What started the American Revolution?
The typical answers are “taxation without representation” and the economic and political consequences that came with that.
My guest today argues that while economic and political principles all played roles in the American Revolution, there’s one big thing underlying all the causes of the Revolutionary War that often gets overlooked: honor.
His name is Craig Bruce Smith, he’s a historian and the author of the new book American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. Today on the show we talk about what honor looked like in America during the colonial period, how that concept changed, and how this shift precipitated the War of Independence. We then explore how personal affronts to honor experienced by several of the Founding Fathers at the hands of the British transferred into a feeling of being slighted as a people, galvanizing a collective sense of honor in the colonies and inspiring the fight for independence. We then discuss the role honor played in Benedict Arnold’s treason and how his treachery spurred colonial Americans to go on to win the war. We end our conversation discussing why the sons of the Revolutionary Era returned to a more traditional ethos of honor in the form of dueling.
This show will give you fresh insights on the founding of America.
- What was the concept of honor before the Revolutionary Era?
- What change in that concept did we start seeing before the war?
- Benjamin Franklin’s idea of ascending honor
- How Washington’s concept of honor became more democratized over time
- The relationship between honor and virtue/ethics in this time period
- How the colonists looked to Ancient Rome as an example
- Higher education and the founders
- How did personal slights lead to the Revolution?
- The birth of a collective, national honor
- The “buy local” and “made in America” movement of the 1770s
- Why honor doesn’t depend on victory
- Benedict Arnold, honor, and his role in early America
- The history of dueling in early America, and when it came to an end
- The myths and realities of Andrew Jackson’s dueling resume
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AOM series on honor
- Why Honor Matters
- An Affair of Honor: A Primer on Dueling
- George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Valiant Ambition
- Affairs of Honor by Joanna Freeman
- A Proper Sense of Honor by Caroline Cox
- Generous Enemies by Judith Van Buskirk
- Southern Honor by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
- The French and Indian War
- Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues
- Ben Franklin Virtue Journal
- Ancient Roman Honor
- A History and Timeline of Higher Education
- Lessons in Manliness from Cato
- Battles of Saratoga
- Society of the Cincinnati
- The Gentlemen and the Roughs (Honor in the Civil War)
Connect With Craig
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. What started the American Revolution? Well, the typical high school history answer we give is taxation without representation, and the economic and political consequences that came with that. My guest today argues that while economic and political principles all played roles in the American Revolution, there’s one big thing underlying all the causes of the Revolutionary War that often gets overlooked, honor. His name is Craig Bruce Smith. He’s a historian and the author of the new book, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. Today on the show, we talk about what honor looked like in America during the Colonial period, how that concept changed, and how that shift precipitated the War of Independence.
We then explore how personal affronts to honor experienced by several of the founding fathers at the hands of the British transferred into a feeling of being slighted as a people, galvanizing a collective sense of honor in the colonies and inspiring the fight for independence. We then discuss the role honor played in Benedict Arnold’s treason, and how his treachery spurred Colonial Americans to go onto win the war. We end our conversation discussing why the sons of the Revolutionary Era turned to a more traditional ethos of honor in the form of dueling. This show will give you fresh insights on the founding of America. After it’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/americanhonor. Craig joins me now via ClearCast.io. Craig Bruce Smith, welcome to the show.
Craig Bruce Smith: Thanks for having me. A big fan of all your articles and podcasts on honor.
Brett McKay: Hey, well, thank you very much. I appreciate that. Well, you got a book out called American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. I love this book, because it talks about the transformation of the concept of honor during the Revolutionary Era. We’re going to get to what that transformation looked like, but what got you exploring this topic, because it is very niche, and people don’t really write about, or professors don’t really write about honor anymore.
Craig Bruce Smith: Oh, and that’s a great point. Let me start off by saying whenever you mention my book and the word love at the start, I’m really excited by that. But you’re right, it is a topic that really isn’t discussed, and certainly not in academia much anymore. A number of your guests write on it, but it’s relatively small. I think it has been dismissed as sort of a niche topic, but I don’t think it actually is. I’m always been interested in the Revolution, and I’ve been interested in ethical questions. I’m also interested in the causes of the Revolution, and lots of recent historians have sort of gotten away from this. They don’t ask what caused the Revolution, or what resulted. In fact, some historians have concluded, “Well, there’s nothing left to know,” and I think that’s a problem.
