What Constitutes a Hero?

During yesterday’s festivities, I found myself wandering back to the discussion in class on Tuesday about what exactly constitutes a hero. It seems that in today’s society the term hero is a word that gets bantered about a lot. This is especially true in the realm of television as nearly every day some news report refers to an individual, who has performed some type of good will towards their fellow-man as a hero. This is especially true in the sports world as countless number of athletes are praised for their heroics. These usually include striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth in a game against a heated rival, getting a key hit in an important game, or in the wake of the recent showing by the United States in the World Cup, or making the game winning score as time runs out in football. While these events could be considered heroic, does this make the individuals who perform them heroes? While these actions produce a strain on the emotional well-being of the fan, often producing euphoria and agony and misery in the same instance, I do not think that I would consider them heroic. Fortuitous? Absolutely. But they are not heroes.
What constitutes a hero? I believe that the most important definition for a hero is context. Anyone applying the label of hero to any individual needs to understand the context in which the events occurred.
For example, are the Founding Father’s heroes? They certainly took a great deal of risk in declaring themselves independent from, at that time, the most powerful nation in the world. They possessed the confidence in their convictions that what the British government was doing to them was wrong. Yes I know that some historians, Merril Jensen and Charles Beard for example, argue that the American Revolution sprang from economic reasons and that the sole reason for the Declaration of Independence was to protect the purses of the more wealthy colonists. There are also some that suggest that the Revolution was conservative in nature, fought to preserve what the colonists perceived as their rights under the British Constitution. As Bernard Baylin, Edmund Morgan, and others have argued the Revolution was not just about economics but was in fact centered around ideologies. While the signers of the Declaration of Independence argued, pretty much up until the eve of hostilities, that they sought the same rights as every other citizen living in Great Britain. Curiously, as Baylin clearly illustrates, the context of the British Constitution, as understood by both the colonists in North America and the populace in Great Britain, were dramatically different. This stems from the wider audience that many of the more radical publications, and those against the policies of the government, found in the colonies. Within Great Britain, many of these radical ideas were confined to a very small audience, that is when they are allowed to publish at all. If you couple this with the vast expanse, the Atlantic Ocean, which geographically separated the colonies from the motherland, and by doing so, forced many in the colonies to modify their ideas about government and its relation to the people. Thus the conditions were set for the eventually fruition of the concepts and ideologies that would form the bedrock of the dispute and eventual war with England. The fact that these individuals willingly signed, in a sense, their own death warrant serves as clear evidence of the belief of their convictions and the underlying ideological component of the Revolution. But does it make them heroes?
Or how about the Continental Army? Does the fact that some how this rather rag-tag group of individuals, facing nearly impossible odds, managed to defeat the most powerful army in the world make them heroes? To the British, certainly not. However, to the newly independent states on the North Eastern coast of the Atlantic, they quite possibly are. It is the context of the events and how they are viewed which determines whether a person is a hero or not.

Another example from this period. In 1770, John Adams, a lawyer and future revolutionary in Boston, is asked to defend the British soldiers charged with man slaughter, another crimes, in the wake of the “Boston Massacre.” Given the fevered state of Massachusetts in this period, this is a very risky venture. If he decides to take the case, his actions could be read as support for the Parliament and the British crown. On the other hand, if he decides not too, it is quite possible that innocent men will be convicted of crimes that he believes that they did not commit. Ultimately, Adams decides to take the case citing his belief that even in the charged atmosphere of 1770’s Boston an Englishman has the right to, and will receive, a fair trial. While there are no manuscripts of the trial in existence, the fact remains that Adams was able to get the charges dismissed against the soldiers. Given the tensions of this period, does this make Adams a hero? (Hero or not, I believe Adams deserves much more credit than he gets.)

Another rather interesting example, yesterday, aside from being the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the 151st anniversary of the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863, is the 75th anniversary of the speech given by Lou Gehrig in 1939. Given between the games of a double-header, this speech is considered by some to be baseball’s version of the Gettysburg address. Over come with the out pouring of emotion and admiration from the fans, Gehrig, at one point actually begins to cry. Too weak to hold the gifts that both his former, and current teammates have given, the notoriously shy ballplayer is implored by the fans to speak. At first the doomed Gehrig resist, but over come with emotion he eventually relents. The words that he spoke, briefly excerpted from the YouTube video below, have echoed through the years.


Regrettably it’s not the whole speech but the clip illustrates the gist of it.  I admit that when I first heard the speech many years ago, I was teary eyed. Heck I still feel a punch in the heart listening to it.  How can a man who knows that he is dying, in a most horrific way, be that humble and that thankful? Class? Absolutely.  Does he deserve a place in the pantheon of heroes? There are a very small handful of athletes that I would place in the pantheon of heroes.  Gehrig, Jessie Owens and Jackie Robinson serving as two prime examples.

