American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era
by Craig Bruce Smith.
University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 384 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Daniel N. Gullotta

Recent historians have found little honorable about the American Revolution, with some even going so far as to call it a mistake. Whether for the Revolution’s shortcomings, its failures, or its outright hypocrisies, historians of late have presented a wealth of data to make readers question the intentions of the revolutionaries. For historians like Howard Zinn and Gary Nash, ethics made little to no difference in their motivation, but not so, says Craig Bruce Smith in his debut monograph, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. With skilled prose and careful scholarship, Smith argues for “a new causation narrative of the American Revolution,” in which morals, virtue, and ethics played a central role in defining the intentions of those who fought for independence.

Clearly channeling Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor (1982) in both his title and analysis, Smith argues that the concept of honor prior, during, and after the American Revolution was a part of a complex ethical matrix, affecting almost every member of society. Smith claims that the American revolutionaries “were deeply concerned with the principles behind their own actions and the consequences for the fledging nation.” Far from being only a Southern phenomenon, or even a custom confined to elite white men, Smith demonstrates that notions of honor could be found among poor and landless white men, among women from all walks of life, and among enslaved Africans. Not only does he seek to expand the traditional foci of honor studies beyond the privileged, Smith’s study is also a transformative one, tracing how “the traditional, largely British, perception of the importance of honor” changed over time and came to take on a national American characteristic.

In addition to rights and liberty, the colonies frequently employed the language of honor to explain and justify their actions. Smith claims that such “concepts of honor and virtue were at the forefront of the American founders’ minds as they traveled the precarious road to independence.” In Smith’s reading of the Imperial Crisis, England’s imposition of taxes questioned and violated the colonies’ sense of honor. As he rightly points out, this is not to say that colonial protests were only about defending their honor, but rather that questions of virtue permeated these acts of resistance. Boycotting English goods, for example, became a way for men and women to partake in a “public virtue” and a means to establish their individual reputations as moral patriots. The same distinction also applied on the battlefield; figures like Washington insisted that the conflict had to be fought with dignity and honor. As Smith puts it, “They wanted to win, but win well. They wanted the new country to succeed, but not at the cost of honor or virtue.”

Following this line of thought, one of the most interesting aspects of Smith’s study is how codes of honor and ethical ideas informed the conduct of warfare. The founders “wanted to win well,” but this was far from a monolithic thought. Defeats and ongoing retreats caused some of the patriots to criticize their fellows who seemed to prefer honor to victory. Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold and their fretting over their reputation thus play a crucial role in Smith’s study. But personal reputation was not the only thing at stake. These leaders also worried about the emerging nation’s image before the public and the wider world. By the execution of John André, a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army, these men demonstrated that older ethical norms, such as expressing self-serving individual honor, could be overturned in favor of the nation’s honor, a collective sense of pride and poise.

In the period after independence was won, Smith argues, the revolutionaries’ sense of national honor did not easily transfer to a younger generation in the early Republic. Older moral codes began to reemerge with the onset of the War of 1812. Smith ends the book with a vivid account of President James Monroe awarding Andrew Jackson the Congressional Gold Medal on March 16, 1824. Bridging the gap between these generations arose Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, who signifies for Smith a return to a more personal rather than national sense of honor. With the onset of the Age of Jackson, American honor had morphed again. Ethics and morality were no longer “no longer synonymous,” and the drive to promote and protect one’s personal honor (via duels, for example) return.

Smith’s critics will undoubtedly be skeptical about some of the connections he makes between the ethics invoked and the behavior in question. Some will argue that any mention of honor or virtue was a mere rhetorical device to mask economic motivations or ambitions for power. While Smith is aware of such arguments and open to considering such suspicions, he rightly states that a view of the human person as a kind of homo economicus is deeply limited in its scope and often inadequate to explain the human experience. Having said this, readers would do well to test some of the rhetoric employed by the revolutionaries against their subsequent actions. Given widespread street violence against loyalists, in acts like tarring and feathering, one cannot but be skeptical of some of the claims of a morally bound combat. Indeed, often missing from Smith’s account is the British perception of American honor, as well as a treatment of their own sense of virtue in the face of the War of Independence. This kind of moral account of the war, on all sides, would certainly make for an interesting study.

Curiously, Smith presents Jackson as the embodiment of a return to an older sense of honor. This, I would argue, is only one part of the story, as Jackson would also come to embody for many Americans the new democratic virtues. Given that Jackson served in the American Revolution, one must ask how Jackson himself was affected by Smith’s conception of national honor, and whether or not it might help explain Jackson’s national pride and imperial ambitions. As Smith ends with Jackson and hints at the period to come, one must ask if his account is incomplete, given Jackson’s militant defense of the American union and his own sense of national pride in the face of the Nullification crisis. But this is not a study of Jackson, and Smith’s ending does offer wonderful space for Jacksonian scholars to speculate.

Smith’s American Honor is a fascinating study of one of the forces that drives people and how such forces are fashioned. Unlike other tales of the American Revolution, Smith treats his characters as more than mere self-interested economic actors, offering readers a deep dive into one of their ideological underpinnings. Especially in the current climate of studies on the American Revolution, Smith’s work is a breath of fresh air. American Honor is certainly not a master key to solve all the questions of the Revolution, nor does it strive to be, but it offers a much-needed study of an overlooked area. American Honor is a worthy first book from a promising young scholar and a necessary text for readers seeking to enrich their understanding of the period.  

Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. student in American religious history at Stanford University and is the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter, @danielgullotta and @AgeofJacksonPod.