Impulse 63: Board Notes

Board notes
Mark Laskow


Is the Carnegie Hero Medal unconstitutional?

Well, no, of course not, that’s preposterous. Yet at a time when Americans are focused on the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the question seemed like a good way to grab your attention. Although it could be seen as a cheesy trick, your vaguely intellectual essayist (that’s me) does have a more serious purpose in asking that question.

When Andrew Carnegie created the Hero Medal, he zeroed in on some philosophical issues that greatly concerned the founders of the United States, both when they made the momentous decision to seek independence and when they created the U.S. Constitution.

I have written here often how the heroic acts of the Carnegie Medal awardees make real the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” In each rescue, our heroes recognize that they share an equal claim to life with the person needing rescued, and they act on that by taking on the same peril. However, I have not delved into how individual heroism fits in the philosophy that animates the Constitution.

From the years before the American Revolution when the colonists debated the idea of independence until 1787 when they created the Constitution, the founders wrestled with the problem of power.

Bernard Bailyn, writing in “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” describes how, in considering independence, the founders considered power to be highly problematic, almost inherently evil.

After the Revolution, however, the mess of trying to govern under the Articles of Confederation, convinced the founders the national government must have considerable power to survive and permit the nation to thrive. But how could they reconcile this with their fear of power?

They invented the idea of a limited government, powerful where power was assigned, but carefully held in check by the states and by a careful balance among three branches of government.

These limitations on government meant that it couldn’t perform every civic task one could imagine. This was both because of the limitations of the Constitution and because of the attitudes of the citizenry.

To take up these tasks, the United States developed a vast array of private civic endeavors, ranging from volunteer fire companies to private universities to, dare I say, organizations like the Carnegie Hero Fund. Alexis de Tocqueville commented on this in the 1830s, a little before Andrew Carnegie’s time, and it is still true today. This private civic infrastructure is so normal to us that we assume it must be so everywhere.

Not so. When we visit European Hero funds we will sometimes hear comment that governments are a little mystified by the organizations. What is the role of such a private organization? The attitude elsewhere is that if something is important enough to do, the government will do it.

How different is America! We have excellent government safety services protecting us from fire, crime, medical disaster, and so forth, but alongside this Americans have built a rich civic culture that extends these services beyond the government’s reach and takes on other projects outside the government’s assigned sphere. The Carnegie Hero Fund is among the latter.

And what about our Carnegie Heroes? They represent the ultimate embodiment of the American willingness to take on and solve a problem beyond the reach. Whether the peril is fire, flood, or assault, our heroes act in seconds rather than risk waiting minutes or longer for governmental help to arrive. These are sensible people…they often call 911 before they launch themselves into a daring rescue attempt. In this they are the ultimate example of the balance of rights and responsibilities between citizens and government that make our country work.