree with this authors views about America’s tainted heroes, I feel bad that this fine author mentions JFK in the light he does. Although, an early President Kennedy did help escalate the Vietnam war effort, it goes without saying how he also was in a process of removing our troops from that terrible conflict. NSAM263 was approved by John Kennedy in October of 1963. This directive would have ordered a withdraw of American service people to end with a complete American evacuation by the end of 1965.

      It’s my opinion you’re being too kind to JFK. According to a site I found, there were 11,300 US troops in Vietnam at the end of 1962. Removing a mere thousand of them by the end of 1963 seems to me to have been some kind of ‘message’. Perhaps to the South Vietnamese. From the 1963 Coup wiki:

      In November 1963, President Ngô ?ình Di?m of South Vietnam was deposed by a group of Army of the Republic of Vietnam officers who disagreed with his handling of both the Buddhist crisis and the Viet Cong threat to the regime.

      The Kennedy administration had been aware of the coup planning,[3] but Cable 243 from the United States Department of State to US Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., stated that it was US policy[4] not to try to stop it. Lucien Conein, the Central Intelligence Agency’s liaison between the US embassy and the coup planners, told them that the US would not intervene to stop it. Conein also provided funds to the coup leaders.[5]

      Kennedy had already proved his incompetence with the Cuban Invasion – that was stupidity to the point of being criminal. Now he’s wanting to meddle with the South Vietnamese government, and in that light the Memorandum could be seen as a threat – the US will pull out of Vietnam unless there is a coup!

      Kennedy was smarter than Bush Junior, but that’s not saying much. Both were wealthy and pampered playboy brats each born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Only his early death and the Public Relations legend of “Camelot” saved him from a more critical historical inspection, IMO.

      Regarding Andrew Jackson, I’d favor putting him on the $2 bill. I wouldn’t have to see as much of the bastard then.

      Woodrow Wilson may have some virtues I don’t know about, but my overall impression of that fellow is not exactly printable.

      • Sam
        May 2, 2016 at 7:20 pm

        Some sources claim that Kennedy was shocked at the Diem assassination, and that the State Dept. may have acted independently. Diem was introduced to JFK as fellow Catholics by a Cardinal, as a potential leader while a refugee in NYC, but some US officials regarded Diem as a threat because his brother was negotiating with N Vietnam. Both were killed.

        Of course the Cuba invasion plan was far advanced and known to Cuba when JFK was elected, and later badly relocated for the Bay of Pigs, then air support arrived an hour late due to a time zone error. JFK apparently thought it a mistake hard to stop at that late point, but have not heard that he did all that.

      • Tracy Martin
        May 5, 2016 at 5:04 pm

        Speaking of wealthy and pampered playboy brats, I bet one day we’ll see Trump’s male heirs running for public office. Can you imagine his and Melani’s son in the White House? I read that the kid occupies an entire floor in Trump Tower all to himself. Trump is just greasing the pump for his offspring.

    • May 2, 2016 at 11:28 pm

      Being a veteran of the conflict against Viet Nam and a student of history, I respectively submit that you are reading into NSAM 263 what is not really there – the troop withdrawal (the troops were engaged in advising and training SVN government forces) was entirely contingent upon both military and political progress in SVN, but the objective of US policy remained, as summed up in the White House statement of October 2: “It remains the policy of the United States, in South Viet-Nam as in other parts of the world, to support the efforts of the people of that country to defeat aggression and to build a peaceful and free society.” Because of US policy makers’ blindness to the true nature of the “enemy’s” struggle as a continuation of the anti-colonial independence movement, US policy was doomed from the start. There was no political or military improvement that would have allowed the withdrawal of the trainers / advisors; the military and political conditions in SVN were deteriorating daily. NSAM 263 was one in a long line of delusory pronouncements which had more to do with stiffening resolve and even eliminating dissension among the different elements involved on the US side than with any realistic appraisal of what was happening.

    • KBGloria
      May 5, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      I agree, and this author and other posters have Cuba all wrong, too. Thank you for the clarification.

  2. Dosamuno
    May 2, 2016 at 4:06 pm
  3. arthur robinson
    May 2, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    There was much opposition to the Indian Removal Act which Andrew Jackson championed and lead to the removal of five Indian nations to the west of the Mississippi River. David Crockett was one the main opponents to this horrible legislation. So even during his time in history President Jackson was not viewed by all as an American hero. It was during the “racist” era of the 1920’s United States that Jackson got elevated to the position of hero. The same time period that racist America praised Woodrow Wilson.