I was always interested in ethical question, and the idea was, there was no ethical history of the Revolution. There was no study that really looked at honor in the Revolution, so where did I get interested in this? Probably I have to say it dates back to when I was an undergraduate in college, and round about the same time, three books came out, Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, Caroline Cox’s A Proper Sense of Honor, and Judith Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies, and they all talked about honor in different perspectives. That’s what really got me interested in it as a topic, and then going to graduate school, it’s really, my thinking gets clarified. Bertram Wyatt-Brown wrote Southern Honor, but what I really wanted to do is go back to this mindset of what caused the American Revolution, and then a new perspective on honor, which as been dismissed in many respects as something negative or toxic or elitist or racist or sexist.
Brett McKay: Yes, I think this is really interesting, what caused the Revolution. We often think, like, “Well, you know, it was the Stamp Act, it was the Sugar Tax,” you know, all those things, and this taxation without representation, but we’ll get into this later, but it really wasn’t those things. It was they felt like the British were just snubbing them, and they were upset about that.
Craig Bruce Smith: No, you’re absolutely right. Not to say that it wasn’t taxation without representation and all these other issues, and they talk about them. They 100% do, but if you go back to the original primary sources, before they mention that, they talk about honor. They’re talking about how they feel slighted, and that these were just manifestations of the slight, so it wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the tax in and of itself, it’s what it said, and honor and taxation have had a long history. If you’re taxed without your say, the idea was you were the same as a conquered people, and therefore you were a people inherently without honor. I think this is a very valid point.
Brett McKay: All right, well, we’ll get into that some more. Let’s start with about the transformation here. Before we get to what American honor became, what was the concept of honor like before the Revolution. We’re talking Colonial days. What was the concept?
Craig Bruce Smith: The concept of honor, as you know from all your work on this, is very old, and Colonial honor was not that different from its European counterparts. It’s an Anglo-American concept, very much based on birth, very much the older style of honor as valor, bravery, reputation, very much the public component that you needed others to recognize your honor, very much a top down, as is common in all monarchical systems. There wasn’t that much different from the American concept of honor and the English concept, and we’ll say Colonial American. What are the fundamental differences, though, if you start to see elements underlying what’s going to happen is, you don’t have as regimented a class system in the Colonies as you do in England. Obviously, there are only a few titled aristocrats, and because of that, you start to see undercurrents of this, and also lots of different religions, and dissenting religious traditions that also play a role. By and large, before the Revolution, Colonial American honor is really not different from English honor.
Brett McKay: When did the transformation start happening? When you look at the primary source documents, first off, what did it democratize, is one thing? More people laid claim to honor. We can talk about some examples of that, but besides that, what was the other change that you start subtly seeing before the Revolutionary War?
Craig Bruce Smith: What’s interesting is, when we look at people, like specifically looking at Benjamin Franklin, we see a change very early on, as early as the 1720s. For others, like George Washington, we only see a change round about the French and Indian War. By and large, for most Americans, you start to see a change around the French and Indian War era, but Franklin, in the 1720s, starts talking about a concept he calls ascending honor, the idea being, in a sort of monarchical, aristocratic, traditional system, you have honor based on your parents, so if your father is XYZ, then you inherit from there. Franklin reverses that, and this is largely because, as he’ll joke, he’s the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back. He was someone that would have been completely marginalized by honor, and he reverses this.
The idea that honor is due to the person who behaves honorably, and in turn, the person who taught them to behave that way, so parents, teachers, what have you, and he learns this from lots of literature, particularly Joseph Addison’s The Spectator, which has these essays on morality in different cultural aspects, and also reading classical works like Plutarch’s Lives, the idea that if you’re lowborn, if you behave honorable, you can advance in society. He uses this as a form of social mobility. Washington, and others, start viewing slights that they face from the British in the French and Indian War as a real moment to see a failing on the part of the British, and Americans as very much advancing on their own, and being equal, and the idea of fundamentally American as being something distinctive from British.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so it seems like the lives of Franklin and Washington are great examples. Franklin started at the bottom and went up, and then Washington, I think he had that more aristocratic idea of honor, but then his transformation went from that to … I mean, I guess you could say downward. It went down to more democratic, so they kind of met at the middle.
Craig Bruce Smith: You’re right, they both started from very different beginnings, and they end up in roughly the same place by the end, which is very interesting. Like you said, Franklin is very much coming from this mindset of honor as a form of social mobility. He’s interested in virtue. He’s interested in how this sort of behavior can help him make his way in the world. Washington does grow up in a more aristocratic framework. He’s friends with the Fairfax family, who is one of the few titled families in the Americas, and he learns very much from the English model, reputation, glory, duty, whereas Franklin is coming at it from more of a sort of ethical, virtuous standpoint. One has a martial traditional, one has more of an intellectual traditional, although Washington still has a very, very, very large intellectual side that’s often dismissed.
