The Thin Red Line of Heroes

George Roche
President, Hillsdale College

George RocheGeorge Roche has served as president of Hillsdale College since 1971. Formerly the presidentially appointed chairman of the National Council on Education Research, the director of seminars at the Foundation for Economic Education, a professor of history at the Colorado School of Mines, and a U.S. Marine, he is the author of 13 books, including six Conservative Book Club selections. One well-known title, The Fall of the Ivory Tower: Government Funding, Corruption, and the Bankrupting of American Higher Education, received coverage in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and Reader’s Digest. In a 1994 cover story, Insight editors named it “Book of the Year.” In February 1998, Regnery Publishing is releasing his latest title, The Book of Heroes: Great Men and Women in American History.

In a special preview of his new book, The Book of Heroes: Great Men and Women in American History (Regnery Publishing, February 1998), Hillsdale College President George Roche tells the story of George Washington, pioneer, farmer, soldier, and president.

He not only provides fascinating, little-known details about the life of this great American but reminds us of the heroic vision we once widely shared—that is, before the “demythologizers” in the media and the academy reduced the past to a dreary, oppressive contest between special interest groups.

The Last Line of Defense

The collective myth is failing in education, politics, economics—failing in every aspect of our lives. The time has come to reclaim the American dream, to reassert the values of free men and free institutions, to rediscover the spiritual roots of personal responsibility and integrity that built this country. The ideas are in place for a new renaissance. We know what needs to be done. What we need today is the leadership to carry out the task. In a word, America needs its heroes as never before.

“The thin red line” is an expression often used in literature to describe soldiers on the front who are faced with overwhelming odds. The word “red” refers to the color of the uniforms worn by some of the most famous soldiers of all, British infantrymen in the 18th century.

The thin red line is the last line of defense. It is the line drawn between civilization and barbarism. And the only way to hold the line is to teach our young men and women the right values and the right attitudes. This means teaching them to appreciate what Rudyard Kipling once called the “thin red line of heroes.”

Heroes have deeply influenced my personal life. They have helped me define ideas like honor, duty, truth, honesty, compassion, self-discipline, and sacrifice. These are the ideas that are the bedrock of our society. Unfortunately, they are also ideas that we don’t hear very much about these days.

Such a theme is especially important just now at the end of the century. There is a heroic dimension to life that we must pass on to our children.

I recently finished a book, intended mainly for high school and college students, on the character of six American heroes: George Washington, Daniel Boone, Louisa May Alcott, George Washington Carver, Robert E. Lee and Andrew Carnegie.

Recapturing the American Character

There are other heroes I might have selected, but these clearly reflect the character of an older America. And this leads us to the real question of our time: Can we recapture that American character for the next century? To do so, we must rediscover the heroic vision that has been lost or at least obscured for the last several decades. We have been living in the age of the anti-hero for far too long.

Every index of our society shows the terrible price we have paid. Look at our schools, popular culture, or crime statistics. I could offer literally hundreds of examples of the failure of the antiheroic vision. It is very easy to find cause for pessimism and despair in our present society.

But I am here to ask the questions everyone should be asking at this moment: What is a hero? What do heroes have to teach us? I believe that when we find the answers we will learn how to address the most pressing problems we face as individuals and as a nation.

George Washington’s Rules for Life

First and foremost among my heroes is George Washington: citizen, patriot, risk-taker, leader. He used to be every schoolchild’s hero. But he seldom earns more than a passing mention these days. The greatest American of all time has become just another dead white male.

George did not cut down a cherry tree with a hatchet and confess the deed to his father by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” That is just a legend. But this man’s real deeds turn out to be far more amazing than any of the tall tales that have been told about him.

He was born in 1732 on a small, struggling tobacco farm in Virginia. His father died when he was eleven, and he had to work to help the family make ends meet. As a young boy, he also had to memorize over 100 rules of conduct devised by French Catholic monks. Here are a few examples:

Speak not when you should hold your peace.

Always submit your judgment to others with modesty.

Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.

Let your conversation be without malice or envy…

When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously…

Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

He didn’t forget these rules or outgrow them. They were rules for life, and they were not just about common courtesy but about developing moral character and moral discipline.

The Testing Ground of Experience

By age 15, he was already working as a professional surveyor far beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The wilderness had a profound impact on him. It tested his mettle and endurance, forced him to improvise to meet unexpected challenges, and opened wide new vistas in his imagination. He was filled with the restless longing of the pioneer—and, if it were not for his family obligations back home in Virginia, he undoubtedly would have become a legendary woodsman and explorer like his contemporary, Daniel Boone.

By age 21, he was a major in the colonial army. He fought during the French and Indian War, and his bravery made him a living legend. In one battle, he had two mounts shot out from under him, and his hat and uniform were riddled with bullet holes.

In 1775, after the first shots between the Redcoats and the Minutemen were fired at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress unanimously elected George as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Why?

He was not a general. He was just a simple country farmer who happened to have some limited military experience. He did not enjoy a reputation as a powerful politician or a great orator. At 43, he was also far too young for such an awesome responsibility. But he was the type of man who never quit, no matter how difficult the odds. If the American cause had to rest on the shoulders of one man, the delegates knew unquestionably that the man had to be George Washington.