Above I mentioned the Continental Army and whether or not they, and the Founding Fathers should be considered heroes. (Given the circumstances, they should.)  But this leads to another question.  Many heroes throughout history a members of the armed forces, as they should be.  However, does the nature of your enlistment relate to hero status?  Should heroes be limited to just those who volunteered for military status instead of including both those who are drafted and those who volunteered?  Should enlistment status give your actions on the battlefield more or less weight?  Given the way that Americans have treated their soldiers over the years this is a pertinent question.

Or does the nature of ones cause preclude hero status?  In the American Civil War both sides proclaimed that they were fighting for just cause.  Who is right and who is wrong?  Are those willing to risk their lives for a cause, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of it, deserving of hero status?  What about those who give, to quote Lincoln, “the last full measure of devotion” to their country?  Are they not worthy of hero status?

As these examples illustrate, I believe that context is important in deciding whether some one is a hero or not.  Moreover, it may not be the same context with which you are viewing the same set of events.  For example, in class there was some discussion as to whether or not a fireman who enters a burning building to rescue some one is a hero or just an individual doing their job.  I will tell you this, perhaps to you and I that person is not a hero.  They are just doing their job.  However, for the person being rescued, that fireman will always be a hero.

Lastly, I leave you with a personal example.  Recently, my mother emailed me some pictures of my relatives.  Being an avid lover of history, and an aspiring historian, I was enthralled by all of the images, but one of them intrigued me more than most.  When I asked her about it, she told me that it was a picture of my great-grandparents and their first son, my great-uncle.  I should probably make it unequivocally clear that I admire these three, and my grandfather who came later, a lot.  Given the circumstances in their lives I consider them to be heroes and people who I can look up to and admire.  It is not easy to take your entire family, uproot it and move to a new country. Yet that is exactly what my great-grandparents did.  Being outsiders in a country that has a history of treating immigrants rough, is similar to the way I feel in terms of society in general, and my family in particular.  I feel like them the outsider looking in.

In any event, while it is a simple picture, and although it contains two people who I never met, I can sense a connection to the image.  These are not just pictures of people, they are my ancestors. People who had guts to seek a better life for their children.  Moreover, what is especially intriguing about the image is that in the picture you have a veteran of WWI, my great-grandfather, who fought for the Italians, and my great-uncle who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.  It is just a staggering image to ponder.  The sacrifices that my great-grandfather and my great-uncle made for their adoptive homeland is incredible.  If it’s not heroic, it is, at the very least pretty close.  They are my heroes.

Here is the picture that my mother sent to me:


This above picture is of my great-grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my great-uncle.


In this picture, we have my great-great-grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-uncle, and his brother, my grandfather.  Although I only ever met one person in this photo, I still feel, as I iterated above, a connection to them.

My last picture, and I promise that I am done being incoherent after this, for  I appreciate you reading through this rather long-winded post and putting up with my tangents and relatively unfocused nature relating to this post, is a picture of their headstone, taken at the Cathedral Cemetery in Scranton, Pa.  No, I am not mentally ill, but I do admit that sometimes going and visiting the grave is a great way to relax. There is a peace and serenity that accompanies the surroundings.  Sometimes I have little conversations with them.  They do not answer back, but it is nice to know that they are listening.

Anyways here is the picture:

Giuliani Headstone

I know that it is hard to see the words on it.  I wish I had the opportunity to take another shot.  I have similar ones of the gravesite next to it.  The reason that I took those was due to the way the sun was positioned over the area.  It looked like a really cool shot.

In any event, I tried to provide examples of how context can and should be a determining factor in determining hero status.   I apologize for the length of the post.  I hope that you enjoy.


About civil1863

My name is Richard Smith and I am a Graduate Student at George Mason University. An aspiring historian, I am currently working on my Master's with the hopes that upon graduation I will be able to being my pursuit of a PhD. My areas of concentration lie in American History and are: The Early Republic, Jacksonian and antebellum America, early to mid-nineteenth century politics, territorial expansion and their disputes, the relationship between slavery and the Federal Government, republican ideology and its relation to the American Civil War. I am an avid fan of the American Civil War and have completed internships at both Gettysburg National Military Park and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvainia National Military Park.

6 responses to “What Constitutes a Hero?”

  1. moneil11 says :

    The term hero is certainly throw around a lot these days and I couldn’t agree more that the accuracy of that term depends almost entirely on the context. I really liked your example of how a fireman may not be a hero to everybody but they certainly are a hero to the people who’s lives that fireman saved. It is akin to the concept that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Perspective is key. As for the the debate on whether or not the founding fathers are heroes I would argue that they were. That being said I should state that my view of hero is not that hard to meet. To me a hero is a person who is willing to fight for what is right no matter the consequences, which the founding fathers definitely did. Heroes are often dependent upon the environment in which they are in. Teachers who come through for students are heroes just as much as a fireman is a hero for saving someones life. To me a hero is someone who is a good person and does the right thing, whether it is on a battlefield or in a classroom is irrelevant. The class discussion started to discuss background training or a person “just doing their job” as taking away from the level of heroism in an action. Just because someone has received training on how to run into a burning building or gets paid to do so, does not take away from the level heroism involved.

