If you were a young student in the 1880s, there was a strong chance that you would have been taught about the great men and women who made the modern age, people who explored, created, overcame insurmountable odds, and generally deserved admiration and respect. They were inventors like Thomas Edison, explorers like Christopher Columbus, political dissidents like Thomas Paine, martyrs for big causes like Nathan Hale, medical researchers like Louis Pasteur, writers like Charles Dickens, and even some statesmen (mostly founding fathers). A late example of such lessons was How They Succeeded by the founding editor of Success magazine.
What was the point? Biography is interesting and engaging for students. It’s a great way to impart a historical narrative to make sense of what came before. In addition, young people like to imagine that they can do great things in life, and so they read themselves into the plot of compelling stories of great men and women. This helps form character. It provides inspiration. It models what it means to make a difference.
Humility figures very high in the Reedian oeuvre.In the 20th century, at some point, all of this became unfashionable and then untaught. The heroes of the past were replaced, culture-wide, with the strong men of the present. The people we were asked to admire were the current builders of a new world of mighty states, big wars, gigantic public works projects, central planners. And as the world became ever more vulnerable and dangerous, we were encouraged to cling to our leaders: Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and then Kennedy and Johnson.
The change was even reflected in the design of coins and paper money. In the 19th century, they featured symbols of American ideals of liberty and independence. In the 20th century, these were replaced by...politicians.
Barren of Heroes
Now young people grow up in a world mostly barren of heroes. We told them to admire great political leaders. Yet they watch the election unfolding before their eyes, and what they see is a trainwreck: people and machines that somehow survived the ghastly and grim world of politics and rose to the top. And what character traits do they exhibit? Cunning, power ambition, duplicity, and egomania. No one any longer suggests that these people are the ones we should emulate. But who remains?
It is with this background that I want to offer my highest possible praise for a grand project of my old friend and mentor of decades Lawrence W. Reed. He is the author of Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction (ISI Books, 2016). What Reed has done here is revive an old and very important literary form. But he has also made an improvement because his stories are not just about making some difference. The forty people profiled in his book have made a difference for human liberty, which the author rightly believes is the font of all beautiful things in life.
What matters to him is whether your life is well lived.Why does this matter? It’s not just ideological, although Reed has chosen people who stand up to the state rather than cooperate and/or build the state. But what also distinguishes the book are the virtues on display. Humility figures very high in the Reedian oeuvre.
For example, he offers a profile of a former inmate, Larry Cooper, who was only recently released from jail. He has turned around a lifetime of screw-ups to become a productive and peaceful person – not a man who will set the world on fire, but a good person, and that is saying a lot these days.
And this speaks to another remarkable aspect of Reed's book. To him, it doesn’t matter if your heroism is large or small, in some prestige field or some forgotten area of life. What matters to him is whether your life is well lived.
Heroism comes down to the courage we show, the choices we make, and the character we call on as we go about our daily lives.His point is to show that one person can make a difference, and that we owe much of the brightness, progress, freedom, and prosperity that this world offers to individuals who showed character, courage, and conviction in their lives: people who would not allow their lives to be dictated by an existing system but rather acted in ways that pointed to something better.
Readers of FEE.org have followed Reed’s series for at least a year. They have read about sports stars, hymn writers, inventors, novelists, dissidents, and amazing people from all times and places. We’ve thrilled to the stories of these people. Sometimes we cried. Sometimes we cheered. We’ve always been enlightened because most of the people here have stories that are unknown to the current generation.
Now we have the result in book form. I would say it is the libertarian book of the year, but that too narrowly defines the content. This is a book about human dignity and the everlasting struggle to build societies that recognize and protect it. It is not just for libertarians; it is for everyone who longs for a better world. As the title suggests, these were REAL heroes, including marvelous entrepreneurs, political dissidents, inventors, and writers who brought light to darkness and thereby made the world more livable, loving, and free.
A Personal Note
Last year, I was on a panel with Reed, and one young member of the audience asked what he could do to make a difference. I rattled off a series of ideas concerning writing, entrepreneurship, good books to read and so on. When it came to Reed’s turn to answer, he was quick and his answer surprised me. He said: “have good character.” Then he explained, and I paraphrase:
I’ve seen countless example of people with good ideals, good training, top-flight educations, fine ideology, and every advantage in life. But they lacked that crucial thing of character. Lacking that, they have inadvertently made a mess of their lives. This is a tragedy, and so avoidable. Train yourself well, to pay your debts, to have great work habits, to be honest and truthful with others, to exercise virtue in all you do. Then your ideals begin to take flight. That’s when you truly make a difference in the world.
Wow. I could see how his words affected those in the audience. They began to realize that they all had work to do. Yet, they felt inspired to do it.
This book has that same effect for the reader.
What It Means for Liberty
Reed told me that he thinks it is the best work he has ever done. For years I've longed for libertarians to shake off the blues and start working – with energy and enthusiasm – to build the world they want to live in. It takes creativity, yes, and it must start with inspiration. This book provides that inspiration. It shows that it can be done, one life at a time. Because of this, a beautiful spirit of optimism pervades this book, and it is truly infectious.
Reed told me that he thinks it is the best work he has ever done. That is saying a lot because he has been working for freedom his entire life. And yet, I think he is right. He has hit upon a hugely important theme, and I hope it takes hold. It's long past time that we stop merely wallowing in pity, grumbling about the shabby state of things, obsessing about all the terrible things in the world, and start doing the hard work of being part of the solution.
We are all granted only so much time on earth. Reed’s book shows how we can use it well to benefit ourselves and make the world a better place. He manages to show this through the real lives of others, thereby avoiding all preachiness and hectoring. Heroism comes down to the courage we show, the choices we make, and the character we call on as we go about our daily lives.