Today, we welcome a guest post from Craig Bruce Smith, author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era, just published by UNC Press.
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.
American Honor is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Claims of a “Very Honorable” Kim Jong Un are Trump-ed Up
For most of recent memory, the rogue state of North Korea has loomed as a specter threatening the safety of the world and its own citizens. Yet last week, President Donald Trump declared that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “very honorable.”
Long used within international diplomacy, honor as a term sounds archaic to the modern ear, conjuring up images of duels at ten paces. Honor has been contemporarily relegated to the military, noble families, or rappers in a certain Broadway musical. Today it is often dismissed as violent or aristocratic. However, during the Revolutionary era, America created its own understanding of honor—one that embraced ethics and a devotion to the greater good. To be honorable was to be ethical. But what changed?
In the early twentieth century, the use of these two words literally swapped places. Honor still exists in America, but we just know it by another name: ethics. Based on this and the Founders’ ideals, the oppressive dictatorship of North Korea and its leader cannot be considered honorable by the United States’ historical and ideological standards.
The recent conflict between Trump and Kim Jong Un began not with missiles, but rather with a flurry of insults that flew back and forth between the United States and North Korea over recent months. President Trump launched a mocking offensive against the “Little Rocket Man,” while the North Korean counterattacked with a volley tipped, not with plutonium and uranium, but with the venomous words, “mentally deranged dotard.”
Duels (and wars) have been fought over less, but soon overtures of nuclear negotiations appeared. Now, suddenly, the same regime that George W. Bush included within the “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union Address has been praised. This leaves one to ask: how can Kim Jong Un be “honorable”?
While the concept is ancient, the problem with the word honor is that it has always proved difficult to accurately define. In fact, its meaning has varied greatly, with individuals invoking the concept to justify virtually anything.
In regards to honor’s definition, “it is no easy undertaking to explain a word,” said eighteenth-century Cambridge University professor Thomas Rutherford, “which is used by all men very unsteadily, and by most without any meaning at all.”
Born out of the struggles against monarchical British tyranny, honor in Revolutionary America became linked instead with justice, freedom, and morality. In the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress jointly pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” But the shift to an ethical understanding occurred before 1776, shaped by what American Patriots considered Britain’s unethical violation of their fundamental rights to life and liberty. For the new United States, honor was therefore a promise to maintain its moral supremacy and to serve the best interests of the nation and its people.
George Washington stated, “I should hope every post would be deemed honorable, which gave a man opportunity to serve his country.” Serving a cause beyond oneself was honorable. While similar words have been usurped by dictatorships around the globe and cast as blind loyalty and justification for brutal policies (such as the Nazi’s SS and their “Blood and Honor” oath), Washington’s version centered on ethical behavior on and off the battlefield. Benjamin Franklin’s version of honor dismissed its elitist and exclusionary elements based on birth or status and allowed individuals to advance in society through service to the nation. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of honor was similar to the modern day equivalent of conscience. “Never suppose that in any possible situation or under any circumstance that it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing however slightly it may appear to you,” he wrote, for each person should behave as if “all the world” was watching.
And now the world is watching.
It is watching the United States, which has stood as a beacon of freedom for 242 years and protected global democracy for nearly a century. And our President has stated that a dictator is “very honorable.” Words matter and so does the meaning behind them.
So what then could Trump mean by his words?
At its most basic, honor centers on telling the truth. If Kim Jong Un is indeed following through with on his overtures for peaceful negotiation, then perhaps the President believes he is acting honorably. Maybe, it was all just a ploy to bring North Korea into the just announced peace summit? However, when we apply the Founders’ concept of honor as ethics, weighed against years of oppression, broken promises, dynastic reign, and aggression, there is absolutely no basis for such a claim. The documented human rights violations of North Korea can hardly vouch for the honesty or honor of their leadership.
It’s interesting to note that President Trump made this comment only a day after visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It is difficult to envision that Founder sharing similar sentiments. “I cannot tell a lie,” the definition of honor being used by President Trump for Kim Jong Un simply does not fit with America’s founding ideals.
Craig Bruce Smith is an assistant professor of history at William Woods University. You can visit his website at www.craigbrucesmith.com.