We are pleased to host a Q&A with Craig Bruce Smith, author of the recently released American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era (UNC Press). Dr. Smith received his PhD from Brandeis and is an assistant professor of history at William Woods University. We will be featuring a review of the book in the coming weeks.
JUNTO: Recently, historical works on honor have emphasized either its violent nature or its connection to an antiquated form of social reputation. Yet your book argues that such “dark” views overlook other, equally significant, elements, most specifically a commitment with ethics—that during this period honor transformed from a hierarchical to an internal matter. What do you mean by that, and why do you argue that such a concept played an instigative role in the American Revolution?
SMITH: Today, if you say the word “honor,” most people conjure up an image of two gentlemen drawing their pistols at ten paces. To the modern audience, honor is inherently violent and elitist. But while dueling may sometimes be a manifestation of honor culture, honor as an ideal is so much more.
The problem with honor is that it’s so difficult to define. It means something different to everyone, both historically and to historians. As a Cambridge man, you will undoubtedly appreciate the words of Rev. Thomas Rutherford, a professor from your alma mater, who in 1754 stated, “it is no easy undertaking to explain a word which is used by all men very unsteadily, and by most without any meaning at all.”
In the Anglo-American world, honor was originally defined as duty, reputation, or valor and usually tried to birth status. But by the Revolutionary era, honor became essentially synonymous with virtue, a concept that denoted morality. When someone was referred to as honorable, it meant the same as when we now describe a person as ethical. Thomas Jefferson’s view of honor, for example, was akin to a modern notion of conscience based on judging your own actions as if “all the world” was watching.
In Britain honor had largely been a static concept for centuries, but the American colonies lacked a similarly rigid aristocratic system, thus allowing for changes to occur. The earliest change I’ve noticed is with Benjamin Franklin in the 1720s. Drawing from classical texts and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, he developed his own conception of honor based on merit over birth.
But, for the most part, we see the largest changes in the term’s usage during and after the French and Indian War, when American colonists start to feel slighted by the British. Honor is recast based on merit and conduct rather than societal position.
Sparked by Enlightenment thinking and more restrictive British legislation, Americans started to view themselves as morally superior to the mother country. Because of this, honor became accessible to more people due to service to the cause. I’m not saying that social hierarchy vanished, but that more individuals of different classes, races, and genders had the opportunity to be viewed as honorable.
As for honor as a cause of the Revolution, this involved taking a look at some of the earliest sources noting resistance to Britain. The colonists mention taxation, rights, and liberty—but they also mention honor. It was the historical actors themselves who bring up this point, and it’s one that hasn’t yet been explored in the historiography.
This book is an ethical history of the American Revolution. It looks at honor and virtue before, during, and after the Revolution, and examines the evolution of the idea. In doing so, it offers a major departure from the existing and worthwhile studies on honor. As you mention, honor has been traditionally tied to reputation and public recognition. Works by Bertram Wyatt-Brown and Joanne Freeman focus on a “primal” version and political violence, while those by Caroline Cox, Charles Royster, and Judith Van Buskirk have been framed on elitism. I believe all of these studies to be correct, but for limited periods. American Honor is the first book to get at a fuller chronological and regional picture of the ideal.
JUNTO: You attempt to take the founders’ ideas concerning honor seriously, rejecting the notion that it is mere rhetoric. How do you balance the language of honor with the social contexts, mixed agendas, and fraught circumstances in which these debates were born?
SMITH: Recent scholarship on the Founders has become very jaded, looking to find fault and ulterior motives in every lofty phrase. But what happens if we take them at their word?
The book itself original evolved out of research on a paper looking at Washington and honor. Washington frequently mentioned honor, so when I first started to expand this project, I had no doubt I’d find references to honor elsewhere in early America. What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming pervasiveness of the term throughout society.
In fact, if you chart the usage of the words honor and virtue in Google N-grams, the Revolutionary era shows the most frequent use of the terms in the past five hundred years. Returning to early sources of Revolutionary causation, the words honor and virtue appeared in places I never expected to find them. I’ve visited over thirty different archives in the US and UK, and I’ve never left without finding references.
The question of rhetoric is one that I’ve frequently been asked; in one instance, someone actually told me that “honor doesn’t exist” and it was all just “rhetoric.” However, the concept was invoked so frequently and expansively throughout society that I don’t think it can be dismissed. Furthermore, the Founders were risking their lives when they “pledged” their “sacred honor.” Would so many hazard their lives for mere rhetoric?