They do sort of end up in the same place, but it’s different. What actually sends them is both these sort of personal realizations, when they start recognizing personal slights they’re facing from the British, are tied into larger sort of taxation policy issues. For instance, for Washington, it’s being dismissed of lower rank, pay, of having British officers feel that they outrank Colonial officers of higher rank. Washington starts moving to this idea of advancement based on merit during the French and Indian War, whereas Franklin comes to this sort of realization a little bit later, for becoming a patriot. It’s really when he’s in front of a privy council in 1774, and he’s publicly humiliated, and loses all his status, that he finally starts to see what the British Empire has done, in the same way that Washington had started to come to this conclusion.
Brett McKay: You mentioned the idea of merit, and Franklin’s idea that you gain honor by acting virtuously and ethically, because before, the sort of primordial honor, traditional honor, that the British had, and Europeans had, it was might made right. If you won, you had honor. If you were on top, you had honor. Didn’t matter if you acted unethically. It didn’t matter. Whoever won a duel, it didn’t matter if they actually committed the wrong, if they won the duel, they’re in the right.
Craig Bruce Smith: Yeah, and the idea with dueling, you just showed up. It proves you have honor, and honor is very much tied to this idea of victory on the field. Franklin is one that really starts reversing this, and a lot of it has to do with the connection of honor and virtue, which as always been complicated, because how do you actually define these terms? No one’s ever quite sure, even during their period, and this all starts bandying back and forth. During the book, what I try to do is make the claim that honor and virtue by the Revolutionary era, are used basically synonymously, and what do they mean? They mean what we think of today as ethics. We think of behaving ethically, words like honor and virtue would have been used. The word ethics, unless you were talking about Aristotle, really wasn’t used in early America until the 19th century.
What words were used? Honor and virtue. Now, virtue, traditionally had more of a morality component, more closely related to religion. The further north you go, virtue would take precedence. The further south you go, they become more synonymous, and Franklin was from, originally, a Puritan background, then spent most of his life in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia, and he starts actually keeping a spreadsheet of his 13 different virtues. He says, “Well, you can’t become a virtuous person all at once. You have to master each one along the list,” and so he’d put check marks how he’d behaved on any given day. He said the further down the list, the harder they were to master. One of the last ones on the list was chastity, and his interpretation of chastity was a little different. He said you could have premarital sex. You could have an affair, so long as no one found out, therefore no one’s reputation was ruined. He had more nuanced understanding.
Brett McKay: That’s a very traditional honor-based idea of chastity.
Craig Bruce Smith: Yeah, very much so. Franklin is sort of advancing in some ways, but there is still a traditional element there. His was very much going against the concept of birth.
Brett McKay: I think we shouldn’t understate how big of a transformation this was, because for basically thousands of years, honor was this thing is by birth, by victory in the battlefield, and then you have the Americans democratizing it, and then making sort of an inner virtue that you can gain honor just by acting like a good person.
Craig Bruce Smith: Exactly. That is a fundamental reversal, and it’s one that sounds very modern, but it’s something that’s often dismissed in the 18th century, but you’re absolutely right. That is exactly what’s going on.
Brett McKay: But what’s interesting is, it’s a very modern idea. What they did was very radical, but as you talk about in the book, their inspiration for this new concept of honor, that you can gain it through acting virtue, they basically looked to the past, looked to antiquity, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, to make the case for that concept of honor.
Craig Bruce Smith: You’re right. Every Britain during the period felt that they were the heirs to ancient Rome, and during the American Revolution, the Americans in turn feel that they are the better heirs to Rome than the British, and they are looking to classical scholarship, Stoicism, they’re looking to history of varying sorts, largely classical but also looking at the English history of looking at the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and they’re very interested in new enlightened works, whether it’s Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and they’re looking at this new moral philosophy, and this new political philosophy that really puts a burden of proper conduct, even on kings, and the idea that if a king doesn’t behave well, that they have failed in their behavior, that bonds are broken. Montesquieu is key here. He refers to that honor and despotism cannot exist together, so if the king is a despot, the king is a tyrant, therefore he cannot be honorable. Therefore, you have no connection, no bounds, no duty to him anymore.
Brett McKay: A lot of these were self-educated, but the schools in America at the time, like what would be considered a high school, but also mainly the colleges, played a big role in this transformation of honor in America.
Craig Bruce Smith: Oh yeah. Most Americans are not going to college. In fact, I think the numbers are roughly one in 1,000. It could be even more than that. Most Americans are not having higher education. However, if you look at the signage of the Declaration of Independence, the signage of the Constitution, they are disproportionately college educated, and school started, colleges started much earlier than they do today. The average age of admittance was roughly 16. Could be younger. They really functioned as you would learn history, your philosophy, all your standard texts, your Greek, your Latin, your French, but they were more than just centers of learning. They were about really creating a collective mindset, and it was about establishing behavior, so these codes of honor. A sort of camaraderie would form within the students of a certain class or cohort, rules of behavior that regulated everything from where people sat to who they could consort with, and there was very much a sense of self-policing.