A Hopeless Cause

He was facing a hopeless cause. The Continentals had no trained soldiers, no money, no ammunition, no weapons, and no supplies. Yet they were about to take on the greatest army in the world. Britain was a superpower. George, however, found ingenious ways to make America’s great liabilities into assets. And as a commander, he was bold, decisive, and strategically brilliant. Moreover, he inspired his men by setting a personal example of bravery on the battlefield and endurance in camp. He lived in the same conditions as his men. He suffered the same cold, hunger, and pain.

There is no question that the army would have deserted en masse at Valley Forge if it had not been for George. Think about that for a moment. What kind of man could command such devotion?

The War for Independence was essentially won in 1781 after George pulled off a stunning surprise attack at Yorktown. But his army couldn’t be disbanded until a treaty was signed. His men were furious; they couldn’t return to plant crops and care for their families. Worse yet, most of them hadn’t been paid for two years.

It is hard to believe, but as late as March of 1783 they were still marooned in a dirty, crowded camp in Newburgh, New York. Congress continued to turn a deaf ear to George’s pleas that the men be paid or discharged. It wasn’t just the enlisted men who were grumbling about this shameful ill-treatment. Scores of officers were circulating anonymous pamphlets calling for mutiny. The rag-tag army had won the war, but now it stood to lose the peace. It looked as though the American experiment would be over before it had really begun, and the nation would be plunged into bloody civil war.

Then George performed one last desperate act. He showed up unexpectly at a secret meeting that was designed to launch the mutiny. He asked if he could speak and was reluctantly given the floor. He called for his officers to be patient just a little while longer. He reminded them that the army could not be a law unto itself. He also pointed out that they had fought together to institute democracy, not a new kind of tyranny. And he concluded by saying, “I have a letter here from a congressman that will prove the good faith of our government.” He drew the parchment from his pocket and unfolded it.

But the light in the tavern was too dim for him to make out the words. With a trembling hand, he fumbled for his glasses. He hated them and had never worn them in public before. In a deeply mortified tone, he apologized, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

He started to read the letter, but he couldn’t speak. His voice, as well as his composure, deserted him. He stalked out of the room without uttering another word.

The officers were all hardened soldiers who had witnessed terrible sights without flinching. But, seeing their beloved commander reduced to such a state, they began to weep openly. They immediately pledged to follow orders and quell all attempts at mutiny. Once again, George Washington had saved the new nation from destruction.

The Father of Our Country

This single incident speaks volumes about our nation’s greatest hero. He went on to become the first President of the United States in 1799. In fact, the drafters of the Constitution had him specifically in mind when they created the office.

George risked everything and gave up his private life once more to lead the struggling new weak. He himself said that being the first president was like “entering upon an unexplored field, enveloped on every side with clouds and darkness.” He even confessed to a friend that he felt like a condemned man being sent to the gallows, but duty could not be denied.

Above all, George was keenly aware that forming “a new government requires infinite care,” and that his actions as president would establish important precedents. In a letter written near the end of the Revolution, he acknowledged that “we have a national character to establish” and added that it should rest “on permanent principles.” The two principles he named were justice and gratitude. His own dedication to these principles would be severely tested during his eight years as America’s first chief executive. But he turned out to be the most successful president in American history. Here is a brief list of his accomplishments:

  • He enforced the separation of powers and used the presidential veto to protect the Constitution.
  • He straightened out the nation’s finances, calling for full repayment of the Revolutionary war debt, frugal spending, a balanced budget, and low taxes.
  • He advocated a simple code of legal justice that the common man could understand. He undertook the task of educating literally thousands of citizens about the Constitution, which was the new law of the land.
  • He sought equal treatment for Indians on par with whites in the courts. And in his will he freed the slaves he had inherited from his family.
  • He defended religion and morality as what he called the “twin pillars” of the free society. His diaries and letters are filled with references to his strong personal faith.
  • He also defended religious freedom and tolerance for such traditionally persecuted groups as the Baptists, Roman Catholics, Quakers, and Jews.
  • He was a peacemaker. When two rival political parties formed, he made sure that he had representatives of both in his cabinet. Avoiding bitter factionalism was one of his strongest concerns. He constantly wrote letters to quarreling politicians in which he recited the virtues of trust, patience, and forgiveness.
  • He was a war hero who hated war. He harbored no romantic illusions about soldiering. Therefore, he established a foreign policy based on strict neutrality and, despite considerable pressures, kept his administration free from “entangling alliances” with other nations.

The Father of Our Freedom

His refusal to accept a third term was an extraordinary historical event. That a ruler would voluntarily hand over the reins of government to another was almost unthinkable; it had rarely ever happened in all human history. By giving his awesome political power back to the people who had entrusted it to him, George gained something far greater than the power any king ever possessed: He became the father not just of a country but of the greatest experiment in freedom the world has ever known.

George bitterly regretted the fact that he had no children of his own. But since he was the “father of our country,” we are all rightly his heirs. He has also been called the “indispensable man.” Without him, we might not have won our independence. Without him, our republic might not have survived. Without him, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights might not have been written.

He showed us the tremendous power of one individual. He created not only a model for the chief executive but a model for every citizen. He was the living embodiment of what it means to be an American. There will never be another George Washington, but we should all aspire to be like him.