JUNTO: Some may see the title and brief description of the book and think that it is a throwback to an older generation of scholarship on elite white men. However, you make a point of including a divergent cast of characters, including women, African Americans, and poor laborers. How could “honor” mean something significant to such a broad array of people?
SMITH: I’m glad you brought this up. The “throwback” comment (and worse) is something I’ve frequently encountered throughout the researching and writing process. Over the years, some historians have heard the word honor and immediately jumped to stereotypical conclusions. Now, if by “throwback,” it’s meant that the book takes seriously the concept of honor, the ideals of the Founders, and the importance of leaders, then perhaps it is.
But, as you correctly mention, this isn’t just a story of elite white men. I’m looking at a generation of people that came of age before and during the Revolution, people of all races, classes, and genders who helped to found the United States. For this reason, you may notice that I consciously use the term “Founders” rather than more traditional “Founding Fathers.”
Now are there elite white men in the book? Of course. As the Revolution’s leadership was primarily composed from this group, it would be disingenuous to not include them. Furthermore, leaders and their ideas, then as now, continue to have a dramatic impact on all people throughout society. But I made a concerted effort to find sources that included diverse groups usually left out of the historical conversations about honor. For example, slaves in Boston petition for their freedom based on the language of honor, while women join the boycotts under cries of preserving honor.
How was honor so pervasive? Think about people today. We all talk a great deal about morality and ethics (some more than others). Early Americans looked at honor in the same way. People from different social classes and regions may have held varied interpretations, but all understand the basis of the ideal.
JUNTO: In the recent W&MQ/JER forum, much was made about how historians write “to” and “from” the Revolution, but rarely investigate the Revolution as a radical transformation itself. You seem to be reviving questions of both causation and significance. Do you see your work as one possible model to return to questions mostly left behind?
SMITH: Short answer, yes.
American Honor is certainly advancing a new causation narrative and also an expanded, radical significance of the Revolution. And, yes, I do hope that this book helps to revive the dormant debate on the Revolution’s causes and impact. A return to old questions from new perspectives is long overdue.
I don’t think I’m alone in this thinking either. In a 2013 Junto article, well before the recent forum, Michael Hattem called for the revival of the causation narrative (Gordon Wood would make a similar plea in 2015). These articles didn’t necessarily influence my thinking, but they did indicate that others were sensing the same trend at the same time. Others have tackled this question before and arrived at varied conclusions.
Much like my earlier discussion on other histories of honor, my intention is not to overturn the great work that has been done on the Revolution’s causes and outcomes, but to add to it. Jack Rakove stated the issue of causations was basically closed, but before my book there hadn’t been a study of its ethical origins. I think we can continue to arrive at an even fuller understanding of the Revolution. To say we know all we can about its causes and results leaves a lot of potential scholarship unwritten.
JUNTO: If you’re comfortable, I’d like to ask one more contextual issue—though this time about your own context. The questions we historians ask are often framed by the world in which we live. Given you completed this book during a time where Americans were debating ethical lapses at the highest levels of government, did our contemporary period do anything to shape how you looked at the intersection of “honor” and politics?
SMITH: I wrote most of the book before the 2016 election, so any of the recent ethical debates weren’t a direct influence (although they may help increase reader interest). After spending nearly a decade on this book, I can assuredly state that people are always debating ethics. It’s not a recent phenomenon. People are currently discussing Trump; in the early days of the book it was WikiLeaks and Snowden. There will always be ethical questions. And ethics needs to be debated; I hope the book can help even in a small way.
While writing the book, I thought (and still do) that the study of honor has a great deal to offer modern government, politics, and partisanship. Recent events have only further convinced me of this. American Honor focuses on the importance of ethical leadership. The actions of leaders impact the people and their words, thoughts, and actions matter. Also, it was largely the Federalist vs. Democratic-Republican debates over varying concepts of national honor that led to the sharp divide of political parties, with both sides claiming to be doing what was best for the nation.
In my mind, we are at a similar moment, where those scattered across the political spectrum have very definite senses about what is right and wrong—often driven by party loyalties. The Founders held a devotion to the greater good of the nation, something that all sides of the political debate should embrace. I don’t think anyone would complain if politicians left, right, and center behaved more ethically.