Some schools would have very strict policies that they would enforce, but others were really policed by the students, and the idea was, if the behavior of one person was flawed, it reflected on the honor of the students, which then reflected on the honor of the school. The idea was instilled prior to the Revolution, in people that are going to be major leaders of the Revolution, that behavior matters, and if one person fails, that’s reflective of everyone. This is a sense that really carries over to how the Revolution is fought and carried out, sort of that everyone must do their part, everyone must behave in a certain way or else call could fail. They’re encountering the same sort of texts, they’re speaking the same sort of language, they’re growing up in the same sort of environment where honor matters, and that’s why it really translates into this world outside the ivory tower.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you highlight a lot of professors at several of these universities in America would write these … They’re morality texts, and where they fleshed out this idea is the path to honor was virtue and ethics, basically.
Craig Bruce Smith: Exactly, so if you want to advance in the world, you have to behave well, and then that’s going to vary greatly depending on who you are or your interpretation, but if you have your leadership all basically learning something comparable … They’re all using the same texts, or comparable texts, so everyone’s speaking the same way, and then they get in positions of leadership, and that’s what helps to bring about this really quick collective understanding where you have people meet for the first time, at the First Continental Congress, and within a short time, they’re speaking of like mind and pledging sacred honor. It’s not something that just happened overnight. It’s something they had grown up with.
Brett McKay: This is sort of a tangent, but one of the things I enjoyed, talking about the school, the college stuff. I think oftentimes people are like, “Oh, colleges are terrible.” You highlight some of the riots that happened at Harvard, pitchforks and torches, and it was terrible.
Craig Bruce Smith: Oh, the thing is, there were all these rules of behavior, sure, but there was all sorts of … You think today of pranks. They had nothing. My favorite is at the college of William and Mary in Williamsburg, there was actually a pitched battle with pistols between the students and the townies. It was led by the professor of Moral Philosophy, who ultimately got fired over this, but what’s also interesting is, I can’t pinpoint it, but this may have actually been Thomas Jefferson’s first week at school. I don’t know if he sees it or just misses it, but he arrives right around the time of this pitched battle, where pistols get drawn on the future governor. It’s not an uncommon occurrence.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s part of American history that sometimes we nostalgize, like, “Oh, they were just prim and proper.” It’s like no, they were pulling pistols on each other.
Craig Bruce Smith: Right, you had to have rules, and you should not break your teachers windows, things like that.
Brett McKay: Well, okay, so the founders were developing this collective sense of honor in different ways, but they were speaking the same language. Let’s get into specifics about where we start seeing affront to personal honor leading to different founders saying, “We got to separate from Britain.” You mentioned Washington.
Craig Bruce Smith: Yes.
Brett McKay: He was a part of the British military. He was a leader there. Then you say during the French and Indian War, that’s when he starts sensing like, “These guys don’t really think I’m one of them, and they’re slighting me.”
Craig Bruce Smith: Yeah, exactly. He serves alongside the British military, but he doesn’t have a king’s commission. He’s a Colonial officer, so he starts off as a major, works up to a Colonial colonel in the Virginia militia, but he’s dismissed. You have a British captain say, “Well, I outrank you because I have a king’s commission.” You actually at one point have an American who briefly held a king’s commission, but actually sold it, claiming, “Well, I once hold a king’s commission, so therefore I outrank you,” and how it went in the British military, you bought your commission. If you wanted to be a major, you could buy it, and then if you wanted to leave, you could sell it. Where Colonials are slighted for they don’t have a formal military traditional, and a formal training, Washington’s viewing it as, they’re fighting alongside. Washington becomes famed for his involvement in what comes to be known as Braddock’s Defeat.
He’s saying, “I’m fighting alongside, I’m risking my life. Our Virginia regiment’s risking their lives. Why are we not treated the same?” He starts promoting within his own regiment based on merit as a reflection of this, and then after the war, he retires, and he had been speculating very much in western land grants, especially that would have been opened up after the French and Indian War. There were lands promised to officers, and now you have the proclamation which prevents western expansion. You have taxation, but for what Washington really opens his eyes, is he very much, as many wealthy Americans, had been importing many goods from British merchants, and when the taxes come about, these British merchants call in their debts, and Washington is shocked by this. He views it as a matter of honor, because the idea was, “If you’re asking me to pay now, you don’t trust me. You don’t believe that I’m going to pay,” so if you had debts, as many people did, that was actually considered a good thing.
