Thursday, June 30, 2016

Honoring Heroes-If You Can Keep it

"...if we don't know the stories of America, how can we know America?" (If You Can Keep It, Metaxas, 131)

One of my greatest thrills when traveling is seeing statues of historic people. They are so regal and grand and they evoke memories of stories I've read about them in biographies and history books. One of my favorite places to go is Lafayette Park in Washington DC, because I am a huge Lafayette fan. Why? Well, first of all, when we first traveled to Virginia from Texas, every historical place we visited talked about Lafayette. Hmmm, I was certainly hearing more about him in Virginia than I ever read in my history books. Who was this man? After reading a biography of him, I became his fan. In fact, I became more than a fan. I became...intrigued. Why would a frenchman, a  marquis, who was wealthy and had everything he could ever want at his fingertips, risk all to come to America to fight for our freedom? Because, he was inspired by our Declaration of Independence to fight for American freedom. Thus, his name has become synonymous with freedom...and he became a friend to America.

Lafayette, Washington DC

When he came to America he reported to the Continental Congress. When he told them he'd serve without pay, they made him a major general! Unlike other frenchmen who came to serve, Lafayette didn't lord his military training over them. Instead, he submitted himself and fully committed himself to General Washington. "I am here to learn, not to teach." Lafayette and Washington soon bonded with a father/son relationship. Long story short, Lafayette was a huge influence in helping us win the American Revolution.

General Rochambeau
General Rochambeau

Also at Lafayette Square is the statue of General Comte de Rochambeau. After France allied with America in the revolution, Rochambeau led the French forces alongside the Continental Army. Even though he outranked General Washington in time and experience, he graciously submitted to Washington. Respectfully and subtly, he'd suggest strategies. Washington was intent to conquer New York and wasn't quite clearly seeing the fortunate opportunity arising in Yorktown, Virginia. Rochambeau, however, saw it, so he subtly encouraged Washington, who was always one to listen to his advisors. Troops were quickly moved from near New York City to Yorktown, where Lafayette and his dragoons had cornered Cornwallis at a deep sea port. Meanwhile in a miraculous sense of timing, French Admiral de Grasse arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake where he effectively blocked and defeated British ships from entering to to rescue Cornwallis. Cornwallis was trapped by land and by water. After a seige, Cornwallis surrendered. The war was effectively over. What a story! And what makes it more amazing, it's true!   

Recently I read a chapter about venerating heroes in Eric Metaxas' book, If You Can Keep It.  He helped me see these heroic statues quite differently from their basic historic and even artistic interpretations.  He helped me make connections to our republic, past and present. He caused me to pause...and deeply consider how we honor heroes today, as they did in the past, and why that is significant. Why is this so important? Because today our society is more about denigrating heroes than venerating them.

In regards to celebrating the hero, "this is something that has fallen out of favor in our nation, to our deepest detriment. As the author of biographies and of great men and women I have seen firsthand just how deeply encouraging and inspiring the stories of heroes can be." (Metaxas, 116)

One of the stories Metaxas shares is from his alma mater of Yale University and their local hero, Nathan Hale.  In beautiful poignancy the full heroic story of who Hale was unfolds and thus... 1914, while the world was descending into the First World War, a magnificent statue of Hale was dedicated outside Connecticut Hall, the very dorm he had inhabited on Yale's Old Campus. The Georgian brick building was built in 1753 and still stands there. It is where he slept and studied Hebrew and where he argued and laughed with his fellow classmates. And in the grand tradition of memorializing the great, the famous artist Bela Lyon Pratt, himself a Yale graduate, was in 1912 commissioned to create the sculpture. He was at that time one of the nation's most highly regarded sculptors...A copy of the statue, dedicated in 1948, also stands in front of the Department of Justice in Washington DC. (Metaxas, 122-121)

This statue poignantly represents Nathan Hale at the very moment he said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale, Washington DC

At the base of the statue reads..."In the performance of his duty his life a sacrifice to his country's liberty at New York. September 22, 1776"

Nathan Hale2
Nathan Hale, Washington DC

That statue was put there to help Americans-and Yale men in particular-to think of the heroic sacrifices that had been made for them, so that they would be grateful for those sacrifices and so that they would themselves be inspired to similar sacrifices. In fact, three years after the statue was erected, young Americans, many of them Yale men, were  called up to serve their country in the First World War, and for most of them the statue would have served as inspiration. (Metaxas, 126)

Then Metaxas stunningly shares the shocking story of how this statue was reduced to a bobblehead doll. The full story is in If You Can Keep It. How could anyone make sport of a man who was about to face execution? Sadly, this is becoming common in our society.

" latter decades we have swung so far in the other direction that venerating heroes, which used to be part of our common vocabulary, is no longer a language we speak or really understand. But this has served to undermine the very idea of greatness and the idea of the heroic...Denigrating heroes, or simply failing to venerate them, has a cynical and toxic effect on the young generation, and we have now had fifty years in which we have neglected this 'habit of the heart' so vital to our free way of life." (Metaxas, 121)
In If You Can Keep It, this and other thoughts to consider are shared. In so doing, Metaxas shares more stories of more greatness of the men pictured below...

Washington Houdon in capitol in Richmond
General Washington, Richmond, Virginia

"That is the proper role of the heroic, to call us higher than ourselves. To call us to fight not merely for what is ours but for what should belong to everyone-for what is right." (Metaxas, 147)

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, Washington DC

Last weekend I went to Gettysburg. I've seen all the statues before...this time I considered them from new angles of meaning. 

If You Can Keep It is available for purchase at your favorite bookstore, including through Amazon. By the way, I receive no commissions. I did, however, receive a free copy to review before the launch date which was June 14th. I blog because I'm passionate about this topic and I've been sharing bits and pieces of this information over the years. Because many of my readers have asked me questions about resources for this topic before, I want to make If You Can Keep It known. It's highly relevant for today, for adults as well as students. You can read more about it at Metaxas' website.

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