History is made through the actions of men and women. In studying the past, it is the historian’s job to avoid the provincialism of the present by understanding that events might have developed differently if people had made different choices at certain pivotal moments. Nothing is inevitable.
At the same time, history provides examples of great courage and virtue on the part of men and women. Though such actions may not have altered the course of history in any direct way, they have surely inspired those who have heard of them. Below are ten such great moments in American history, listed in chronological order.
In March of 1783, George Washington’s army was encamped near Newburgh, New York. The Revolutionary War not yet over, though victory was within reach. Washington’s men became restive, as the Continental Congress had not paid them in months. Washington himself had pleaded with Congress over the course of the war, asking for more food, supplies, and men. He must have shared his men’s frustration when a letter circulated among the officers calling for a meeting to discuss a march on Philadelphia to overthrow the government and institute military rule.
Throughout the war, Washington had staged for his troops on dozens of occasions Joseph Addison’s play, Cato, which depicts the actions of great Roman hero who defied the tyranny of Caesar. Washington wanted to impress on his men the importance of staying true to republican virtue. In one scene in the play, Cato confronts mutineers in his army, who are considering joining Caesar, and reminds them of their shared travails:
Have you forgotten Libya’s burning waste,
Its barren rocks, parched earth, and hills of sand,
Its tainted air, and all its broods of poison?
Who was the first to explore the untrodden path,
When life was hazarded in every step?
Or, fainting in the long, laborious march,
When on the banks of an unlooked-for stream
You sunk the river with repeated draughts,
Who was the last in all your host that thirsted?
At Newburgh, Washington learned of the meeting of his officers and showed up without an invitation to confront the some 500 mutineers. After telling the men that Congress was doing everything in its power to pay the army, and urging the officers to exercise patience, Washington took from his pocket a letter from a congressmen promising Washington that the men would be fairly compensated. Washington looked at the congressman’s letter, squinted, and then removed a pair of spectacles from his pocket. Only his aides had ever seen him wear these, a sign of weakness among soldiers. There was stunned silence in the hall, and Washington paused, looked at his men, and said: “Forgive me, but I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The officers began to weep openly—a sign of manliness in the eighteenth century—and the mutiny was ended then and there. Washington might have become another Caesar had he chosen to lead his army against Congress. Instead, like Cato, he stayed true to the principles of liberty and ensured that the American republic would not be still-born.
Motivated by the egalitarianism of his religious beliefs—a combination of Baptist and Swedenborgian theology—Robert Carter III of Virginia in 1791 quietly issued his “Deed of Gift,” which provided for the gradual emancipation of his 452 slaves. Carter took this dramatic step at great personal cost. He alienated his sons, whose inheritance was greatly reduced, and angered many of his neighbors, slaveholding and non-slaveholding alike, by not only freeing so many blacks at once but also by throwing many of his white tenants off his land in order to give the newly-freed slaves property on which to make livings.
Though there were many smaller individual emancipations in the United States both before and after, the scale of Carter’s act was without precedent and was not imitated by his more renowned peers, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Unlike these Founders who sought secular immortality in everlasting fame among later generations, Carter wanted to be forgotten. He mandated that his grave be unmarked (it remains so), and his great act of emancipation was unaccompanied by the sort of flowery rhetoric meant to preserve his name to posterity.
A confidant of many of the leading men of the American Revolutionary era–including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams–Mercy Otis Warren was an influential playwright, poet, propagandist, and historian. Throughout the colonial crisis with Great Britain, she wrote anonymously against British misrule and in favor of American independence. At a time when women were supposed to stand squarely in the shadows of their husbands, Warren was one of a very few females who exercised real influence on political affairs through her writing. “Tell your wife that God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World,” John Adams told Warren’s husband, “which, in the cause of his Providence, he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them.”
In 1805, Warren published under her own name The History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, a two-volume account of events from the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765 through the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Composed as the events occurred, the work is important for its contemporaneous account of the birth of the American republic. It was also controversial, due, first, to Warren’s criticism of certain American figures of the period, particularly John Adams, who engaged in a heated correspondence with Warren after the book’s publication; and second, because of Warren’s opposition to the Constitution, which she feared would concentrate too much political and economic power in the hands of a few.