That was considered an honorable thing, because it meant people trusted you. They believed you would pay, whereas now, when these debts are being called in, Washington is considering it that, “We’re not being treated as men of honor. It’s not being trustworthy,” and the same thing, he starts to link his own personal treatment by his creditors with how the British Parliament is treating the American colonists, sort of this lack of honor being bestowed. That’s for him, whereas Franklin, in many ways, was very pro-British Empire, leading into the Stamp Act. In fact, he’s opposed to the Stamp Act, but he’s trying to bring about ways to facilitate a reconciliation, and where this all goes wrong, he tries to blame it all on the Massachusetts governor, who’s Thomas Hutchinson. He feels that well, if Americans have a villain, they’ll forgive British Parliament.
He manages to acquire some letters involving Hutchinson and his brother-in-law, who’s the lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver, and he publishes select pieces, out of context, that make Hutchinson look really bad. He sent it to select leaders, like the Adamses, and says, “Don’t publish it,” and they publish it. Before long, he’s brought up in front of this privy council, and there are duels fought over where this information came from, and Franklin’s forced to admit, “Yes, I did reveal this,” and the idea of breaking the bonds of private correspondence between gentlemen, and Franklin says, “Well, I did it to preserve the Empire,” but he’s publicly shamed. He loses his postmaster title, and he really loses his way in the Empire. There’s no place for advancement for him anymore, and he says, “I did this all for the greater good. I did this to help the Colonies reunite with the Empire, and this is how I’m treated,” and then he starts to come to this sense of how his personal wrong is tied into the greater wrong being committed by Britain.
Brett McKay: That’s an interesting connection, because they could have just stated, “Well, this is a personal affront, has nothing to do with the Colonies,” but they made that connection somehow.
Craig Bruce Smith: Right, and this is what happens in many places, the idea that the policy is put in place, and then these have implications on the individuals. As all these individuals are feeling this in this personal way, they start to collectively identify with each other in a way that they hadn’t before, because the Colonies really functioned in many ways as separate countries unto themselves.
Brett McKay: These guys had this sense of collective honor, like, “Not only is this an affront to me personally, what the British are doing, but it’s an affront to us as colonists,” but when did everyone else in American start feeling that sense of national honor too? When did you start seeing that?
Craig Bruce Smith: There’s … I don’t want to say it’s straight national honor, but it’s sort of a proto-nationalism, which maybe is too academic, because there’s not a nation yet, but we’re speaking of the honor of our country. At first, it could be the individual colony or what have you, but they start thinking collectively when we get to boycotts of British goods, whether it’s from the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, uniting to resist British imports, to not purchase goods that are taxed, and that’s when you really start getting this collective idea, and that’s also where you start really expanding the idea of honor, and women become crucial here. Women’s involvement in boycotts also has them labeled as having honor, and as women become political, there’s a share of honor to go around.
They’re part of this discussion. Women are very much enforcers of honor, and keeping men in line, and in fact, you have women that refused to be courted or marry men that do not comply with this. It starts building, but by 1774, there’s very much a collective sense of the country’s honor, and that’s really exhibited at the First Continental Congress in 1774, where they do pledge their sacred honor two years before the Declaration of Independence is going to pledge, “Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor.” There’s a sense of this by 1774. It’s not necessarily as a nation, but it’s certainly a unified element of thinking, and it’s based on this ethical concept of Americans are acting a certain way, Britain is not.
Brett McKay: Right. I loved how you described some of the manifestations of that sense of collective honor. This is where we get the idea of republican virtue, so in response to the different acts, Americans took pride in their plain and simple clothing.
Craig Bruce Smith: Yeah, it was the first time in history where labels didn’t matter. You’re right. It wasn’t even really about the money, and they were very clear about that, that the duties on tea, negligible. The cost of tea was actually made cheaper. It involved things with monopolies, and it’s long and complicated, but it was wearing homespun clothing, using local products, made in America. That was a sign of honor. That was a sign of, “Look, we are embracing that we are equal to Britain.” At first it’s, “We are all true born Britains,” but then it becomes more about a early identity as America is something distinct, and something, in many ways, superior, by that point, to the British.
Brett McKay: I remember I’ve read things about some of the founding fathers talking about how the Britains were effete because of their fine clothing and their silks, and all this stuff, and, “We are the heirs of Sparta and Rome, where we really embrace Roman virtue and temperance and frugality,” and they kind of had a chip on their shoulder about it.
Craig Bruce Smith: Yeah, exactly. Britain became the den of decadence. They were the Nero-esque Rome, whereas Americans embraced the idea of Cincinnatus, or Cato, the idea of the greater good, of civic virtue, of sacrificing for the good of the many.
