"Early to Rise": Benjamin Franklin and the Creation of Ascending Honor

Fall 2017 History Colloquium Series

As part of our Fall 2017 History Colloquium Series, William Woods University Assistant Professor of History Craig Bruce Smith will give a talk on Benjamin Franklin’s idea of ascending honor, a notion that repudiated European hereditary traditions and instead conceived of honor as earned through action, merit, and the fulfillment of republican duty (see abstract below). The talk will be held on September 15, at 3:30 PM in Jesse Hall 410, and is free and open to the public.


In much of the current historiography, honor has become inherently linked to birth status and social hierarchy. But Benjamin Franklin was always hostile towards the rewards of lineage. For him, honor was about morality. In 1723 he argued, “Honour…properly ascends, and not descends.” This was an idea that remained throughout his life. After the Revolution he reiterated, “Honour does not descend but ascends.” By his definition, you could only earn honor through your own action or merit; you could not inherit it. If you behaved well, it would reflect well on you and your parents and teachers, rather than your descendants. Honor became incompatible with heredity and birth status. In addition, it made honor directly dependent upon a person’s duty to the community, reflecting the democratization of America. Franklin’s concept of ascending honor was not only a drastic reinterpretation of the traditional European connotations of heredity; it also contributed to the notions of republican duty in America. In tracing Franklin’s “ascending honor” from Puritan Boston into the early republic, this talk will examine how his ideas were indicative of a broader ideological and ethical transformation that predates and became intertwined with the American Revolution.


Craig Bruce Smith received his Ph.D. in American History from Brandeis University and currently serves as an Assistant Professor of History and Director of the History Program at William Woods University. His work focuses on early American cultural and intellectual history during the long eighteenth century and the Age of the Revolution, with particular emphasis on ethics and national identity and broader interests in gender, race, leadership, and war in the Atlantic world. His first book, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era, will be released in April 2018 by the University of North Carolina Press, and he is presently researching two new projects, “‘The Greatest Man in the World’: A Global History of George Washington” and “Redemption: The American Revolution, Ethics, and Abolitionism in Britain and the United States.”