- American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era by Craig Bruce Smith
In American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era, Craig Bruce Smith offers a fresh interpretation of the Revolutionary era through the lens of ethics and proposes a narrative of causation for the Revolution itself. Smith's insightful work suggests new driving forces behind colonial unity on the eve of the war: honor, virtue, and ethics. A unified sense of honor propelled the Revolution forward, creating the opportunity for an evolution in honor during and in the wake of the war. Virtue, ethics, and honor became more inclusive over the course of the late eighteenth century, no longer existing strictly within the domain of elite white men.
During the Revolutionary period, colleges and the Continental army dictated standards of conduct in public life and in warfare, fostering and enforcing both individual and collective senses of honor. Women displayed honorability through participation in boycotts, while expanding the scope of patriotic virtue in their roles as wives and mothers. Free and enslaved African Americans actively claimed the mantle of honor through military service. Over time, honor became less of a characteristic rooted in heredity and more of a quality earned on merit, though the link between status and honor did not disappear entirely. This meritocratic system was accessible to a broad range of the population, all [End Page 147] of whom engaged in the ongoing negotiation and democratization of honor in Revolutionary America. Like other scholars, Smith notes an eventual move away from the Revolution's ideals toward a more militant masculinity drawn to imperialism and conquest, personified in the figure of Andrew Jackson.
American Honor is organized chronologically, and it considers the dynamics of race, class, gender, social status, and regional variance within each chapter. Smith's analysis is largely predicated on the extensive correspondence of four towering and familiar figures: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Smith has plumbed these men's papers for clues signaling their own evolving perceptions of honor, virtue, and ethics and how they observed these changes among the public. Admittedly, his source base skews toward an elite perspective, focusing on collegiate records, governmental debates, and figures in groups such as the Continental army and the Society of the Cincinnati. This methodology serves to at least partially undermine his larger argument about democratization. To address this problem, Smith combed through novels and moral and religious texts, incorporating works to which ordinary people had more access.
American Honor proves a noteworthy addition to already burgeoning bodies of scholarship on the American Revolution, American honor culture, and the ideological origins of the United States. Smith's work incorporates a diverse cast of characters and questions familiar arguments that portray honor as a static concept, while disputing the long-accepted position that Americans simply replicated European senses of honor and virtue. Smith's work instead contends that the Revolution generated a more accessible understanding of American honor and asserts that the shift in meaning happened much earlier than scholars have observed. Adding to studies on the causes of the Revolution and the ethics of the period, Smith's work upends and clarifies historians' assumptions about honor in important ways.
Smith belies his own ingenuity when he suggests that this ethical interpretation has been "hidden in plain sight," somehow escaping historians' notice through generations of scholarly labor (p. 15). He has done a great deal of work to present a convincing argument about the transformative and influential nature of honor, virtue, and ethics in the Revolutionary era. American Honor is a highly original work that deals gracefully with difficult and often amorphous terms and that succeeds in reinvigorating debates on honor culture, inching us closer to a more holistic understanding of the American Revolution.