Brett McKay: The start of the Revolutionary War, honor played a role in there too, when the Americans thought, “Well, yeah, we can now fight Britain because they shot first.”
Craig Bruce Smith: Still, to this day, we don’t know who shot first. Each side blames the other, but the idea, if you’re thinking of philosophical ideas at that time, you have Vattel, the idea of what becomes sort of just war. A defensive war is honorable, so if the British fired first, as Jefferson’s going to say, “They’re murderers. We have a duty to defend ourselves. They’re killing their own people.” It’s very much cast in this way, and that’s also how the Continental Army is formed, and Washington’s going to say he wants gentlemen, men of character with a proper sense of honor, so the idea that if you’re a man of honor, it will translate into the military, that you will abide by certain rules, you will have a certain standing, you will know how to command.
There are rules put in place governing the conduct of the army, and what’s really interesting, we know the British Army, on paper, is by far superior, and we know Americans suffer very tremendous losses, particularly in New York, but there starts to be an understanding, and they actually look at 18th century military texts about the idea that honor can be found not in victory, but in just behaving well, so if you lose, that’s okay, as long as you did your duty. Washington starts adopting this sort of war of posts, a defensive style, not risking the Army. He comes to the conclusion that it’s dishonorable to needlessly risk your men pursuing glory or a victory that is not likely. He views honor in the preservation of the Army, of the continuing of the Revolution rather than in trying to grasp victory on every field.
Brett McKay: That was a big transformation too, because the beginning of the war, those costly victories that Washington faced at the beginning, he was using that traditional sense of honor where you charge in and you just put it all on the line, and you go for the big victory, but they just got slaughtered because the British were better.
Craig Bruce Smith: And New York was actually … Washington’s very apprehensive about fighting there. It’s actually the Congress that’s demanding based on national honor, “It has to be defended because if the Continental Army doesn’t defend Americans, doesn’t defend their own people, how are they any different than the British?” Even though it was militarily a complete nightmare.
Brett McKay: This growing sense of … call it proto-national honor … really fueled the Americans during the war in the first few years, but then it kind of hit this slog where there was a point where the Americans were on the precipice of losing, but then another guy felt a bit slight of honor by Americans this time, and he decided to do something terrible, which galvanized the Americans. Let’s talk about Benedict Arnold.
Craig Bruce Smith: Ah, Benedict Arnold. America’s greatest hero during the early years, and the greatest villain ever since. Arnold is a very interesting character, and as you know, he features prominently in the book because he’s just so different in a lot of ways. Arnold has, in my sense, an older understanding of honor. I define him as more of viewing himself as a knight of old. He’s off at tournament. He has this older sense of victory as honor, of reputation as honor. He first comes on the scene, actually, during the boycotts and resistance to British goods in the 1760s. He’s actually smuggling, and he’s turned in by smuggling, and the person who turns him in is one of the members of this shipping crew. He publicly whips him to exact some revenge. Anyway, so he advances in the military, and he’s proclaimed for victories, and even defeats, in the northern theater.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better battlefield commander than Arnold, but he starts to get passed over for promotions, particularly by Congress, and Washington’s always been adamant that there’s a civilian control, civilian supremacy. His power comes from Congress, which derives its power from the people. Arnold isn’t a good politician. He’s brash, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the greatest general in the Army, and he tells everyone so. He gets passed over. At the one moment, his great moment is the Battle of Saratoga, where he’s actually dismissed from the field by General Horatio Gates, sort of this rivalry, but Arnold defies orders, rushes into battle, and according to him, single handedly rights a potential defeat into a victory, and he’s wounded on the battlefield. He’s shot in the leg, horse falls on top of him, and he actually recalls being carried off by soldiers from the field. He actually says, “I wish the shot had been through my heart,” this glorious end.
But he keeps getting passed over by the middle part of the war. His disputes with Congress are growing to such a point that they make him take an oath of loyalty before he becomes a military governor in Philadelphia, and things get really bad. He throws himself a party to celebrate his new appointment, and he manages not to invite any Continental Army officers. He invites a bunch of Loyalist ladies, marries into a Loyalist family. He’s charged with all sorts of misappropriations of funds and equipment, and ultimately, Washington’s forced to give him a rather minor reprimand. It’s very light when you see it, sort of, “Well, we wish that Arnold had not engaged and such-and-such behavior.” There are rumblings about Arnold. People keep dismissing them. They’re saying, “Well, look what Arnold’s given us. How can we question him?” But it’s that moment, this reprimand from Washington, who he viewed as the one who was always on his side, that really sends him over, and he starts a correspondence with the British through Major John André, where he ultimately comes to turn over West Point in exchange for money and a British commission.
