Political Heroes

A July 4 question from Jonathan Bernstein: “Who are your great American (political) heroes? I’ll take anything — those who you think are obvious but deserving, those who are obscure but shouldn’t be, past or present, whatever.”

To start with the obvious-but-deserving, the longer world history rolls on the more remarkable George Washington’s peaceful assumption of power and departure from office looks. I believe the current understanding is that he did this in part out of a motivation to be remembered as a Great and Honorable Man by history, so it’s worth paying tribute to him if for no other reason than to try to inspire other powerful people around the world to consider the option that doing the right thing may be your best strategy.


Philip Randolph strikes me as an underrated player in the history of the civil rights movement. The tendency is to celebrate the people who played the biggest roles in getting the ball into the end zone, but in some ways the achievement of the activist leaders of the 30s and 40s who actually changed the trajectory of policy after several decades of continued advances for white supremacy are even more impressive. Also as union leader and a socialist and important reminder that on a correct understanding of human justice the idea of a sharp disjoint between “social” and “economic” concerns is badly misguided. In a related way, the “Radical Republicans” of the 1860s and 1870s were, at a minimum, hideously underrated by my high school history textbook. I’ll single out Thaddeus Stevens for, among other things, offering a useful manifesto for radicalism in general — “Prejudices may be shocked, weak minds startled, weak nerves may tremble, but they must hear and adopt it: Universal emancipation must be proclaimed to all.” Frances Perkins is incredibly impressive as someone who wasn’t just a pioneer for women in public life but also as a pioneering woman in public life stands out as one of the major architects of the American welfare state.

Last, let me offer up Gouverneur Morris a man of considerable merits who I want to recognize specifically for his role in the Erie Canal. People don’t generally recognize that New York City wasn’t simply fated to become the nation’s largest. Its status as the East Coast’s largest seaport, and therefore largest city, is pretty purely a consequence of the fact that this gigantic infrastructure project was undertaken which suddenly made its port much more valuable than those at Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Boston. There’s a tendency in modern America — a tendency that I find vaguely un-American, to use an ugly term — to simply refuse to dream big and believe that large change for the better is possible. Morris and the canal from the Hudson to the Great Lakes are the antidote to that. The canal opened in 1825 and now almost 200 years later the consequences of that achievement have still not been undone.