Since I got a number of views on my last post on historical heroes, there are plenty of others I didn’t seem to touch upon who are immortalized for their heroic deeds but weren’t as great people as thought or the stories were just plain made up. I’m not going to use John F. Kennedy though he may not have had as great a presidency as it’s perceived, he’s still considered a hero since he managed to have the kind of life he led despite suffering from serious health problems like Addison’s. Also, I’m not going to use King Henry V though he may not be the guy Shakespeare depicted and actually quite ruthless, though no more than most medieval kings in his day. Yet, sometimes history isn’t as unbiased as you think it is. Here are more historical heroes I will kindly list here:
1. Medieval Knights
Known for: Being the champions of Christendom and chivalry who fought baddies, wooed ladies without seducing them, behaved honorably, and saved the day with a sword. They always fought for their country, king, and God. As good guys, they were always willing to protect the weak and vulnerable you could always count on them to rescue a damsel in distress. They’d also fight tournaments to win a lady’s favor.
Why they may not deserve their fame: Of course, there may have been some knights like this but they were human beings like any other. For instance, we all know that King Arthur’s knights weren’t all like that. I mean Sir Lancelot may do good in battle and be able to heal others yet he deserted his wife and kid as well as banged his boss’ wife. Mordred was an evil product of incest who does his old man in (in some versions, in others, he’s just Arthur’s evil nephew, brother-in-law, or not related to him at all). Sir Gawain was a homicidal maniac and had many other issues. Still, though a knight may claim loyalty to a nation, a king, or his lord, he was ultimately a mercenary working for himself mostly for land, power, and riches. If they were of the a Crusade Order, they could be ruthless and fanatical but so was everyone in the Middle Ages to some extent. However, it’s interesting to note that the Crusades weren’t just fought in the name of God to capture the Holy Land from the Muslims. Rather, many thought the Crusades were a good idea since it would not only grant knights penance for killing Muslims but also keep many of them from fighting and terrorizing each other as well as raping, pillaging and burning peasant villages. Really, they would do this to their fellow Europeans or even their own serfs, let alone Muslims. Yet, they wouldn’t kill each other unless it was in battle and considered the slaughter of peasants after capturing a village whether they be men, women, or children. Still, as for medieval damsels in distress, they probably wouldn’t call on a knight in shining armor to save them unless it was a last resort or if the guy was her husband. Most damsels in distress at the time usually tried to save themselves, because they’d never know what a knight may do to them.
2. King Richard the Lionheart
Known for: Being the good King Richard in the Robin Hood stories and seen as a paragon of knighthood and champion of Christendom. Badass hero of the Crusades.
Why he may not deserve his fame: King Richard I was a rather complex individual like any member of his family (like King John, for instance). He wasn’t the biggest jerk but he was as warlike as he was greedy. He certainly liked being in France better than England (there’s a story where he claimed to sell London if he could find a buyer, oh, and he only spent six months of his reign there anyway). And as like anyone in his family, he wasn’t above stabbing people in the back (of course, you can say that about any ruler in the Middle Ages.) Of course, he only saw his subjects as producers of tax revenue to support his exploits abroad. Then there’s the time when he was taken hostage by Archduke Leopold I of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Of course, he was ransomed after two years but it was from the pockets of his English subjects. And he was taken prisoner by a guy he used to boss around. Richard may have been a great warrior king but he wasn’t good at anything that didn’t involve warfare and tactics like budgeting, tolerating, or judging. So Good King Richard wasn’t such a great English king after all. Yet, as a paragon of knighthood and chivalry, well, as far as actual medieval knights go, he may not be far off.
3. Charles Lindbergh
Known for: Being the first man to fly across the Atlantic solo from New York to Paris on The Spirit of Saint Louis. One of the biggest celebrities of his day. Also, his son was kidnapped and killed in one of the most infamous child abduction cases in history.
