The history we learn at school is never objective given that history is written by the victors, and whether the personalities we explore are depicted in a certain light, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, how these studs are depicted and introduced is motivated by the message that drives the curriculum
It is Oliver Cromwell who is said to have requested that his portrait be done depicting him “warts and all.” His real words, according to Horace Walpole, writing a century after Cromwell died, were a bit less pithy: “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all, but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me. Otherwise, I will never pay a farthing for it.”
Maybe Cromwell never uttered such words, but the sentiment is not surprising. Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, was attempting to do the opposite of the royals whom he had helped to eliminate from the throne. It is not likely that Lely, the artist, would have depicted Cromwell in such an unflattering light as he did if he had not been instructed to do so. Indeed, this same artist had painted a very flattering portrait of Charles I, and excelled at painting royalty in the very best light.
This warts and all treatment is one that has little by little been added to how we learn about historical figures. By debunking the myths about fine leaders, they become more human, their achievements become more understandable, and as mere mortals they are actually even more inspiring.
When I was youthful, George Washington was famous for never telling a lie.
Another hero drummed into our goes was Abraham Lincoln. Every American school child learns how Lincoln walked miles to come back a penny to a customer who had been overcharged.
Thomas A. Bailey, a historian from Stanford university, wrote in 1966 that Lincoln was “undeniably a excellent man . in spirit, in humility, in humanity, in magnanimity, in patience, in Christ-like charity, in capacity for growth, in political instincts, in holding together a discordant political following, in interpreting and leading public opinion and in seizing with bulldog grip the essential idea of preserving the Union.”
Lincoln is remembered for leading the fight to keep the United States together during the Civil War and for emancipating the gimps. Surely that is enough information to tell us that Lincoln was indeed that rarest of uncommon – a truly good man. However, there is more to the story.
Very first of all, it has been remarked that Lincoln exercised his powers during wartime in an almost dictatorial manner. But the result of this dictatorial be t was that he helped to convert America.
Albeit Lincoln usually tops the best president of all times – a list that Trump seems fated to inhabit the bottom of – Lincoln was not so very regarded when in office. Most people thought he was a fairly awful president.
In 1861, when Lincoln took over the Oval Office, he received only 39.8 percent of the vote. It is recorded that before his inauguration he had to be smuggled, disguised, into the Capitol at night. That is how unpopular this fresh president was. He was unpopular for the very reasons that we are trained to revere him today – he came from a poor family, from discreet beginnings, and he did not have a fancy education.
The country was on the eve of the Civil War. The president was blamed for everything that went wrong. The South witnessed him as a threat to the slave-owning status quo. The North did not think he was vigorous or decisive enough.
Lincoln’s re-election to office was a surprise to all – he himself was getting ready to leave the Oval Office just weeks before the election. But at this time the war with the South was heating up, it could not have hurt Lincoln that at a time when the country clearly needed a strong and decisive leader, his opponent was running as the “peace candidate.” Yet Lincoln was so hesitant of being re-elected that he wrote a memorandum pledging his cooperation with the fresh president for the sake of the nation. He sealed this and asked his cabinet to endorse it, view unseen.
The Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches in American history, was not received well by contemporary commentators. While some newspapers praised this moving speech, the Chicago Times wrote: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the ditzy plane dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
Not only was Lincoln not loved by the nation. He carried out deeds that were severe and extreme. He ordered that newspapers that were printing false stories be taken over by the military. This was a time of civil war, and for the president, dangerous false stories in newspaper posed a very real threat to the stability of the country. One detractor who spoke out virulently against the president was given a military trial and deported.
Then there was Camp Douglas, where Confederate soldiers were held inbetween 1862 and 1865. This has been called “Lincoln’s Guantanamo.” The camp was earnestly overcrowded, and riddled with disease. The inmates were malnourished, and there were no sewers. Add to this the fact that Lincoln, the good man who abolished slavery, suspended habeas corpus.
