President Joe Biden just nixed his predecessor’s proposed “National Garden of American Heroes.” That came as no surprise. Donald Trump had pitched it during the thick of last year’s presidential campaign. Then Trump issued executive orders to set up a task force for the monument and even to specify 244 candidates to be included in the new statuary garden, ranging from pivotal historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Tecumseh, and Harriet Tubman to modern-day celebrities such as Whitney Houston, Kobe Bryant, and Alex Trebek.
Historians understandably questioned the scattershot list. And the Biden team rarely treats the former president’s actions with anything other than contempt. But Trump’s proposal did represent the proper kind of response to current struggles about America’s past. We should focus on putting up new statues, not pulling down old ones.
More generally, our cultural institutions should be bringing our divided country together, not pushing us further apart. By all means, we should be adding new stories to the great American saga, rich and vibrant threads that make our national tapestry both more beautiful and more resilient. Instead, far too many authors, artists, and activists seem intent on tearing the fabric.
For example, more Americans should know about a hero who wasn’t on Trump’s list: Robert Smalls. Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, Smalls made a daring escape from the port of Charleston during the Civil War — donning a captain’s uniform and piloting a ship full of other enslaved people past multiple Confederate checkpoints to the blockading Union fleet. After aiding the Union cause during the war, Smalls learned to read and write, helped integrate public transportation in Philadelphia, built businesses and schools, and began his political career, serving in both the South Carolina legislature and the U.S. Congress.
Another American hero, one I chose to feature in my new historical-fantasy novel Mountain Folk, is Nancy Ward, known as Nanyehi among her fellow Cherokee. In her youth, she led a war party to victory after her husband was killed before her eyes. In later life, however, Nanyehi became a legendary peacemaker.
The tales of Robert Smalls nor Nanyehi are hardly unrecognized. They’ve received some historical and artistic attention. But not nearly enough. We should devote our scarce time and resources to elevating their heroic stories, and many others, within our common American saga rather than yanking other stories out of it.
I am not arguing against rigorous scholarship that unearths new insights or subjects older historical interpretations to critical examination. In fact, broadening America’s story about itself means embracing more nuance and complexity. It means acknowledging our heroes’ flaws, yes, while still celebrating their heroic contributions to the founding, growth, and greatness of our country.
All of them, like all of us, are fallen creatures. If we judge historical actors more harshly than we would want ourselves to be judged — on their worst choices instead of their best ones, on the then-common conventions they merely reflected instead of the heroic acts that make them truly distinctive — then we’ll be left with no heroes at all. Living together in a large, sprawling country filled with people of varying backgrounds and values, we can’t afford to let that happen.
We need a shared national creed, one that exalts the best of America: freedom, constitutional government, invention, tolerance, dynamism. We need histories, novels, films, music, and art that embrace this creed, that celebrate our country’s inspiring past and boundless future. We need more stories of heroic Americans — those who didn’t just accept the circumstances, limitations, or injustices into which they were born. Pioneers in the broadest sense of the term who were willing to take risks, buck prevailing opinion, and lead their fellow Americans to a better future.
And perhaps, if I may renew a recent suggestion, we need more statues in the nation’s capital (and elsewhere) that put our expanded pantheon of American heroes on the pedestals they have earned.
John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation, a North Carolina-based grantmaker, and author of the new historical-fantasy novel Mountain Folk (Defiance Press, 2021).