For the Al: Hans Christian Heg

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Here in Wisconsin the more recent rioting in Kenosha, five miles from my house, has supplanted memories of this year’s earlier rioting in Madison. But The Al has a long memory, and it’s worth harking back to that earlier moment. For while the overall damage was not as great, the Madison rioters did distinguish themselves by committing the single dumbest act in all that season of high stupidity. In the name of racial justice, they tore down a statue, erected not by taxpayers but by an immigrant community, of Hans Christian Heg, a heroic enemy of slavery and racial oppression – an immigrant who labored long and hard to destroy injustice, and finally gave his life to the cause.

Down he must come, because he doesn’t look like us. Or rather – because the violent mobs nationwide have been noticeably pale, and that trend was not defied here in Wisconsin of all places – he does not look like the people on whose behalf we have, with no warrant but our arrogance, set ourselves up to speak and act as public champions.

As I wrote after the riots in my community, there are many continuing legacies of injustice – racial and otherwise – worth protesting. But at the same time, our only hope to fight injustice is to preserve the patrimony passed down to us by heroic forefathers who stood in their time for justice, freedom, human rights, equality under the rule of law and constitutional democracy. These commitments are not “conservative” in the sense of creating a stable and static social world. But they are “preservative,” both in the sense that they are our only real safeguard against the abyss of endless violence and in the sense that they do not just spring up of themselves either from pure reason or spontaneous sentiment, like Athena from the head of Zeus. We must preserve them if we want them to preserve us.

Our failure to pass on our moral patrimony has created a culture in which history began yesterday, and people are not supposed to have heroes who don’t look like them. I am shocked by the near-total ignorance about Martin Luther King that prevails among people under 35 who are of European descent. He was a black man, and apparently that means knowing about him is for black people. A young pastor of pale pigmentation once shamefacedly confessed to me: “The only thing I know about Martin Luther King is that my father told me he had bad theology.” In some ways he did, but that is hardly the Fun Fact to Know and Tell about him.

A world in which history began yesterday and nobody is supposed to have heroes who don’t look like them will not be friendly to justice, freedom, human rights, equality under the rule of law and constitutional democracy. The desirability of these things is, of course, provable by natural reason and satisfactory to humane sentiment, and thus potentially discoverable in any age. But a social commitment to them that is strong enough to induce people to sacrifice individual happiness for them cannot be either argued or felt into existence. It is, as Lord Acton said, “the delicate flower of a mature civilization.”

Who was Hans Christian Heg?

In 1840 he and his Norwegian-immigrant parents moved to America and settled in Muskego – not all that far from Kenosha, as it happens. He lived there his whole life, except for a year of gold-digging in the Sacramento Valley during the California Gold Rush. In 1859 he was put in charge of the local state prison, “earning a reputation as a pragmatic reformer” by working toward rehabilitation of the offenders, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

A dogged enemy of slavery, Heg supported the Free Soil Party and later the Republicans. He was the statewide leader of the Wide Awakes, a youth organization that served – not to put too fine a point on it – as the paramilitary wing of the Republican Party. Officially, the Wide Awakes organized torchlight marches and provided security for anti-slavery speakers. Unofficially, they gave the bum’s rush to “slave catchers,” heartless men who hunted down escaped slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. Heg put his position as head of the prison at political risk by sheltering Sherman Booth, a federal fugitive who had incited a crowd to attempt to rescue an escaped slave from forced repatriation.

When the war came, Wisconsin’s governor appointed Heg to lead the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, known as the “Scandinavian Regiment” because almost all its members were immigrants from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Heg raised donations and spent his own money to organize the immigrant unit, advertising for “Norsemen” willing to come to the aid of their country, and freedom.

Heg was wounded at the Battle of Perryville, but because of his excellent leadership, his unit suffered few other casualties while under heavy enemy fire. Heg was put in command of a brigade, and was being eyed for promotion to brigadier general. But he was summoned to the last full measure of devotion at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he died fighting for the adopted country and the freedom he loved.

(Does the Battle of Chickamauga ring a bell, Al fans? It should!)

As you can see in the photo above, Norwegian-Americans raised their own money to commemorate Heg. The statue was unveiled in front of Madison’s statehouse in 1926, where it stood until 2020.

The report of Heg’s death in the Madison State Journal of September 29, 1863 reads like the preserved breath of a lost civilization, because that is what it is:

The State has sent no braver soldier, and no truer patriot to aid in this mighty struggle for national unity, than Hans Christian Heg. The valorous blood of the old Vikings ran in his veins, united with the gentler virtues of a Christian and a gentleman.

Right reasoning and just sentiment were necessary for the new birth of freedom, but not sufficient. Emancipation was effected because the valorous blood of the Vikings had been refined through the centuries by high religion and cultured aspiration – “the delicate flower of a mature civilization.”

What could be more rational and fitting than to nominate this Viking Christian Gentleman for The Al?

2 Responses to For the Al: Hans Christian Heg

  1. Gary Gut says:

    “Emancipation was effected because the valorous blood of the Vikings had been refined through the centuries by high religion and cultured aspiration -… “

    I wonder how many Christians and gentlemen and women supported the continuation of slavery? Let’s not assume causality here.

    To your point that heroes don’t have to look like “us”, you can add that villains don’t always look like “them”. There’s room on all sides for both heroes and villains; paying attention to the facts ought to be our guide.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Of course religious and cultural refinement are *also* not sufficient conditions by themselves. Reality is irreducibly complex. That was part of my point!

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