A New American Rushmore

New-Rushmore

As I noted the other day, America has a Mt. Rushmore problem. So what if we dynamited the thing, found a new rock and started over? What would Rushmore mk2 look like were we to begin anew, informed by our current values as a society?

Here’s a proposal.

For starters, let’s get rid of the Great Presidents® requirement. Politicians generally tend to be a pretty disappointing lot so shackling your vision to them seems limiting, at best. Not saying we can’t have presidents and pols up there, but let’s acknowledge that who we are – or rather, who we ought strive to be – goes well beyond gold domes and marble halls.

So our candidates can be scientists, civil leaders, artists, writers, musicians, athletes, enlightened businesspeople, educators, journalists, scholars, you name it. Probably not reality show personalities, though.

In other words, which four figures from America’s history represent what’s best about us? Our hopes, our dreams, our genius, our empathy, our sacrifice, our wit, our gift for beauty, our courage, our vision, our dedication to truth, our pursuit of knowledge … our quest for a brighter future, a better world?

I have more ideas that I know what to do with. I’d like to hear yours.

7 thoughts on “A New American Rushmore

  1. If I could only pick four, my choices might be Roger Williams, Emma Lazarus, Geronimo, and Zora Neale Hurston. These are all extremely important figures who, other than the third, aren’t particularly well known. There are other possible candidates.

    I’m a big fan of Thomas Paine, of course, but we can give him a separate monument of his own, maybe next to the Lincoln memorial on the National Mall. Also, Fred Hampton with his Rainbow Coalition, in being martyred like MLK, deserves statues all over the county.

    1. Some might wonder why I included Geronimo. My reasons are simple. Partly, he is a Native American, which is pretty important to understanding America. Equally significant, he fought against imperialism, as did many Americans before him. But the important distinction is that the imperialism he specifically fought against was American. So, he was an American fighting against American imperialism.

      He showed how a dedicated smaller force could fight a much larger force, a principle demonstrated once again in Afghanistan. Also, he represents the idea of defending one’s homeland against violent invaders and oppressors. Geronimo symbolizes a powerful form of anti-imperialism. There are other Americans who were anti-imperialist freedom fighters, though.

      Then I picked Roger Williams for similar reasons that RetroHound chose William Penn. But the advantage of Roger Williams is that he is the earliest example of a major political leader fighting for freedom, justice, democracy, and multiculturalism. He was the prototype of the values that have shaped so much of what America has become. He was the original source.

      Or if not Williams, then the even earlier Thomas Morton who also represents another strain of anti-authoritarianism that expressed joyous and celebratory rabblerousing. The history of Merrymount with its English-style paganism makes for a great story, as well. It has the added bonus of being part of Puritan history and so offers a contrast to that American-style fundamentalism.

      The other two I threw into my choice of four are black women for no particular reason, other than what they represented. One was a a slave poet and the other an anthropologist (part of the Boas group) having challenged not only racism but the very construct of race. They offer a balance, since race has been so central to this country. But as I included Geronimo, I could have included someone who directly fought back against slavery and racism.

      Other lesser known but important figures that could be nominated for inclusion on a new American Rushmore are Henry George, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Robert Dale Owen, George Washington Carver, Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Henry A. Wallace, etc. There are many figures like that with various influences on society, but it’s hard to know who would deserve such prominence as having their face put on a mountain.

      I can think of some writers and artists who are quintessentially American. Steinbeck, of course, is an obvious example. But I suspect it would be harder to come to a consensus on their central importance, as creative influence tends to be more subtle and indirect. Also, people tend to be highly opinionated about which writers and artists they think worthy or not.

      Think about Philip K. Dick who is as American as they come and has had a huge impact on culture, even though few would recognize his name and most would only know his work through the dozens of adaptations and copycats. PKD’s stories and ideas have seeped into our shared culture like few have accomplished in all of American history. There would be resistance since he wasn’t respectable, but that would be a motivating reason to consider him.

      My original pick of four was meant to be educational. I could think of all kinds of important figures, not only those famous like MLK but also fairly well known like Henry David Thoreau. My thought was that those people don’t necessarily need any further advertising for their accomplishments, as everyone likely learns about them in a history class and likely have heard the words of both.