Like many Anti-federalists of the time, Warren is little remembered today, which constitutes a grave injustice to the American historical memory. She should be counted as one of the more influential Americans of the Revolutionary era and indeed as one of its greatest intellects.
Robert E. Lee despised war. In the days after he led his Army of Northern Virginia in a smashing victory at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, Lee wrote to his wife: “What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!”
Less than two-and-a-half years later, on April 9, 1865, Lee met General Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, for the purpose of surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s army was decimated and surrounded by Union forces, and the battered Confederacy had no more men to give him. As he prepared to meet Grant at the McLean House, Lee turned aside the suggestions of aides to continue the fight as a guerilla war. The social anarchy and protracted bloodshed that would result were anathema to the conservative Lee, and he prudently judged that Southern independence was not worth the price. As Lee told his men after surrendering:
After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them. But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.
Guerilla war horrified Lee because it would bring down the wrath of Mars more harshly on civilians. Indeed, Lee rejected the idea of total war that was developed by Union Grant, William T. Sherman, and Phillip Sheridan, and embraced by President Lincoln. Lee was always careful to avoid civilian casualties. On the first campaign into Maryland in 1862, Lee issued General Order No. 72, which prohibited the plundering of civilian property and reminded his soldiers “that we make war only upon armed men.”
A man of military genius and personal honor, a defender of civilians and civilization, a champion of duty and truth, a model of humility and prudence, Lee was perhaps the last defender of the ideals of the Old Republic, whose greying glory was ground under the wheels of the New Order of the centralized, industrialized state that triumphed in 1865.
Born in 1835 to a working-class family in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie came to the United States when he was thirteen years old. Settling in the Pittsburgh area, he worked first in a cotton mill and then as a telegraph operator for a railroad company. After the Civil War, Carnegie entered the iron and steel industries, where he made his fortune. In 1901, he sold his business interests to J.P Morgan for some $500 million and proceeded to begin giving away most of his fortune through philanthropic efforts.
“Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry,” Carnegie opined early in his career as an industrialist. “No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!” An avid reader, Carnegie funded the creation of more than 2,800 public libraries and many schools. As he wrote in a memo:
It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.
Carnegie also funded hospitals, scientific endeavors, museums, music halls, and efforts to resolve international conflicts, in addition to many other projects. In his book, The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays (1901), he acknowledged the importance of the concentration of wealth in advancing the good of society, but he pointedly urged his wealthy peers to limit their wealth and to give their excess to building of community and the helping of the poor: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” By the end of his life, Andrew Carnegie had given away ninety percent of his fortune (about $350 million) and had set an example for other wealthy philanthropists to follow.
6. Jesse Owens shows up Hitler at the Olympics (1936)
The city of Berlin was the site of the 1936 Olympics, and German leader Adolf Hitler hoped to showcase the supposed superiority of the Aryan race by having his athletes win as many medals as possible. But he was disappointed by the outstanding performance of African-American athlete Jesse Owens, who took home four gold medals in track-and-field for the United States.
Owens’ feat certainly embarrassed Hitler and boosted American pride. A legend grew that Hitler had deliberately snubbed Owens, exiting the stadium in anger after Owens’ victories, thereby avoiding a congratulatory handshake with the American. But the record is unclear as to what exactly transpired in Berlin that day. Owens himself reported that Hitler had given him a friendly wave after the competition, and a German reporter later claimed to have seen a photograph of the Nazi leader shaking Owens’ hand.
Whatever the case, Owens returned to an America in which he, as an African-American, remained a second-class citizen despite his renown. Indeed, Owens expressed more bitterness toward President Franklin D. Roosevelt than he did toward the German leader. “Hitler didn’t snub me,” Owens complained. “It was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
When John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, the American people had begun to fear that the Soviet Union was surpassing the United States in the all-important “space race.” In 1957, the Soviets had launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, and a mere few months after Kennedy’s inauguration, a Russian cosmonaut became the first man to orbit the Earth.
Kennedy responded by declaring in a speech before Congress in May 1961 that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Kennedy continued the push to surpass the Soviets in the space race when he gave a memorable speech at Rice University the following year:
Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?… We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
Kennedy’s challenge inspired the American people and, though he did not live to see it, the ultimate success of the nation’s space program in landing a man on the moon boosted American confidence at a time when the Vietnam War was simultaneously sapping it and indeed threatening to break asunder the bonds of American society.
