American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era

American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era

American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era

American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era


The American Revolution was not only a revolution for liberty and freedom, it was also a revolution of ethics, reshaping what colonial Americans understood as "honor" and "virtue." As Craig Bruce Smith demonstrates, these concepts were crucial aspects of Revolutionary Americans' ideological break from Europe and shared by all ranks of society. Focusing his study primarily on prominent Americans who came of age before and during the Revolution--notably John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington--Smith shows how a colonial ethical transformation caused and became inseparable from the American Revolution, creating an ethical ideology that still remains.

By also interweaving individuals and groups that have historically been excluded from the discussion of honor--such as female thinkers, women patriots, slaves, and free African Americans--Smith makes a broad and significant argument about how the Revolutionary era witnessed a fundamental shift in ethical ideas. This thoughtful work sheds new light on a forgotten cause of the Revolution and on the ideological foundation of the United States.


From the Sons of Liberty to the Son of Thunder, crisis had brought them to Philadelphia. Years of resentment and demands of liberty sparked the rattle of carriages and the thump of horse shoes from all corners of the thirteen colonies. Delegates from each of the colonies gathered in the Pennsylvania capital for a “general congress” ready to resist Great Britain and, if necessary, to “risque [risk] their all.” Each morning they arose for a purposeful stroll along Chestnut Street that brought them down a cobblestoned alleyway. Although flanked by buildings on either side, it was still wide enough for the gentlemen to continue their conversations side by side. Every inch of their nearly two-hundred-and-fifty-foot approach framed their destination: an elegant Georgian building of vibrant red brick, accented in crisp white and crowned with a rising spire. Once inside, all fifty-six individuals had to saunter down “a long Entry” before turning east. Each then sat on a wooden Windsor chair facing a small writing desk on which he would help to decide the future of his country. Despite the hour, the chamber was dark, illuminated only by the dancing flicker of candles. The shutters had been drawn—all inside understood the gravity of their task and the moment. “This Assembly [was] like no other that ever existed,” remarked John Adams of Massachusetts, for “Every man” in that packed twenty-by-thirty-foot room was “a great Man.” Sequestered inside, the delegates “debate[d]” theorists Emer de Vattel, Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, John Locke, and Montesquieu “like philosophers.” Using these texts to inform their conceptions of colonial “rights” and “justice,” each ultimately made a pledge based on “sacred” “honor.”

The date was October 20, 1774.

The American patriots gathered in Carpenter’s Hall and unanimously declared themselves “associate[d], under the sacred ties of virtue, honour and love of our country.”

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, roughly two years and a thousand feet away, many of the same patriots, now delegates of the Second Continental Congress, repeated and expanded on the sentiments of the first when they “pledge[d]” their “Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred . . .

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