Why he may not deserve his fame: Well, Lindbergh certainly does deserve his fame but there’s no doubt about that. Yet, just because his picture may be in the history books and your grandpa might have had a poster of him, doesn’t mean that he’s a kind of role model you’d want to emulate or put on a pedestal. For one, he believed in eugenics and racist which wasn’t unusual at the time yet his beliefs on either may have been too much for those in the 1930s. Also, it certainly doesn’t help his case that he was a staunch isolationist (though he stuck with his country before Pearl Harbor), accepted a medal from Nazi Germany (and didn’t return it after the Kristallnacht), had a friendship with Anti-Semitic Henry Ford, and was willing to make excuses for Hitler. So no wonder he was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer. Oh, and 29 years after his death it was discovered that he fathered seven children to three German women (trust me, you can’t make things like this up and it was mentioned on PBS).
4. Lady Godiva
Known for: 11th century pre-Norman Conquest Saxon noblewoman who pleaded with her despotic husband Leofric to be nice to his subjects and reduce taxes. Yet, when he refused, as a protest, she got up on her white horse and rode the streets of Coventry in her birthday suit.
Why she may not deserve her fame: Well, Lady Godiva has a bit in common with Betsy Ross, two famous women who get credit for something they didn’t actually do but receive credit long after their deaths. Still, though Betsy Ross most likely didn’t design the first American flag, there’s reasonable evidence that she might have had some involvement with its production. With Lady Godiva, however, there’s no historical evidence that she was ever known for anything from being beyond a sweet and charitable woman. She may have pleaded with Leofric to be nice and reduce taxes but that’s probably as true as the legend about her gets. Still, there’s no evidence that she ever rode naked into Coventry and that legend only surfaced about 200 years after her death. She was, however, the only female to remain a major Saxon landholder after the Norman Conquest.
5. Andrew Jackson
Known for: Seen as a war hero in the War of 1812 and a populist bad ass who loved his wife and stood up for the people against the wealthy elite. President of the United States during the late 1820s and early 1830s. Nicknamed “Old Hickory.” Father of Jacksonian democracy as well as one of the godfathers of the modern Democratic Party. Picture is on the $20 bill.
Why he may not deserve his fame: There’s more than one good reason why Andrew Jackson is considered one of the most controversial US presidents to this day. The most obvious being his policies towards Native Americans such as his aggressive enforcement of the Indian Removal Act (despite that the law was struck down by the Supreme Court) which resulted in the relocation of thousands of Indians to Oklahoma and the Trail of Tears. Of course, it was said he did it out of belief that it would prevent a war with the tribes and possibly a civil war but still, it was a policy that denied human rights to a group of people for no good reason, resulted in genocide, and has put a strain on Native Americans ever since. Then there’s Jackson’s policy of getting rid of the Bank of the United States which would later be a direct cause of the Panic of 1837 throwing the nation into a deep depression (basically this is what would happen if we got rid of the Federal Reserve). Finally, you got the introduction of the spoils system which chose unelected government workers based on party loyalty regardless whether these people had any qualifications to do their jobs. This brought widespread corruption and incompetence as well as lack of accountability on every level of government and would eventually played a role in the assassination of a US president (James A. Garfield was shot by a rejected office seeker). As a side note, he appointed Roger B. Taney as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court (who will have an important role in the notorious Dred Scott Decision). Also, engaged in dirty campaign tactics against John Quincy Adams, did a bunch of things that would certainly get him arrested today (such as fighting duels), and might have been a bit crazy (yet he’s still a rather interesting and complex man).
6. Ronald Reagan
Known for: President of the United States during the 1980s, and seen as the greatest president of all time by American conservatives. Said to have ended the Cold War, revived the economy through Reaganomics, restored dignity and self-respect to the presidency, restored American pride and morale, and did all these super wonderful things that helped make the USA the greatest nation on earth. Voted as the Greatest American on the History Channel.
