World history was forever changed as a result of the American Revolution, but the war also had far-reaching consequences that have gone unexamined—until now.
Join historian Craig Bruce Smith as he discusses his book, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era.
Welcome! Before we begin, please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up pursuing a PhD in American History?
I’m a new dad, a husband, and an assistant professor of military history at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I focus on the American Revolution and early America more broadly, with a special interest in ethics and transnational ideas.
How did I end up pursuing a PhD?
Growing up in New York City, I originally wanted to be a lawyer. I majored in history during college at St. John’s University in New York, anticipating this would help in a transition to law school. But after two internships with judges, I was convinced that I wanted no part of that profession. My time working closely with the history faculty on research projects convinced me that a history professor was the only job I wanted to do. (I was still debating a career as a pro hockey player or actor, but decided they weren’t the most stable job prospects — academia seemed much more reliable back in the early 2000s).
Then there was a winding path that involved my teaching high school history (and coaching the hockey team) for a few years and interning at a local historical society before applying to graduate school.
Going to Brandeis University outside Boston was an easy choice. I knew I wanted to work with David Hackett Fischer, one of the all-time greatest historians of early America. Getting my PhD in American history was a wonderful experience.
One of my favorite moments was leading a student-created exhibit for the 250th Anniversary of the Stamp Act for Brandeis’ Transitional Year Program, a program that helps first-generation and diverse undergraduates from varied regional, economic, and national backgrounds adjust to a collegiate environment. Seeing the students engage with the topic was fulfilling and affirmed my chosen career.
I adjuncted for several Boston-area colleges (including Tufts University) during and after graduate school (with increasingly impressive sounding limited-term titles), before settling down to a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in Missouri.
Briefly introduce American Honor and explain how you came up with the idea. What kind of response did you initially get from publishers?
The short answer is that American Honor is an ethical history of the American Revolution. It explores how the ideals of honor and virtue, akin to modern day ethics, inspired the Revolution and became foundational principles of the new United States.
I was always interested in ethical questions and the Revolution itself. But the roots of American Honor started with reading Caroline Cox’s A Proper Sense of Honor, Judith Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies, and Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor as an undergraduate shortly after their release.
This really got me thinking about honor as a concept in early America. By the time I started my PhD, I knew this is was a topic I wanted to write on. Through Fischer I was also introduced to Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor, which greatly influenced the project. American Honor (naturally a play on Wyatt-Brown’s title) evolved from a first semester research paper on George Washington’s honor into a much more expansive study.
I’ve had the good fortune that people have been interested in my book from conception to finished product. As this was a new take on the Revolution, publishers didn’t doubt that there would be an audience for the subject.
From the start there was a fair amount of dialogue with multiple prestigious publishers. My editor, Chuck Grench at the University of North Carolina Press, originally reached out to me after I was nominated for the Allan Nevins Prize for the best-written doctoral dissertation. As the dissertation developed into a book,
I ultimately decided on UNC Press because it excels in publishing early American history.
How did you begin the process of researching and organizing honor in early America? What is a research victory associated with this book you are especially proud of?
In many ways the scope of the project was daunting. My wife on many occasions jokingly mocked my decision, “Why couldn’t you pick an easy topic for the first book? You had to go and write a whole history of the American Revolution.”
I’m very proud of this book because it is so big and bold; those are the types of books I love to read and it’s what I set out to write.
I started with the question of what did honor (and virtue) actually mean in early America, as the standard definitions offered by numerous scholars didn’t seem to hold during the Revolution.
From there it became about examining the impact of these ideas on the Revolution itself. The process was built around looking at how honor was understood before, during, and after the Revolution. How did different historical actors from various regions, socio-economic backgrounds, races, and genders view this concept?
Digitized primary sources made this book possible. A project this expansive probably could not have been written even ten years ago.
Research for the book began with some central figures: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin; their writings stretch the course of their lives, allowing for traces in development. Using digital sources like Rotunda and Founders Online, I was able to read virtually every written reference these individuals had made about honor. I also began incorporating digitized books, pamphlets, and newspapers.
Such a breadth and depth would have been impossible prior to this; there was even a marked difference in available research between when I started the dissertation and finished the book.
From this point, it was about creating as wide a picture of honor as possible by expanding the narrative beyond the traditional “Founding Fathers” to include people from various regions, genders, races, and classes; this involved using primary sources from over thirty different archives and libraries in America and the UK.
Some of my best finds were hiding in plain sight, and were found digitally, especially Franklin’s concept of a non-birth based “ascending honor” and Jefferson’s definition of honor as akin to modern day conscience.
