Pictures on the wall
On the office wall opposite my desk I have placed six pictures: four prints, a photograph, and a post card. Each is framed. These are pictures of six of my heroes. (I have additional heroes and heroines, but the lack of available wall space and the expense of framing do not encourage expanding the group.)Skip to next paragraph
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Chekhov also enjoyed the company of his heroes. At one point in his life he left Moscow for Yalta, where he engaged a Tatar contractor to build a two-story house. In it, with its view of the steeply rising Crimea mountains, Chekhov placed a print of Pushkin and portraits of Tolstoy and Turgenev on the study wall by his desk. In the presence of these luminaries, no doubt inspired by them , he wrote The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.
At my office desk, less enduring prose is composed. Agreements, wills, pleadings, briefs - the stock and trade of a lawyer. Occasionally, I raise my eyes from the legal papers to gaze at my heroes.
Four are familiar ones: Franklin, Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln. Not much originality in these selections. The two other may be known less well: King Henry IV of France (1553-1610) and William the Silent (1533-1584), leader of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
Benjamin Franklin's zest for life I find irresistible. Though a New Englander by birth, his life style was more cosmopolitan than Puritan. His worldliness shocked some American contemporaries, but made him a great favorite at the French court. I am touched by his optimism, love of life, and deep patriotism.
Of my next hero, Thomas Jefferson, nothing more need be mentioned of his talents than this felicitous comment of President Johh F. Kennedy to the Nobel laureates of the Western Hemisphere: ''The most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.''
George Washington resolutely led his countrymen to victory over the foremost military power of the day. Having himself overcome self-doubt and personal despair during the grueling War of Independence, no person had better claim than he to remind Americans that ''it is not the part of a good citizen to despair of the Republic.''
The photograph of Lincoln on my office wall was taken on August 26, 1858, less than a week after his first debate with Douglas. In the realm of fashion, Lincoln was a total flop. He appears in the photograph with a collar several sizes too large and his tie askew. On the essentials he excels, his face conveying integrity, sensitivity, and high intelligence.
Tolstoy said of Lincoln that he was a giant in both depth of feeling and moral power. To the proposal that he treat Confederate prisoners as Union prisoners were being treated at Andersonville, Lincoln responded: ''Whatever others may say or do, I never can, and I never will, be accessory to such treatment of human beings.'' He granted generous pardons, rejecting the advice of those counseling revenge. On the issue of race, he said, ''Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man - this race and that race and the other race being inferior . . . and unite as one people throughout this land.'' Out of the ravages of war he sought a home for one national family.
Lincoln shared with King Henry IV and William the Silent an admirable trait: tolerance. Each was a man of tolerance living in intolerant times.
The temper of Henry's times? In Paris, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of the Huguenots. In the Netherlands, six thousand people who would not abandon the Protestant faith being sent to the block, gallows, or pyre. Elsewhere Protestants burning Roman Catholics. In the sixteenth century, fanaticism was ecumenical.
How gloriously out of tune with his times were the words and deeds of Henry. The words: ''There must be no more distinction between Catholics and Huguenots. All must be good Frenchmen, and let the Catholics convert the Huguenots by the example of a good life. I am a shepherd king, who will not shed the blood of his sheep, but seek to bring them together with kindness.'' The deeds: When laying siege to Catholic Paris, he had not the heart to maintain too harsh a blockade, lest his capital become a cemetery. He celebrated the taking of Paris with an amnesty, not executions.
My most recent acquisition, purchased last summer in the Netherlands, is a post card portrait of William after a painting by Anthonis Mor. The Dutch national anthem, Wilhelmus van Nassouwe, is named in his honor. The anthem has fifteen verses. In the first verse, William is described as ''den vaderland Getrouwe'' - ''Devoted to the cause of the nation.'' No higher accolade can be bestowed on a person. Few people in history deserve it more.
As Philip II's grim policy of religious oppression unfolded in the Netherlands, William said, ''I cannot approve of princes attempting to rule the conscience of their subjects.'' Or, ''To see a man burnt for doing as he thought right, harms the people, for this is a matter of conscience.'' Tolerant deeds followed tolerant words. As Cicily V. Wedgwood notes in her brilliant biography, William the Silent, when Spanish negotiators hinted to William that his lands might be restored and his son released from prison in Spain were he less stubborn on the issue of freedom of conscience, William would not budge an inch. In Ghent, he sought to persuade Calvinists to return churches seized from Catholics. When the Antwerp council proposed that a tax be levied exclusively against Catholics, William convinced them that it was wrong to penalize their fellow citizens in a war being fought for toleration. His views upset Calvinist and Catholic alike, for William was at odds with his age.
All six of my heroes were patriots. Three had the personal misfortune to rule at a time of civil war. Each was open-minded with wide-ranging interests. All were men of tolerance.
For me, each serves as a source of continuing inspiration.