Why he may not deserve his fame: I tried to refrain from writing about him since he was a popular president but still, he doesn’t really deserve all the hype. Not to mention, conservatives still sort of make Reagan into a man he wasn’t. For one, the 1980s weren’t a wonderful time in history, especially since it was a time when many corporations started basically outsourcing their productions to other countries (and many areas never recovered). Reagan’s economic policies also started widening the gap between rich and poor, created budget deficits as well as an increase in homelessness. However, he did increase taxes a few times when he realized that tax cuts for the rich weren’t helping. Other blunders include the Iran-Contra Affair (which lowered American credibility), huge budget deficits (which made GOP “fiscal conservatism neither fiscal nor conservative), his environmental ignorance (believed that trees caused pollution), his do-nothing reaction to the looming AIDS epidemic, courting Saddam Hussein, and the list goes on. As for the Cold War, Reagan showed little sign of burying the hatchet with the Soviet Union (“evil empire” as he called it) until the Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in 1985. And even then he was uncooperative in peace talks with the Russian leader until facing a scandal and low approval ratings, he was willing to do anything. And as for Russia’s bankruptcy, it was due to the War in Afghanistan that started while Reagan was still in California so bankruptcy was the Soviets’ own fault. Also, he had Alzheimer’s during his presidency (his son has even said this.) Then there are the times before he became president. For one, he didn’t become a Republican until age 51 and was mostly willing to change his political views for his declining career and satisfy his father-in-law. He opposed civil rights and Medicare, was almost recalled during his term as governor of California, sent the California Highway Patrol to crack down on campus protests at Berkeley, and oh, legalized no-fault divorce and abortion in California (though he later switched his position on the latter after realizing what it might to do him politically but still he didn’t do anything to make abortion illegal again and this was in 1967 so he had a good six years). Not to mention, he was divorced (from actress Jane Wyman), certainly engaged in pre-marital sex (wife Nancy was pregnant at the altar), was more into astrology than Jesus, and basically betrayed his fellow actors by leaking some of their names to the House Committee of Un-American Activities while president of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan may not have been one of the worst American Presidents, but he certainly shouldn’t be ranked among one of the best. In fact, he wasn’t much of a great president anyway. I may be a liberal but even so, I don’t believe he deserves the hype regardless of anyone’s political affiliation.
7. Woodrow Wilson
Known for: US President during WWI and was seen as a model for Progressivism and Idealism. His 14 Points speech helped set the stage for the United Nations and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Why he may not deserve his fame: Wilson’s presidency has come under significant controversy in recent years. Though many of his economic policies tend to be seen in a positive light since many his reforms on that front were greatly needed, he appointed the heads of large corporations to agencies supposedly regulating business. Not to mention, they did no favors for women, minorities, immigrants, workers, or others in need of assistance. Though his Virginia upbringing during the Civil War might have inspired his commitment to peace, it also served as the major influence to his hardcore racism and his policy of mandatory segregation of the government. I mean he was considered a racist even by early 20th century standards and seem to have a nostalgia for slavery (though he deemed it uneconomical). Oh, and he barred blacks from serving in the Navy which was at times more than 1/3 African American dating from the revolutionary war. To be fair, he was no fan of immigrants either and criticized Irish immigrants harshly. Then there’s the fact he’s one of the nation’s first of the Red Scare anti-socialist and anti-communist presidents, launched the Espionage Act of 1918 which arrested those who spoke out against WWI, and ran his reelection campaign on a pacifist platform (though he would be calling for war at the start of his second term). Though he’s seen as an anti-imperialist, he ended up intervening in places like the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico. Of course, the Mexicans were attacking our borders but in some ways, they were doing it in response for the US occupation of Veracruz. As for ending WWI and other related foreign policy, let’s just say that it’s complicated. Wilson may have consented to punishing Germany for starting the war (even though Germany certainly didn’t). However, it would be unfair to blame him for the events surrounding actions during the Treaty of Versailles, especially when it came to Germany getting the short end of the stick. For one, Wilson wasn’t well aware about European politics and saw WWI as a war between Democracy and Absolute Monarchy (Germany was actually a constitutional monarchy while Russia was ruled by Czarist autocrat before the Russian Revolution.) Second, the US only entered the war in 1917 when it started in 1914. Also, France’s Georges Clemenceau was more the dominating influence at Versailles than Wilson ever was and wanted to punish Germany for a lot more than just WWI (like the Franco-Prussian War). Thus, Clemenceau wanted revenge, not peace. Not to mention, David Lloyd George was more concerned with politics in his native Britain than anything. Wilson may have been a bad president but he’s far from being one of the greats.