From the archives, I was thrilled with several discoveries of the use of the term “gentlemen soldiers”, which illustrated an extending of honor in the military beyond the officer classes in stark contrast to most eighteenth-century armies.
The use of honor by African Americans, free and enslaved, is also very new and exciting. For example, Prince Hall implored black Freemasons to retain their honor in an ethical sense by having them “rather suffer wrong than do wrong.” The same can be said for women using the language of honor to justify their support of boycotts against British goods.
Your book is ambitious in that it creates a new paradigm for viewing early American histories. What are some other lenses that have never been adequately examined when interpreting this time period?
Thanks for the kind words. The goal had always been to look at old questions in new ways.
Examining the causes of the Revolution and its ideology has largely gone out of fashion with many historians. Furthermore, academia has moved away from studying the Founders.
I really believe that taking a fresh look at the causes and results of the Revolution based on beliefs and morals has a great deal more to teach us.
The problem has been that these ideas are too frequently dismissed as rhetoric to cover economic or personal motivations. There are some glimmers of a change with recent and forthcoming books, but there is still a lot on the ideals and beliefs of the Revolution that have been left unexplored.
What is meant by the phrase, ‘The American Revolution was made on honor, sold on merit’?
You should ask Mark Boonshoft of Norwich University. It’s actually a take on Narragansett Beer’s tagline. It’s one of Mark’s favorite beers, and he used the line in the first published review of American Honor for the Junto website.
He teased the review on Twitter by asking something like, “How is American Honor like my favorite beer?”
Ultimately, the Narragansett Beer social media people even commented, although I’m pretty sure they were confused as to why we were talking about the American Revolution.
What did honor mean in America in 1776 and what does it mean today?
Since ancient times, honor has been linked to reputation, valor on the battlefield, and birth status. It was hierarchical, exclusive, and not accessible to most people. It also involved an element of community recognition, in that others had to agree that a person was honorable. It was very much an all-or-nothing concept.
But in America by 1776 honor and virtue were synonymous with our modern understanding of ethics. They were moral ideals tied to supporting the greater good of the nation. Honor was no longer exclusively tied to a person’s birth status, and it allowed for numerous individuals to rise in the new nation.
By the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson’s version of honor was nearly identical to the modern notion of “conscience.”
Honor played a crucial role in the American Revolution, in that the founders wanted not only to win, but to win well. They attempted to put aside their personal honor in favor of national honor (what was good for the new nation as a whole).
Today, honor is more difficult to define, as I don’t think the average person uses the term with any regularity.
Does honor still exist?
Yes. I just think we call it ethics, a linguistic change that began in the early twentieth century. The issue is that most people still associate honor with the more visible notions of honor culture, such as dueling or hierarchy, that were violent or restrictive.
I hope this book allows readers to conceptualize what the term truly means. I think Jefferson’s definition still holds.
Are there any morals—or ‘immorals’—that unite Americans today in a similar manner to how early Americans were bound together by honor? Is there such a thing as ethical national honor today?
I think there can be. But today the battle over morality/ethics is highly politicized that it has clouded the issue. Not that this anything new. This debate over what is moral or immoral has consistently occurred since America’s founding.
(Twitter has of course escalated the debate.)
Because we are currently living through a time of extreme political polarization, it’s often difficult for opposing sides to see any commonality. Everyone is basically pushing for what they believe is right for the nation and its citizens.
Maybe the Founders’ concept of honor as putting the good of the nation first could help bridge this divide?
Unfortunately, it’s moments of crisis that tend to clarify and unify American’s thinking on what is moral or immoral; we’ve seen this with Benedict Arnold’s treason, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11. Hopefully, Americans can once again embrace a shared vision of honor without a tragedy.
How did the War of 1812 reshape the national perception of honor? All things being equal, would this regression have taken place and fully formed without Andrew Jackson?
In America, honor wasn’t a static concept. The colonial era saw an emulation of the traditional European view, while the Revolutionary generation transformed it into something ethically distinctive.
The next generations would change again.
The War of 1812 didn’t shape honor; the ideas actually helped create the War of 1812. It was a result of the post-Revolutionary generations’ shifting views on honor.
The Revolutionary generation focused on an ethical interpretation, but their descendants went back to an older model akin to glory and reputation in an attempt to live up to their parents and grandparents. The War of 1812 in many ways was a duel between nations that highlighted the return to a more antiquated understanding. It was part counterrevolution and part generational angst.
While I know it’s in vogue to blame Andrew Jackson for everything, I don’t think that he was the cause of honor reverting back to its older model.