    • Steve Naidamast
      May 3, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      David Crockett should be on the 20-dollar bill. To this day he is the only member to publicly renounce his membership with the US Congress when he walked out in disgust over the treatment of the American Indian…

  4. Chris
    May 2, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Andrew Jackson wasn’t a nice man but he certainly was plenty tough. He does deserve credit for the victory at New Orleans. American forces were outnumbered 2 to 1 and Jackson believed that the British would arrive with a force twice as large as the one they ended up facing.

    When a commander leads with an, over my dead body attitude, it becomes infectious and he gets the most out of his troops. Of course he took maximum advantage of every geographic feature he could for defensive operations but this was a port city going up against the world’s best navy. Not many would have the stomach for a battle like this. All things considered, I’d rather have him in my corner in a fight any day of the week.

  5. john francis lee
    May 2, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Kissinger, and Barack Obama all received Nobel Peace Prizes as well. Not only are things not what they seem, they are often the polar opposite.

  6. Oz
    May 2, 2016 at 11:22 pm

    One important fact about Woodrow Wilson which is missing from this article, is that his impassioned, public endorsement of the film “Birth of a Nation” catalyzed a large-scale revival of the Ku Klux Klan in both the southern and northern states.

  7. Will Toffan
    May 3, 2016 at 12:11 am

    This article is a piece of P.C. work unworthy of the effort to publish or read it. Only incredulity forced me to read the entire article. The first rule in academic history is not to judge historical actions through the eyes of contemporary, and constantly changing, social mores. A racist, white-guilt, pathetic and apologetic piece of trope.

  8. Antidyatel
    May 3, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Seriously. No mention of such “minor” matter as ” I killed the bank”. Instead stupid insinuations that he opposed paper money. He opposed paper money issued by private organisation insubordinate to treasury. Hence, he was opposing fraud, that we all suffer from even today. He suffered superiority complex, which is the curse never left western minds. But if attack people of his time beter focus on worshiped a-hole John Locke. One cannot imagine more disgusting figure that is so praised as great thinker of wesyern civilization.

  9. historicus
    May 3, 2016 at 9:06 am

    For all his faults Jackson was the great champion of the American people, ever vigilant to smite liberty’s enemies, whether disguised as southern secessionists or northern banking monopolies. President Jackson’s fight with the wealthy Philadelphia bankers over the deposit accounts of the U.S. was an early attempt to smash the growing power of the One Percenters. Perhaps it is appropriate to remove Jackson’s image, now that that struggle has been so utterly lost. Imagine him allowing them to loot the treasury the way they did under Bush and Obama in the obscene bankers’ bailouts. Jackson would probably have flogged them personally, and clipped their ears for souvenirs, as he promised to do to the traitorous governor of South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis.

    The Jacksonian era, though limited in our perspective by the ideology of white supremacy, was the beginning of the populist movement. It was the time when the first generation of Americans born in the republic and raised in freedom rallied to the challenge of expanding human rights and transforming the Founders’ narrowly elitist republic into a genuine popular democracy.

    The evidence of JFK’s intention to remove US forces from Vietnam is supported by considerably more hard evidence than NSA Action Memoranda. Tip O’Neill stated that JFK so informed him at what would be their last meeting in the Oval Office, in the fall of 1963. Senator Wayne Morse, who was a vehement critic of the Vietnam escalation, met JFK on Nov. 11, 1963 and was told that the President agreed with him on the issue. JFK took the Senator outside to the Rose Garden to tell him this because he feared the CIA had bugged the White House, by the way. That same day JFK confided his intention to remove all troops to Marine Commander and Joint Chiefs of Staff member General David M. Shoup. JFK had commissioned Shoup to go to Vietnam and report to him on conditions there. The General described a war there simply as “unwinnable.” This had been Kennedy’s assessment of the Vietnam situation when he himself had traveled to Indochina as a young Congressman on a fact-finding mission in 1951. JFK’s Hyannisport neighbor Larry Newmann recalls Kennedy telling him on his last visit in October, 1963, “The first thing I do when I am re-elected, I am going to get the Americans out of Vietnam.” And this is just a sampling of the large body of confirming evidence available to diligent researchers.

    JFK was a true American patriot. He refused to serve the entrenched powers that run our government behind the facade of free elections. He came closer than any Chief Executive ever had, perhaps ever will, to breaking their hold over our republic and restoring freedom to the American people, and for this he paid with his life.

    • KBGloria
      May 5, 2016 at 2:50 pm

      Thank you — I agree.