8. Nathan Bedford Forrest
Known for: Well, I’ll get to part of that in a moment. However, in the South, he’s considered a great Confederate Civil War general and kind of a hero. I mean he has so many places and memorials dedicated to him it’s ridiculous.
Why he may not deserve his fame: Forrest is perhaps one of the worst examples when it comes to being seen as a historical hero. Of course, this would stem from the Pro-white Southern “Lost Cause” school of history which seemed to prevail during segregation. However, while Robert E. Lee may not have been the great general or the great man he’s portrayed as but at least he has some admirable qualities you can respect. Despite his flaws, Lee can be seen as a great hero and a great man. However, this is not so with Forrest since he’s best known as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK as well as a figure associated with white supremacy (he may not have been as racist but still). And it doesn’t help he was a slave trader before the Civil War either. Nevertheless, Forrest still embodies the worst of the Confederacy during the Civil War mostly because of what happened at the Battle of Fort Pillow. Fort Pillow was a Union held fort which Forrest managed to attack and capture back in 1864. However, it was a battle that where countless black and Southern Unionist troops were killed and may not have died in combat. In other words, these two groups of captured soldiers were basically slaughtered after surrender, which is a war crime. Of course, Confederate commanders didn’t record that such massacre took place at Fort Pillow (even Forrest’s report doesn’t mention it), yet there is significant evidence that states such slaughter took place. For one, there are accounts by Union survivors and some even from Confederate soldiers writing back home. Second, the Union casualty rates pertaining to the battle are unusually higher (like nearly 300 killed out of around 600-700) than what the Confederates sustained (which was about 14 killed and 86 wounded out of 5,000-6,000). And in some ways the Union casualty rate is much higher than it should be if the Confederates sustained a rate like that in 1864. This is also telling when you consider that only 90 of the 262 black Union troops involved managed to survive the battle. Out of the white Union forces, only 205 out of 500 survived. If this doesn’t convince anyone why Nathan Bedford Forrest shouldn’t be remembered so fondly, then I don’t know what does.
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Known for: Being an admirable and badass general during WWII as Supreme Allied Commander and a great president who maintained stability in the early years of the Cold War and warned of the Military-Industrial complex. Affectionately nicknamed Ike in the 1950s. Possibly the most bipartisan and compromise-friendly US president of the 20th century.
Why he may not deserve his fame: Eisenhower certainly does deserve his fame and certainly can be considered a hero, in some ways, a lot of what happened under his presidency that have long term implications for the United States and need to be discussed. For one, Eisenhower appointed Richard M. Nixon as his running mate and it’s clear to say that Nixon may not have been elected president if he wasn’t tapped as Ike’s VP. Of course, we all know about the long term implications with that appointment. Of course, what should really get more attention in regards to Eisenhower’s presidency is his foreign policy which done its share of long term damage of US credibility over the decades. For one, Eisenhower supported a couple of coups against democratically elected governments such as Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran and President Arbenz in Guatemala. Both these guys were replaced by dictators. Overthrowing Mossadegh has critically strained relations between the Islamic world and the West to this day. Overthrowing Arbenz had put Guatemala under the successive rule of military dictatorships for decades. Also, Ike supported the Batista regime in Cuba which gives the Castro brothers a few good reasons to hate the US. Then there’s the fact he blocked an important vote on Vietnamese unification and installed pro-US dictator Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam after finding out that 80% of the Vietnamese would’ve sided with Ho Chih Minh and the Communists in said referendum, setting the stage for US involvement in the Vietnam War. Sure Eisenhower may have been a good president or even a great one, yet some of his shady foreign policy decisions have done more than its fair share to hurt US credibility and these should not be ignored.