He was indicative of many young men striving to make their way in the wake of the Revolutionary generation. Unfortunately Jackson’s fame did exacerbate this change for other young men who looked to him as a new “Founding Father” for the post 1812-generation.
The changes to honor were beyond just him, but his life provides the clearest view of this revived antiquated manifestation.
What is the most humbling praise someone has offered about your book—and what is a criticism you find especially valid?
I’ve had the great fortune of receiving many positive reviews. But the most humbling praise were probably the blurbs for my book. I had some of the top authors on the Revolution willing to recommend it, including Alan Taylor.
But given how influential her own work was to my project, Joanne Freeman’s words may have been the most touching. As she wrote, “By exploring honor as a concrete ideal rather than an abstract concept, it reveals the evolving sense of moral purpose that framed the nation’s founding. An important read for anyone who wants a full understanding of the bonds of principle that joined revolutionary Americans in shared cause.”
I couldn’t ask for better!
Probably the best line from a review was by Miles Smith (no relation) in the New Criterion who said that I had “written that rarest of books: a history that is scholarly in its scope and methodology but inspiring in its tone.”
As for criticism, Jason Opal and David Preston, my peer reviewers for the University of North Carolina Press, made this a better book with their constructive critiques. Opal, for example, offered me the idea of centering the epilogue on Jackson receiving the Congressional Medal in 1824, which I believed greatly improved the book.
As for a published review, Daniel Gullotta for the University Bookman wondered about a greater focus on the British perspective of honor. Fair point, but that would require a title change.
I hear you’ve garnered a celebrity endorsement of sorts. What’s the deal with the Russell Crowe story?
Ah yes, my close personal friend, Russell Crowe. Joking obviously. But this is probably the most unexpected part of writing this book.
It all started with a Twitter discussion on how historians inscribe their books, and we were making up clever lines for certain books. Now, I’m a big Russell Crowe fan and have even seen his bands (in various iterations) perform on several occasions. I jokingly mentioned borrowing one of Crowe’s lines from Gladiator and said, “I’ve thought about using a witty inscription when I sign American Honor like ‘Strength and Honor,’ but I fear @russellcrowe in this life or the next.”
Historian David Head mentioned how Crowe came up with the line himself (it was his high school’s motto in Latin) and laughed that a “lawsuit” would be “pending” for such an offense.
About 45 minutes later, Russell Crowe himself responded, “You’re alright Craig. Go ahead. Congratulations on your book.”
You’re alright Craig.— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) June 6, 2019
Congratulations on your book
And with that I had the official blessing of the Oscar-winner and lots of shocked replies from my fellow historians.
So that’s how I started signing my books, “Strength and Honor, Craig Bruce Smith.” The question still remains if I’m personally “alright” or if this refers exclusively to using his line, but either way it was a clear “go ahead” and a hearty “congratulations” from an unexpected source – I’d love to put it on the cover for the paperback!
Tell us about your next project, ‘The Greatest Man in the World’: A Global History of George Washington.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin traditionally get credit for their international influence, but no one has looked at Washington beyond being “the Father of his Country.”
This book will really contribute to the new academic trend (which is being championed by the Omohundro Institute) of looking at American history from an international perspective. In taking a legitimately global view of Washington, the book will be the fullest realization of this new trend, while keeping the United States at the heart.
The book is a global history (or perhaps a global biography) of Washington that examines how he was viewed outside of America.
But it will also be something more.
It will explore Washington’s international reputation from the French and Indian War through his death, memory, and into the twenty-first-century. Through Washington, it will allow for a look at what ideals transcend nations in times or peace, revolution, and war. The intention is to touch on six different continents to have a truly global take. (If anyone knows at Washington’s influence on Antarctica, I’d be willing to make it seven).
So far, I’ve already found some tantalizing pieces, such as a British rumor that Washington intended to “rescind” the Declaration of Independence after the fall of Philadelphia. In addition, a significant trend that has emerged is a predilection for South American nations to focus on Washington the general, not Washington the president.
It’s a project that is even more ambitious than my first, causing my wife to laugh and shake her head. It will involve placing America in a truly global scope.
If you could go back in time and observe any singular event from the life of George Washington, what would you most want to see?
Easy decision. It would be Washington surrendering his commission back to Congress on Dec. 23, 1783 in the Annapolis State House.
It could be argued that this is the most important moment in US history. In giving up power, Washington maintained the ideals of the Revolution, preserved civilian supremacy, and orchestrated a peaceful transition of power. Unlike Caesar or Cromwell or Napoleon, Washington put his nation first.
*All views are Craig Bruce Smith’s and do not reflect the views of the Federal Government, the US Army, or the Department of Defense
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.