Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
In American Honor, Craig Bruce Smith places morals, virtue, and ethics at the center of the American Revolution. Smith argues that in the late-colonial period, understandings of honor transformed. Instead of something hereditable, honor became based on merit. That “ethical transformation” helped bring about the Revolution. Independence then allowed Americans to realize its potential. In a phrase, you might say the American Revolution was “made on honor, sold on merit.”
American Honor is an ambitious book. It aims to reinvigorate discussion on the causes of the Revolution, and then also to use this new causation narrative to explain the consequences and meaning of the Revolution. In the process, Smith also challenges historians to think of honor as more than something that served white men by undergirding a patriarchal and racialized society. Smith acknowledges that amidst the revolutionary transformation in honor, “hierarchy did not vanish” (9). But mobility did increase. According to Smith, this cut across not just class, but race and gender too. The “democratized understanding of honor and virtue based on merit, morality, and service to the cause united the American people” (21).
Smith begins his well-written book with brief accounts of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington’s colonial experiences, and a survey of college culture. The chapters show the earliest turn toward merit-based understandings of honor. Chapter 3 reinterprets the Imperial crisis as a test of colonists’ honor and virtue. Of course, men defended their honor publicly. Women, too, upheld American honor through familiar activities like boycotts.
What makes Smith’s book particularly valuable, is that he takes seriously the war itself. Chapter 4 shows how the newfound sense of honor drove the American obsession with ethical warfare. Conduct, not victory, proved the justness of the revolutionary cause. Americans succeeded in living up to their avowed principles during the first years of the war. Cracks in the façade appeared in 1776-1777 amidst early losses. Dueling increased within the Continental ranks. The Continental officers’ pursuit of respectability rankled enlistedmen. Civil-military relations broke down over fears of a standing army. And soldiers looked down on civilians for not fighting.
In his critical fifth chapter, Smith shows how the nearly simultaneous decline of the two heroes of Saratoga—Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold—refocused American attention on ethical national honor. The case of John André was the test. The officers had to set aside their admiration for André’s gentility. By hanging him, they showed that they placed national honor above personal honor, reaffirming their commitment to the American cause. This calmed infighting among the officers and smoothed over civil-military relations. Chapter 6 shows how ideas of honor persisted beyond the war, influencing a wide swath of Americans. The Society of the Cincinnati, tradesmen, republican women, early black activists like Prince Hall, and slaveholders alike all embraced national honor.
The revolutionary consensus around ethical and democratized honor went into decline after the War of 1812. A gulf had opened “between the Revolutionary generation and their children.” The new generation revived a more “archaic notion of honor,” one more familiar to historians of the Old South (235). This revival of reputational honor fueled the rise of “martial manhood” and, ultimately, an American empire that valued victory and conquest over morality and ethics.
No individual epitomized this regression more than Andrew Jackson. For Smith, Jackson represents a repudiation of revolutionary ideals about honor that Smith finds. Fair enough. But that experience of the Revolution and notion of honor—which took root in colonial colleges and the Continental officer corps—was not universal. Jackson, of course, lived the Revolution. Did not his ideals, his sense of honor, flow from a certain revolutionary experience?
The militia experience of violence, coercion, and the exploitation of fear—in a literature running from John shy to Rob Parkinson and Holger Hoock—was as significant as the experience of the Continental line. To be fair, Smith touches on this briefly, describing Nathaniel Greene’s efforts to rein in backcountry Carolina militias in 1780-1781 (161-63). How would more emphasis on them change his story? For the unscrupulous Hudson Valley militiamen who captured André, down to the backcountry fighters of Jackson’s youth, the ethical concerns that Smith privileges had less of a hold, to put it lightly. In other words, the Revolution was as much an incubator of Jackson and Amy Greenberg’s Manifest Manhood as it was morality, ethics, and meritocracy. Both took root simultaneously, just in different theaters.
This critique does not question Smith’s interpretation of the source and influence of merit-based understandings of honor, which is convincing. Yet I’m still left wondering about how meaningful the revolutionary embrace of merit actually was. Because of its importance to the Continental Army and then the Society of the Cincinnati, Smith has a problem. Many will chafe at the notion that an ideal touted by a hereditary society made up of status-conscious would-be Federalists, was democratic at all. As this blog’s own Tom Cutterham has written, the Cincinnati “connected status with the free-floating concept of merit, a concept that was easily adapted to both mask and legitimate the power of cash, credit and connections.” Did these revolutionaries simply create a more intractable justification for inequality than heredity? To my mind, the most prescient pundit-book of the Obama years was Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites. It described the manifest failures of meritocracy, indicting it for allowing all manner of modern inequality to take root.
My circumspection is present-minded and perhaps unfair. It’s also a testament to how Smith’s argument about merit and honor cuts to the very heart of the matter: what kind of society did the Revolution create? Smith has succeeded in writing an important book that revolutionary historians and anyone interested in the place of ethics in public life should read. He just probably wouldn’t agree with the conclusion I draw from American Honor: The root of many modern problems might be that the best answer American democracy has for Jacksonian personal honor is meritocracy.
 Tom Cutterham, “‘What Ought to Belong to Merit Only’: Debating Status and Heredity in the New American Republic,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 40 (June 2017): 193. I should note that I am quite invested in this question. A few days before drafting this review, I sent off a workshop paper entitled, “Laundering Privilege: Education and the Myth of Merit in the Early American Republic.”