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The late eighteenth century (1780s, 90s) is sometimes characterized as a period of high idealism. Although it would be another few decades before Napoleon arrived in full force, and about half a century before Carlyle first elaborated his great man theory of history, it appears that a good deal of contemporary attention was given to the search for authentic heroes and suitable role models.

In France, for example, there was a movement among dramatists to elevate historical French protagonists to heroic status via the stage play. I've seen this referred to as an important point in the development of nationalism. Another example might be the (sometimes downright worshipful) attention given to Voltaire and Ben Franklin, as the heroic men of letters and virtuous American farmer respectively.

I don't know about anything comparable going on in Britain at that time, but it may simply that my knowledge is lacking. So I wanted to ask about what the 18th century British though of as heroic. Even if there is a dearth of heroic narrative in Britain at this time, I'd still be interested to know what made up their basic conception of heroism.


Who and what was considered heroic in late 18th century Britain? What individuals, backgrounds, and traits would a seventeenth century British person have likely regarded as heroic? How was this similar or distinct from the continent?

Just to be clear, the question isn't about nationalism or ethics, though it touches on both. I'm asking in a straightforward way about what people considered heroic. Some things (loyalty, martial prowess, etc.) are probably a given, so my hope is that answers either expand beyond this, or will tie themselves to the period by providing examples of revered individuals or highlighting ways in which the late 18th century conceptions differ from our own or the expected. Thanks.

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    Just off the top of my head, I don't think the British were very keen on hero worship, at least until the rise of Imperialism. The British were more likely to satirise their leaders than worship them. Bit earlier than your period, but Pope's undercutting of the heroic is telling - "Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey, Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tay." Rape of the Lock – TheHonRose May 6 '18 at 11:56
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    Figures like Nelson (who died in 1803) and Wolfe (d. 1759) are outside your time range, barely, might otherwise count? – kimchi lover May 6 '18 at 13:57
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    @kimchilover: Nelson dies in 1805, October 21, at the Battle of Trafalgar – Pieter Geerkens May 6 '18 at 16:57
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    Benjamin West's famous painting of Wolfe's death, wikipedia tells me, was painted in 1770, and well received. So Wolfe was a hero in the 70's. W goes on to say: "In death, General Wolfe gained fame as a national hero and became an icon of the Seven Years' War and British dominance in late eighteenth century North America." – kimchi lover May 6 '18 at 22:08

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