To the modern ear, you would say, “Well, this is selling out,” but Arnold didn’t view it that way. He viewed it as Americans had betrayed him, had not allowed him to advance, had treated him with dishonor, and it wasn’t about the money. In fact, he takes a lower rank in the British Army to show, “Well, this isn’t about rank. It’s not about status. It’s about honor.” Ultimately, the plan comes to nothing, but it’s a great moment in that there’s lots of infighting by this point between the Continental Army and the civilians over why is this war not being won? The military says it’s because civilians are profiteering. The civilians say, “Well, the Army’s just not winning,” but this is the moment. Arnold’s treason sort of snaps everyone back into this idea, this collective sense of, “We have to do what’s best for the nation.” Washington uses it as such, and he says, “Look how honorable we are, that this has only happened once, and how lost, how unethical are the British that they have to resort to such tactics.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess thanks to Arnold, we won the Revolutionary War, in a way.
Craig Bruce Smith: At least in part.
Brett McKay: Well, so Americans win. That was a big deal. The way they claimed their victory, too, had a lot to do with honor as well. They wanted … what was it? Peace with honor? What was the phrase?
Craig Bruce Smith: Yeah, exactly. That’s a phrase that comes up time and time again, or other versions. No peace without honor, peace with honor. It wasn’t enough to just end the war. It had to be done while recognizing American independence. Peace itself was not an appropriate end if it didn’t come with the freedom that was necessary to guarantee a lasting peace.
Brett McKay: After the war, we had this collective sense of honor. You talk about a group of veterans who formed basically a veterans group called the Society of Cincinnati, but there was a lot of controversy around this group, and it had to do again with honor. Can you tell a little bit about that?
Craig Bruce Smith: Sure. The Society of the Cincinnati is still around today. It was and still is an ancestral group of officers from the Continental Army and the French Army. It was sort of a veterans’ association/veterans’ benevolent association, allowed to care for each other, brotherhood, widows and children, sort of a charitable fund in some ways. The ways to advance in it, you either had to fight as an office in the French or Continental Armies, or you had to be the first born son of one who did. That’s the point that unnerved many in American society, that saw this as a new sort of aristocracy, or the rumblings of a new aristocracy. Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, they all dismissed this as … I think Franklin refers to them as an order of hereditary knights. Washington is made the initial President General. Hamilton’s involved, Henry Knox.
They don’t see a problem with it. In fact, the Cincinnati pledges to defend and support national honor. They view this as, “Well, haven’t we proved ourselves?” Washington literally surrendered his commission. He could have been a king. The Continental Army peacefully disbands. There was a moment of tension during the Newburgh Conspiracy where there was a fear of a potential mutiny against Congress, but Washington put it down, largely appealing to sense of honor, of, “Look what we’ve accomplished. It will be all ruined if we fail in not upholding the nation.” The Cincinnati comes into being, and there are state and there are national organizations, and it’s attacked for being aristocratic, of trying to instill a new aristocracy, potentially a new monarchy, even, in America.
The Cincinnati defends itself, saying, “Who would be this Caesar? Who would be this malevolent king? Washington? The man who retired? Gave up power?” They said, “There’s no special status in the nation. There’s not a House of Lords. They’re not given special privileges.” There’s a real debate back and forth, and this is what really gets Franklin thinking about his idea of ascending honor again. He hasn’t really talked about it since the 1720s, but he does in relation to the Cincinnati, and he starts referring, again, to this idea of ascending honor, that honor is due to the person who behaves well, and the people who taught them. It gets tied into raising this new republican generation.
Roughly the same time, Thomas Jefferson also starts coming up with his own definition of honor, and his is more internal. It’s not about the perceptions of others, it’s about what you think, but he puts it in the terms of, “Imagine the whole world were watching,” so using this public component that’s key in traditional honor, but not being concerned with that, but act as if. Only do what you feel is right. The tension with the Cincinnati dies down largely because they prove themselves to be loyal during the upcoming Shays’ Rebellion, but this was a really glaring moment of differences of what exactly it meant to be honorable, and both sides were saying, “We’re advancing what’s best for the nation,” and you see these elements in modern politics today.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the role of dueling, because dueling’s the most stereotypical honor thing, right? A duel is an affair of honor. You highlight in the book that before the 19th century, there were actually very few duels in America, but then after the war, it’s like dueling became this craze. What was going on there? Why did dueling suddenly have this uptick right after the Revolutionary War?