  10. David Smith
    May 3, 2016 at 9:51 am

    I do not celebrate Andrew Jackson being “demoted to the reverse side” of the 20 dollar bill, and Harriet Tubman does not deserve to replace him. Jackson is there despite some evil deeds and attitudes. We do not need to affirm or ignore such to recognize our debt to him. Jackson was not, as this article states, merely a lucky mediocre general, and its characterization of The Battle Of New Orleans is false. Firstly, the British intended to seize Louisiana Purchase, and make it a Crown Colony. Their initial plan was, from a base at Pensacola(neutral Spain) march west taking Mobile, then New Orleans from the north. Jackson’s first move was to destroy the small British base at Pensacola, forcing the British to change plans. Jackson then went to New Orleans. The British had a fleet of 50 ships, and an army of 14,000 superbly equipped and trained Napoleonic War veterans, the whole lavishly supplied. Jackson commanded a polygot force of 3,500; partly of US Army but with many local militia plus other irregulars. Jackson was poorly supplied and had to obtain powder and shot from the pirate Jean Lafitte. The Brittish, with Navy mobility, could strike anywhere, but Jackson effectively used intelligence to place his force blocking the British line of advance. Jackson built a rampart, kept his men under cover, and won from a defensive posture, with well organized volley rifle fire. British casualties were massive( officers were wiped out) and American casualties minimal. Jackson did not order a counter attack against the still large British force, which might have turned victory to defeat, but allowed them to withdraw, leaving behind wounded for the Americans to care for. General Jackson won a victory that denied British territorial ambitions, despite his inferior force which he preserved intact with very few casualties, and the author of this article asks us to sneer at this man. Without General Jackson, the map of the United States would only be the territory east of the Mississippi watershed. What did Harriet Tubman accomplish?

  11. Steve Naidamast
    May 3, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    I have to agree with the poster who was dismayed at Professor Davidson’s comments about Kennedy.

    Regarding Vietnam, Kennedy did not order an incursion into Vietnam but instead sent only advisors. He did launch air strikes however, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stop supplies from traversing from the North Vietnam to the south’s Communist sympathizers. Nonetheless, the number of troops\advisors in Vietnam by the time JFK was assassinated was approximately 16,000 and only engaged in defensive combat operations.

    As to the invasion of Cuba, this was planned during the prior Eisenhower Administration (who preferred the use of covert ops over outright invasions) and was surreptitiously dumped on Kennedy’s lap about a month after it occurred in April 1961. It is questionable if he knew anything about this operation prior to being officially informed about it since it was cooked up by CIA director Allen Dulles who was subsequently fired by Kennedy as a result.

    • KBGloria
      May 5, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      Yes!—thank you.

  12. Bill Bodden
    May 3, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Let’s not forget Wilson’s roles in World War I. According to Smedley Butler and others, the real reason for US intervention was to protect Wall Street loans to the Brits. The Brits might have gone along with a truce that was proposed in some circles in the summer of 1917, but they declined having an assurance that the US would enter the war on their side. So millions more died in vain. Then there was application of the Espionage Act against war dissenters, most notably, Eugene V. Debs, one of this nation’s genuine heroes.

    • KBGloria
      May 5, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      What war has NOT been waged to protect the corporatocracy?? Maybe WWII–maybe–but I have my doubts about that — I need to do more research. Thoughts?

  13. Cal
    May 5, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    I doubt I will get a response to this but every time I post a comment on the phenomena of trashing past American figures, tearing down monuments, removing painting of past presidents for their assumed racist in the past times, changing currency, and so forth and so on— and point out quite ACCURATELY that this a an actual movement by various groups who want to cast the entirely of the America’s white European founder past as evil. I dont defend past racism but I do point out ‘the times’ in which it was prevalent and point out that these attacks over racism go after specific “American’ past leaders and any ‘public acknowledgement of such leaders –not after the ‘general racism of the era.

    I don’t call the author ugly names, I don’t use profanity, —I simply ‘link together’ all the events of this type that have been going on.

    So what exactly is it you are afraid of or object to in my comments—–what I point out is no ‘conspiracy theory’—-it’s quite public and published and in many left wing prestigious mags like the Nation and the Atlantic —–you think I am the only one who sees this and understands it? I am not.
    Maybe you should read some other comments on other respectable sites on this to know that this is no big secret or unnoticed.

    I have read the Comment Policy and fail to see where I have violated the policy. I have to think my comments on this somehow violates your own personal prejudices—and if that’s the case you should just say ‘don’t step on my and my friends personal political agenda’ and add that to your comment policy.

    No one likes to waste their time trying to formulate a comment that is both accurate in their studied opinion and not offensive to the others and see it not be posted.

  14. Mike Martin
    May 8, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    I am hugely surprised and disappointed in Lawrence Davidson’s grossly misinformed assessment of JFK. While Davidson’s errors have already been well refuted by earlier posters, I still feel it necessary to sharply question Davidson on what he wrote about JFK. I have generally liked and agreed with previous articles posted here by Davidson. Davidson deserves the opportunity to educate himself and will hopefully provide his supporters with a much more rational, reasonable, and historically accurate appraisal of JFK in short order.

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