Histories and Dangerous Heroes: Why It Is Better to Hold Firm to Ideals than to Believe in Founding Fathers

This opinion piece ran in Costa Rica's La Nacion on Sunday, July 22, and follows a June 3 piece by Gudmundson in that same paper. An English translation, as well as a link to the original, is below.


By Lowell Gudmundson

In the fruitful discussion of the historical place and contemporary uses of the figure of President Juan Rafael Mora Porras and the National Campaign of 1856, several readers have posed very important questions. What is wrong with exalting heroes? Would nations not be orphans without their heroes?

The National Campaign formed part of a continental struggle in which foreign intervention (referred to as Manifest Destiny, imperialism, expansionism, etc.) and slavery played central roles. Far from being singular heroes and villains, Mora and Walker formed part of three interconnected contexts, Central America, Mexico, and the United States, with Benito Juárez and Abraham Lincoln as heroes and the Emperor Maximilian (with his Conservative Mexican allies) and southern slaveholders as villains in the official histories. Mexico suffered first North American aggression seeking the annexation of the slave state of Texas, and then French intervention during the U.S. Civil War. Thus, wherever we look in North America the questions of slavery and foreign intervention are mutually reinforcing.


This brief description offers nothing new, but it is the question of the afterlife of heroes that concerns us. Mora Porras has been imagined a thousand times over since his vile execution in 1860 and his renewed popularity as patriotic symbol is neither mistaken nor surprising. Without following in detail Mora's historical and ideological pilgrimage, the cases of Juárez and Lincoln warn us of the nearly inevitable kidnapping of heroes by power holders; that is, the hero figure is even employed to argue against the very same ideals they defended while alive.

Juárez, the maximum democratic symbol, has been a figure used to justify at least two dictatorial regimes (according to their opponents), or single party democracies (according to their supporters); that headed by Porfirio Díaz (the "porfiriato," 1876-1910) and then the multi-decade rule of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) which ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. During the "porfiriato," perhaps the most anti-Indian regime in all of Mexico's independent history, Juárez was offered by officials as proof not only of the success of the privatization of common lands he had begun as President (1855-1856), but also of Indian integration (Juárez himself was a Zapotec Indian). The PRI's Juárez continued in this latter role, but returned to take up the cause of the peasants who benefited from the land reform of 1910-1940, a policy that actually undid much of his earlier (both real and imaginary) privatizing work in the Mexican countryside. Juárez, the hero, encountered no serious obstacles in defending opposing sides of the same historical question--at least in official hands--while occupying the position of saint in the new secular, civic religion.


Abraham Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin just as the Civil War was ending but he enjoyed an afterlife as unique as it was contradictory. At first he was glorified by his northern, Republican followers, including the abolitionists. But as the counterrevolution known as Redemption (the end of Reconstruction and northern military occupation of the South in 1876) advanced, the new alliance of northern and southern Democrats with the most conservative of Republicans proceeded to establish racial segregation and the elimination of black voting rights as the solution to the conflicts unresolved by either the northern victory or its military occupation.

From that perspective, Lincoln, as hero, had to be the President of the Gettysburg Address, or of the famous final phrase of his second inaugural address in 1865, "with malice toward none; with charity for all." No longer was he the revolutionary leader decreeing the freeing of the slaves. Even his acts as president were ever more often interpreted as reflecting a supposed reluctance to unleash a tragic, fratricidal struggle (among white brothers of course). They were not seen as cautious strategic moves in light of his electoral weakness and that very same reluctance among northern whites to fight a Civil War to free the black slaves of the South. It is indeed very odd that only that phrase should have survived in popular historical memory and that it should have come to mean reconciliation among northern and southern white brothers. In fact, nearly the entire speech amounted to a reflection on the divine punishment for slavery that, according to Lincoln, the Civil War represented, in which "… every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, …"

One need not be an historian or specialist to view with astonishment and sadness how the Great Emancipator is turned into the Great Conciliator, motivated only by a national reunification now identified with racial segregation. Thanks to the hegemony of southern segregationist congressmen during the entire New Deal period from FDR to LBJ, the American people enjoyed the commemoration of the battle and address at Gettysburg with a National Park, the majestic statue in Washington, but none that tied Lincoln to abolition or the history of the slavery he fought while alive.


Pity the heroes, Lincoln and Juárez, the focus of so much civic reverence and so little honesty regarding their life's work! Poor Juanito Mora, victim of the infamous firing squad, a distinction he shared with two other hero presidents too radical for some (Morazán, fallen in Costa Rica, and Guerrero in Mexico)! Nevertheless, perhaps thanks to the shameful circumstances of his death, Mora was saved from the even more shameful lives beyond the grave of his fellows, Juárez and Lincoln.

The useful life of heroes only begins with their death. Since Roman and Aztec times the priesthood of the establishment has understood that to insure its dominance over opponents, it must first kidnap their gods. The new priesthood of secular States, the "intelligentsia," has always done the same with heroes. No matter how heartfelt the popular fervor behind the figure of any hero, the establishment has far greater resources and historical time to mold them to their taste. Better to have a clear conscience of the ideals each person chooses to defend in their own historical moment, without confusing them with individuals. Ideals are always more difficult for the establishment to kidnap. Nations without heroes need not be orphans. Rather, with ideals held high, they might be wiser and less susceptible to the kidnapping of their historical memory.

Lowell Gudmundson is a professor of Latin American studies and history at Mount Holyoke College (USA). He is the author of Costa Rica antes del café (ECR, 1986) and coeditor of Café, sociedad y poder en América Latina (EUNA, 2001). He began his academic career at the Universidad Nacional and Universidad de Costa Rica in the 1970s.

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La Nacion

La Nacion, June 23, 2007

Lowell Gudmundson - Faculty Profile