John Marshall as a “Transparent Hero” in the Goethals & Allison taxonomy

University of Richmond professors Al Goethals and Scott Allison have collaborated over the past years on a number of projects relating to heroes. Their Heroes blog is a superb resource for insights into who heroes are and why we need them. Today, though, we look at something a little heavier … their 2012 book chapter from Advances in Experimental Social Psychology: “Making Heroes: The Construction of Courage, Competence, and Virtue.” In this chapter, Goethals & Allison offer a taxonomy of different kinds of heroes. One of their categories is the “transcendent hero,” who satisfies the criteria for multiple categories. A case can be made for John Marshall as transcendent hero. But rather than make that case now, consider how Marshall might be seen to fit the hero category shaping next year’s exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (on Marshall as “Hidden Hero of American Self-Government”). That is the category of “Transparent Hero.” Here’s what Goethals & Allison say about transparent heroes:

We next turn to an important category of people who quietly perform heroic deeds behind the scenes, outside the public spotlight. We call them transparent heroes. They are our parents who made great sacrifices for us. They are the teachers who molded our minds, the coaches who taught us discipline and hard work, the healthcare workers who healed us, emergency first responders who saved us, and military personnel who protect us. These heroes are quite possibly the most under-appreciated members of our society. They may also be the most abundant, and to test this idea, we asked participants to estimate the prevalence of the hero subtypes in our taxonomy. The results showed that participants estimated that 65% of all heroes are transparent–the invisible individuals among us whose heroic work often goes unnoticed. No other category of heroes came close to matching this percentage; the next highest percentage was 13% for traditional heroes, whom we describe next. Transparent heroes may be our most unsung heroes, but they are judged to be the most prevalent in our society.

Why consider Marshall as a transparent hero? Consider how his relative obscurity (relative, that is, to Washington, Lincoln, & Jefferson, for instance) is a function of his heroic accomplishments relating to the law. Marshall succeeded by pulling something of a disappearing act: He identified himself with the Court, the Court with the Constitution, and the Constitution with the People.