10. Mohandas K, Gandhi
Known for: Seen as a saint who through the principles of ahimsa (nonviolence) brought independence to India in 1947.
Why he may not deserve his fame: This is a controversial one since Gandhi did help bring independence to India as well as inspired hundreds and has certainly earned respect. However, the Indian Independence Movement was a strong force well before he entered the scene when he did, he basically served as a figurehead for a cause and was happy to take the credit while other leaders did most of the work (like Nehru, Jinnah, Bose). Sure he talked of peace but also played politics as ruthlessly and slimy as any politician (more of a pacifist Machiavellian if you will). And he wasn’t above politically stabbing people in the back. Also, his ideas weren’t that original and even he knew that (basically nonviolence had been a kind of idea dating thousands of years. Not to mention, he was a British educated lawyer who spent a spell living in South Africa (of you knew that). Then there’s his private life which isn’t pretty. For one, he was difficult and demanding, a tyrannical and abusive father, obsessed with the workings of his own and other people’s bowels, and subject to long bouts of depression during which he refused to speak to even his closest associates. Also, slept naked alongside his female disciples after the death of his wife.
11. Medieval Outlaws
Known for: Being honorable men who steal from the rich to give to the poor, live in the forest, and stick up to corrupt sheriffs and noblemen, you know, like in Robin Hood. Basically a fugitive from a unfair justice system.
Why they may not deserve their fame: Outlaws then were probably no better or worse than today’s criminals. However, with lack of adequate law enforcement outlaws can basically get away with a lot more shit then (seriously no one would want to be the sheriff of Nottingham, it would’ve been a lot worse than being a cop on The Wire, especially since there was a lot more crime in the Middle Ages as there is today). Of course, outlaws would certainly steal from the rich yet they’d also rob or harm just about anybody. Also, many of those in England became knights later on so you might want to see what I have to say about them.
Known for: Seen as heroes of the Wild West who travel the open range on cattle drives while doing a bunch of other shit, I’m not sure what. They traveled on horseback by day and sang songs by the campfire at night. Sometimes they’d even shoot bad guys or Indians. Still, cowboys are seen as one of most prominent American cultural icons and loved by everyone everywhere.
Why they may not deserve their fame: This might depend on your definition of heroism since real cowboys were much different from the ones you saw in the movies. Besides, if you ask any boy in the 19th century whether he’d like to be a cowboy, he’d more likely say no unless he was black, Mexican, Indian, a poor white, gay, or an immigrant off the boat. I mean the job of cowboy was a low wage and low status job that entailed herding cattle from the ranches to the railroads which would transport them to the slaughterhouses in Chicago. The average cowboy earned a dollar a day for his hard work, slept in a barracks on the home ranch, and were more concerned with cattle rustlers and predators than Indians (Indians were more of a job for the US Army). Also, they wouldn’t be wearing those nice cowboy outfits you’d see at rodeos. Not to mention, they were notorious in Kansas for their wild and violent behavior especially since the place was seen as an end of a long cattle drive where cowboys received their pay as well as had towns with drinking and gambling establishments.
Interesting post–I’m a particular fan of your Ronald Reagan analysis. Have you read Drift, by Rachel Maddow? There’s a chapter in there about Reagan’s misadventures in Grenada which is worth a glance.
Yes, Robin Hood, Richard I and that lot were extremely romanticised long after that period passed, I think due to the continued hatred of the Norman invaders, the last to successfully invade Britain. Robin Hood was a symbol of Saxon resistance to the Normans, probably just the figurehead needed for the Saxons to feel better about being invaded. I have read that King John was in fact a much better king than Richard because he didn’t go off fighting battles, he stayed at home looking after the people. I don’t think Britain has ever forgiven France for invading.
Reblogged this on The Political Think Tank.