      Others might argue that a new American Rushmore should be limited to only historical figures who are already well known in the mainstream. That is the problem, though, as so many of the more ‘respectable’ people who fit into conventional histories often have less than savory details to their lives. The radicals who are more principled (and often more interesting) for that reason tend to be silenced in their lifetime, suppressed after their death, and so less well known by later generations.

      Even an impressive and important figure like Paine was largely dismissed and forgotten until quite recent. At one point, his reputation had been so smeared that he came to be thought of as anti-American. Theodore Roosevelt, as right-wing authoritarian imperialist, particularly hated Paine. That would be all the more reason to pick him. I’ve had a theory for a while that the moment Paine returns to mainstream public awareness in the United States, such as a popular movie showing his extreme radicalism and his American vision, we will be on the verge of a new American Revolution.

      Paine, in my opinion, is the key to understanding what America has become. He named the United States, was the only founding father to openly speak of democracy, the earliest American proponent of a universal basic income (citizens dividend), Jefferson borrowed from Paine in writing the Declaration of Independence, and even some of his critics admitted the revolution would’ve been lost without him. We are only now barely beginning to live up to the American Dream Paine gave voice to.

      Rather than being one face among several others, if anything his visage should have an entire mountain all to itself. Yet I’m not sure most Americans even know Paine’s name, much less his words and deeds. Paine is America. We are still living in the Age of Paine.

  2. First thoughts:
    William Penn
    Jim Thorpe
    Martin Luther King, Jr.
    John Steinbeck

    If we have to leave it at four people, it is tough. At least with presidents you have a more limited field to chose from.

    1. Yep. MLK seems automatic to me. Penn is a good one. One of the few early founders I’d consider. Thorpe – wow, how did I not think of him? Steinbeck I thought of immediately – GRAPES might be my choice for greatest American novel. On the whole Twain might be even better, but damned. Tough call. Thanks.

      1. I’d probably pick Twain over Steinbeck. Twain has become a symbol of American culture known around the world. He is the closest we have to a Shakespeare. Plus, Twain had this very dark side that gives some of his writings a serious bite (e.g., The Mysterious Stranger). But he was able to hide this hard edge behind a charming personality and entertaining storyteller.

    2. I am a fan of William Penn. It’s true that Roger Williams was the earlier advocate of a similar American vision. And it’s true that Penn largely inherited the good relations with Native Americans in the region from the French legacy of Samuel de Champlain. But what Penn accomplished was the colonial founder effect in having established a certain kind of lassez-faire multiculturalism and egalitarianism. This became the underlying current of culture that spread across the entire Midwest, from which it developed into the American Melting Pot ideal that has come to define how Americans think of themselves.

      More than the Puritans, it was Penn’s vision that particularly defined the Northern identity in opposition to Southern white nationalism. His colony was a place of ethnic immigrants right from the start and always was majority non-WASP and non-British. Benjamin Franklin complained about all the German-Americans who refused to assimilate. Yet as a businessman seeing profits to be had, he started the first German language newspaper.

      It was in Penn’s colony that not only Franklin went to in illegally escaping from his young indentured servitude but where he came to make his name as the symbol of the American entrepreneur. He was the first American, in traveling in Europe, who Europeans looked upon as American. Penn’s Pennsylvania experiment shaped Franklin as he helped shape it, such as his intervention in stopping the rampage of the Paxton Boys.

      Also, it was Franklin who met the impoverished Paine in London and invited him to Pennsylvania. It was in that colony that Paine wrote his fiery words that inspired and helped win a revolution of independence. Philadelphia (where Franklin called home, Paine did much of his writing, and Benjamin Rush was born) has been named the Cradle of Liberty. All of that was an extension of Penn’s radical Quakerism, as was the Philadelphian John Dickinson’s writing of the Articles of Confederation based on Quaker constitutionalism.

      Penn was not only an important figure but his colonial project had such a major influence on later important figures. So, I could give Penn a vote of support as an inspiring representative of what America should stand for.

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