Smith, Craig Bruce. American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
Fresh perspectives and an author’s willingness to take on orthodoxy are the hallmarks of books worth reading. Craig Bruce Smith provides these attributes in his new volume that conveys the story of the American Revolution through an ethical lens. Focusing not on the battles, he offers a new causation theory for the armed rebellion and why changes in ethical thinking created a common cause for the rebels, which was instrumental in the success of the Revolution.
In a break from the European heritage, a revolutionary transformation of the concept of honor and virtue among the thirteen colonies led to and aided the American’s in their war of independence. Smith posits that honor in Britain was bestowed as a birthright and emanated top down. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin, Americans increasingly replaced this definition of honor with an “ascending” honor that comes from the individual and is not positional. During the rebellion, honor was unhitched from title and class and became more democratized.
Utilizing the ethical ideology of four principal founders, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Smith argues that honor became nationalized with the revolutionaries placing national honor above personal honor. The revolutionaries of all classes including women and African Americans believed they were rebelling for sacred ties of virtue, honor, and love of our country. Further, all participants could earn honor. While this was true for the founding elite and selected other members of various segments of society, it is hard to imagine that the average slave participated in this ethical transition. Perhaps, a more nuanced conclusion that the Revolution led to the greater democratization of honor is more accurate. However, Smith makes essential contributions as he includes more participants in his analysis than the well-discussed founding elites.
Smith traces honor geographically, chronologically and personally starting with Franklin and Washington’s views on honor. He points out that Washington’s trust in the British empire had been shaken by what he viewed as a personal slight to his honor during the French & Indian War. In Smith’s view, there are regional differences in honor and virtue with the northern colonies more focused on virtue by means of religious practices and southerners more focused on a personal honor based upon social status. Smith goes onto describe how colleges contributed to the creation of national honor. While small and few, they educated many founders, first creating a shared understanding of ethics and virtue.
In the run-up to hostilities and the advent of the non-importation boycotts, women found a way to participate and gain honor. Smith points out that the women’s sense of honor was collectivized just like men as women from all classes equally participated. As British retaliation continued, people of all classes and means, felt a slight to their personal honor which provided the ethical argument to break their oaths to King George III. This was the beginning of the movement to elevate national honor above personal honor through commitment and sacrifice.
During the long, eight-year war, Washington tied his personal honor to the country. The Continental Army, which lost many battles, found honor in bravely confronting the professional British Army on the battlefield and in continuing to stay as a competent military force in the field. Its honorable behavior indicated a proof of virtue. However, this honor was severely tested through bickering among the officers, high-level desertions (i.e., Benedict Arnold) and squabbling over pay and perks. In the end, Washington rallied the officers and soldiers to prioritize the interests of the new nation over their personal interests.
After the revolution, common purpose and commitment to national honor started to fray. Many including Benjamin Franklin began to question the institution of slavery given the revolutionary ideals. Further, new organizations such as the Society of Cincinnati emerged which emphasized hereditary and personal honor. High profile physical dueling raised the profile for personal honor. Smith concludes that the election of Andrew Jackson ended the revolutionary common cause. With Jackson, ambition became integrated with honor, and if ambition was focused on a good cause, ambition could give rise to personal honor. Provocatively, Smith ends by describing the Jacksonian period as a counter-revolution, with the rise of personal honor over national honor.
I highly recommend American Honor for its novel and innovative thinking about the causes and ideology of the American Revolution. While controversial, Smith offers thought-provoking conclusions to expand the thinking of both casual readers and well-informed scholars. Finally, the book offers insights which may be relevant in our current political situation which is experiencing ethical and virtuous challenges across many spectrums.