Craig Bruce Smith: Okay, right. You’re right, dueling is the stereotype. Ask anyone about honor, it’s gentlemen at 10 paces. Dueling is very uncommon. In fact, prior to the Revolution … My numbers may be off, so don’t quote me. I think there were roughly 75 duels total in American history before the Revolution, and after that, recorded duels, I think there’s roughly 700 plus, but that’s recorded, so who knows? Dueling picks up a little bit during the Revolution during the middle years, when American officers come in contact with European officers. You have many in the Continental Army that are trying to out-gentleman the gentlemen to prove they’re of a certain status, so it does happen a little bit among the officers in the Revolution, but it’s something that’s vehemently denounced in orders of military conduct for the Continental Army. Washington is inherently opposed to it. Most people in American society viewed dueling as dishonorable.
There’s actually a newspaper from early 19th century that says that really, there’s only 100 people or so that support dueling. They’re just really vocal about it. Dueling is really not something that’s embraced by the Revolutionary generation. Obviously, the Hamilton-Burr duel is famed, but that actually starts a real moment of reaction, of anti-dueling, of, “Look at these two men. What else could they have given to their country, but the death of Hamilton, the ruin of Burr, this is a tragedy for the nation, that they could have served, they could have done more, and what have they cost not just themselves, but us?” The idea of dueling as murder, dueling as suicide, as inherently unethical. Why does it pick up, and it absolutely does pick up in the 19th century? It doesn’t pick up with the Revolutionary generation.
It picks up with their children, and their grandchildren, generations that have to live up to the Revolutionary fathers, that don’t have the same way to advance in the world, and they start going back to an older sense of honor, this idea of reputation, of valor, of proving their bravery. They start to move away from this ethical definition that exists during the Revolution, and we see this really highlighted in the War of 1812, the idea of, “We have to defend national honor as defend personal honor,” and the best representation of this is Andrew Jackson. He’s coming at it from this older Scots-Irish clan-based honor tradition, where is his mother has taught him that you never go to court for matters of assault. You handle that personally, and it’s this new sense of honor, which is really an old sense of honor, that starts to really change what we think of as the stereotype of the Antebellum Southern honor that builds into the Civil War.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Jackson, he was a character. I don’t know how many bullets he had in him from all the duels he did.
Craig Bruce Smith: Again, there’s no way to prove this, and the number’s probably off. It’s alleged he fought 100 duels in his life. That’s probably not true, but he’s used rocks. He’s used fists. He’s used pistols. He allegedly kept over 30 pistols at the ready in case he was challenged and needed to fight. He really became a new symbol of masculinity, of democracy, and it’s really playing on this older notion of honor, not the new Revolutionary one.
Brett McKay: I know you specialize in the Revolutionary War, but when did we start seeing a backlash against this return to dueling? Was it the Civil War that helped that, or what happened there?
Craig Bruce Smith: Oh yeah, the Civil War is crucial in ending the traditional honor culture. It also plays into the idea that honor was a Southern component. As your former guest, Lorien Foote, talks about, that’s not true. It’s an American concept. It exists in the North and the South, but the breakdown of the plantation system is going to reshape hierarchy, where you have the South creating a pseudo-aristocracy. It doesn’t mean honor completely goes away. You see remnants of honor in the American imperial moment. What’s interesting is, when do we stop talking about honor? It’s roughly the early 20th century, around about World War I, give or take. I’ve actually charted this, using Google Ngrams where you can literally chart usages of words, and in the early 20th century, the word honorable goes down, and there’s a moment where literally, honorable and ethical cross, and the word honorable dies, but the word ethical grows. This really, in my interpretation, it’s that we’re not changing these ideas. These ideas haven’t gone away. We’re just using new words for them. We’re saying things are ethical, rather than honorable.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think World War I, that was the first real mechanized war, and the whole disillusionment that happened after World War I … I think Hemingway has that quote. He says like, “Glory and honor and courage are just abstract words. They don’t mean anything,” because he saw firsthand that World War I, at least, was not glorious or honorable. It was just death and carnage.
Craig Bruce Smith: It’s a fundamental change, and a moment of modernity in some respects, but that’s when I think the language really changes, but I don’t think the customs or the concepts go away. You recently had Tamler Sommers on, and he was talking about this idea of why honor still matters. I don’t think it vanished. I just think we speak of it differently, and that’s why it gets forgotten.
Brett McKay: Well, Craig, this has been a great conversation. There’s so much more we could talk about. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Craig Bruce Smith: Oh, well, thanks so much for having me. They can go to my website, CraigBruceSmith.com, and the book’s available at Amazon, and other places. If anyone has questions, feel free to shoot me an email.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Craig Bruce Smith, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Craig Bruce Smith: Well, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Craig Bruce Smith. He’s the author of the book American Honor. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can also find out more information about his work at CraigBruceSmith.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/americanhonor, where you can find links to resources, where we can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com, and if you enjoyed the podcast, and got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.