In his long-range view of events, Ronald Reagan displayed the conservative’s appreciation for history and the conservative’s rejection of the provincialism of the present. This approach to history was most evident in the American president’s attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism,” he boldly declared at Notre Dame University in 1981. “We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” In March of 1983, he famously labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” warning an audience of Christian evangelicals:
So, I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
Despite criticism of his confrontational attitude from all sides of the political spectrum, Reagan’s resoluteness finally compelled Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to accept an agreement to reduce the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles and exposed the moral, economic, and political rot that infested the heart of Soviet Communism. Less than three years after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union was dissolved. As Jan Ruml, a former Czech dissident, put it after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia: “The fact that someone out there called communism by its proper name and actually did something to promote freedom and democracy helped us a great deal. Ronald Reagan was the man instrumental in bringing down communism.”
Post-Reagan paleo-conservatism has largely adopted a pacifist attitude toward war and conflict and cringes at the notion of going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet, like it or not, there are ideologies, religions, and countries that seek to destroy the West, and to acknowledge such realities does not entail embracing schemes to make the world safe for democracy. Nor does it make one a “neo-con,” but in fact it makes one a conservative, who in the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien, recognizes that “there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
9. Bruce Springsteen sings of freedom at the Berlin Wall (1988)
In 1988, the East German government decided to allow a request by rocker Bruce Springsteen, who had achieved worldwide superstardom with the release of his album Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, to perform in the city. Unlike other bands who had asked for money, Mr. Springsteen offered to play without compensation.
Halfway through the concert, which was attended by some 500,00 East Germans, Mr. Springsteen pulled out a piece of paper on which he had composed a short speech, and told the audience in its native tongue:
“I want to tell you I’m not here for or against any government
I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you East Berliners
in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”
He then launched into a cover of Bob Dylan’s song, “Chimes of Freedom,” which calls for hope in the face of oppression. One can only imagine the nervousness of the East German authorities, as they listened to Mr. Springsteen’s incendiary speech, sandwiched between the rocker leading their oppressed people in chants of the refrain “Born in the U.S.A.,” and his singing Mr. Dylan’s plaintive call for freedom. Mr. Springsteen’s message was clear.What was the effect of Mr. Springsteen’s concert? “It was one piece of the puzzle,” an American journalist recalled. “I’d define this concert as one where minds were opened.” Some East Germans made even greater claims for the July 19th event. “It was the most incredible thing that ever happened in East Germany,” a German taxi driver would recall. “I paid lousy 19.95 East-Marks for my ticket,” another East German wrote, “but what I really bought and got was a glimpse to freedom. I smelled the American spirit that night. I will never forget!” Less than sixteenth months later, the Berlin Wall would fall, an act which was primarily the act of the long-suffering people of East Germany, but whose courage was stoked by the words and actions of many others, including John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and, yes, Bruce Springsteen.
10. Gil Meche retires from baseball, foregoing $12 million (2012)
His career stats indicate that he was a mediocre baseball pitcher–perhaps the epitome of mediocrity: 84 wins; 83 losses; a 4.49 Earned Run Average; a Walks-plus-Hits-to-Innings-Pitched ratio of 1.42. Yet Gil Meche, who played for the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals, was responsible for one of the most astounding, yet almost unnoticed, acts of virtue ever committed by a sports figure. In the winter of 2011, Mr. Meche, then with the Royals, voluntarily retired from the game, foregoing the final $12 million on his multi-year contract. Mr. Meche was injured and would have sat out the 2012 season while receiving paychecks. “When I signed my contract, Mr. Meche explained, “my main goal was to earn it. Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.”
Mr. Meche’s decision is nearly unprecedented in professional sports; countless other injured players have gleefully accepted paychecks while they sat out entire seasons with injuries. “This isn’t about being a hero — that’s not even close to what it’s about,” Mr. Meche insisted. “Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million for my life and for my kids, it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Though a small event in the great arc of American history, Mr. Meche’s action would constitute an example of good character in any age, but it is especially noteworthy in the America of the early twenty-first century, an era of self-absorption and greed. It should not go unnoticed, nor should it be forgotten.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.