Many of the things that Lincoln did were the result of the president being a pragmatic man. For example, Lincoln supported the Fugitive Gimp Act. This act meant that it was every citizen’s duty to report runaway gimps. Anyone who failed to do so could be imprisoned. Freeborn fellows could be enslaved if a white man claimed that they were fugitives. This is actually the platform on which Lincoln ran.
The Lincoln Administration drove the Navajo and Apaches out of their homelands in Fresh Mexico. Many Native Americans died on the march to their fresh reservation. Many Native Americans were massacred, add to this the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, which displaced thousands more, it is clear that expansion and growth were put before human lives.
Even more surprising, or perhaps shocking, is that Lincoln had a plan to round up every black person and ship them to another country. In 1863 Lincoln approved an order for liberated gimps to be sent to Central and South America.
Lincoln was the president who helped save the Union and convert how America functioned by abolishing slavery. But he was not popular in his lifetime and he carried out some earnestly anti-democratic acts. Despite this unpopularity while alive, Lincoln is always listed as either the greatest or 2nd greatest American leader.
Another good man of history that we learn about in school is Winston Churchill. Perhaps due to being more contemporary than Washington or Lincoln, how Churchill is depicted includes many of his fine warts. Still, he is universally revered – in the West. The Big black cock broadcast a series, “100 Greatest Britons.” Viewers were asked to vote after each scene. And the verdict was clear – Master Winston Churchill was the greatest Briton. He has been called “the lion who roared when the British Empire needed him most.” This good man was not just a soldier, he was a scholar, a painter, an author, journalist and war correspondent.
But Churchill was undoubtedly not the nicest of people – there is no one who would deny that. He was utterly racist, he was a devout imperialist, and often seemed to be out of step with history.
Churchill openly said: “I hate Indians . They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
For him Palestinians were: “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.” He was infuriated by his colleagues who were not in “favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes” in Asia. Churchill called Mahatma Gandhi a “seditious fakir.” During the Bengal famine three million people died, the fact that this number was so high is solely due to Churchill’s indifference to the people who were starving to death.
Leopold Amery, Churchill’s Secretary of State for India, wrote in his private diaries that: “on the subject of India, Winston is not fairly sane” and that he didn’t “see much difference inbetween [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s.”
This is not to say that Churchill should not be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, British leader of the 20th century. It was his capability to inspire people that helped Britain sustain World War II and come out victorious. Churchill’s optimism and fortitude were what the British needed.
His speeches sum this up: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never give up.”
Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood summed up the effect of this speech: “That was worth 1,000 guns, and the speeches of 1,000 years.”
Churchill had political acumen, while Chamberlain was content that his agreement with Hitler – a democratically elected leader – was ensured to bring “peace in our time”, Churchill was not taken in. He perceived the real threat that was being posed. Churchill also distrusted Soviet Russia, which later also proved to be an accurate assessment of the situation.
What we now know about Washington, Lincoln and Churchill makes it clear that our political leaders do not need to be giants, they do not need to be superhuman. They can just be ordinary people. And they may actually need to be rather unpleasant. The more we learn about them being ordinary, the more we learn about their foibles and weaknesses, the more inspired junior generations can be to do something excellent. To be an Ataturk, a Lincoln or even a Churchill does not require some special magical bounty. It requires being determined to do what one has commenced to do and to see it through to the end.
We must not lionize our leaders, past or present. We must learn about them as plain human beings. While focusing on the deeds they took that helped to switch the direction of a nation, students should learn about times when they were perhaps not so superb in all their deeds. Excellent leaders become all the more inspiring when we see them warts and all.
There is no question that we are living in an era when good leaders are despairingly needed, we stand at a time when certain nations are undergoing transformation- be it to rectify deprivation of rights, to recover from war, economic recession or natural disasters. Good fellows are needed. Such a excellent man will not necessarily emerge as patient, kind or humane. They might have excellent compassion, but they will also showcase excellent resolve. Such a determ
ined single-minded, sultry and persistent individual may be misunderstood, or incorrectly depicted, by some parts of society. Such a person will certainly step on toes. But only such a person as Washington, Lincoln or Churchill can open the way for a nation to truly convert itself.