    I really enjoyed the post.

    Matt O.

  2. Laszlo says :

    Your distinction between being heroic and being a hero when you talk about the founding fathers is a good one to keep in mind. I’m sure that a lot of the confusion about the word hero comes from people who aren’t heroes doing heroic things, and, maybe more interestingly, someone who is a hero doing something that’s not heroic.

    As a child of immigrants, too, I’ve thought about how immigrants are heroic. They take a dangerous journey that’s not guaranteed to succeed. I can’t find it, but there was a recent news story about refugees who died in a boat, because the person smuggling them to Australia or wherever they were trying to go didn’t care. I want to call those poor people in the ship’s hull heroes.

    I need to remember context, as you point out. Those people who died are heroic for facing uncertainty and danger. They also might have been escaping danger and oppression in their home countries. They’re certainly brave, but I wonder if something else about them, other than just being an immigrant, makes them heroes. Then again, maybe it’s better to call certain kinds of immigrants, who flee horrible situations, heroes, while other kinds of immigrants are only acting heroically. Hope I’m being clear about my distinction. Maybe it’s too early in the morning to write clearly.

    Anyway, thank you for the long post and for your comments about your family. You bring up a lot to think about. The pics of your great-grandparents are great! Are you going to try to fix the damage to the one of your great-grandmother and great-uncle with Photoshop?

  3. April Kelley says :

    Wow! Those are some great family photos of your ancestors! What a treasure. I’m wondering if you plan on digitally restoring them as well, like Laszlo suggested. I think the choice immigrants make to leave everything that they’ve known for the chance of making their lives better, as well as for their families, is a heroic one, but that is just my point of view. I think Matt is on point too with the idea of perspective playing a role in determining one’s hero status. What’s heroic to me might not be heroic to someone else, and vice versa. And that’s ok!

  4. kaitlynridler says :

    Looks like the hero conversation was on your brain as well, Richard! I agree with the dialogue going back and forth here that what determines a hero is based upon perspective and background. Never thought I would be having an ongoing conversation with classmates about the topic of heroism- this class is awesome 🙂 I can tell you really put a lot of effort into this post. It is super in depth and has a lot of layers to it along with the different kinds of mediums. Good work!

  5. psmith30 says :

    Hi Rich,

    I really liked your post! I was riveted by the discussion of your ancestors and the feeling of connection that you have to them even though you didn’t meet most of them. I have found that, too, with my ancestors. The pictures are amazing. By your writing, I could sense a longer story emerging about their lives, hopes, dreams and more about what happened to them including the women. I was also interested to know their names. Names are very important to me. As you know because you study the era, the names of enslaved people appear in official records only rarely since they were considered property. Names, identity – so important. Maybe you didn’t want names on the Internet. I understand that too. Thank you for the great post! Very interesting reading! Pam

  6. welg0373 says :

    Lengthy or not, Rich this was a very enjoyable post. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that context does, indeed, determine whether or not a person should be considered a hero. What I liked most about your post is that you utilized contemporary examples (firemen, athletes), historical figures (Founding Fathers, Continental Army, John Adams) and your own family members to examine the debate surrounding the heroic. In society today, due in large part to overabundance of media coverage surrounding every possible event, the term ‘hero’ has lost its intended meaning.

    Like your great-grandfather, my grandfather served as a fighter pilot during WWII, flying dangerous missions over Vichy France. On one of his missions, he was shot down, escaping the inevitable crash by ejecting and parachuting to the ground. In the process, his left leg was severely wounded, eventually contracting a gangrene infection. While on the ground Nazi patrols were swarming the area looking for Americans. A French farmer, who easily could have hid with his family, found and hid my grandfather from the Germans. Inevitably, he was captured by the Germans and his leg had to be amputated. Eventually transferred to American authorities, my grandfather returned to the United States and married my grandmother, eventually giving birth to my mother. As discussed in class, my grandfather, despite his valor and courage in battle, enlisted in the Air Force, assuming the great risk associated with being a fighter pilot. Is he a hero? To our family, especially my mother, he was no doubt a hero, but, to me, the real hero in this story was the unassuming French farmer who risked death to him and his family to save my grandfather from the Nazi’s. Actions such as these are often obscured by the battles and the politicians, but they are as heroic as any decision made by General Eisenhower or any other Allied commander during the war.

    Great post!!!

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