Early to Rise: Benjamin Franklin and the Creation of Ascending Honor
Fall 2017 History Colloquium Series
Drawing on research at the heart of his forthcoming University of North Carolina Press book, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era, William Woods Prof. Craig Bruce Smith began his September 15 talk at the Kinder Institute by noting the historiographical slipperiness of his key term. In the time period being examined, he explained, the meaning of ‘honor,’ like related concepts such as ‘virtue’ and ‘ethics,’ was difficult to pin down, though we can safely say that what we most commonly associate with it now—Burr and Hamilton with dueling pistols drawn in the shadows of the Palisades—hardly suits as a functional definition.
As for the primary subject of his talk—Benjamin Franklin’s rejoinder to the aristocratic conception of honor as tied to birth status—Prof. Smith traced Franklin’s creation of ‘ascending honor’ back to his early fascination with literature. From Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good, Franklin began to derive a definition of honor as lived: the product of a religious commitment to dignifying God when presented with an opportunity for goodness. From his reading of Plutarch and The Spectator, a more secular iteration of this idea started to take shape. Through Plutarch, he came to see behaving honorably as a way for people of limited means to advance in society. And in a literary turn of fate especially relevant to the scope of Prof. Smith’s talk, Franklin found in Volume 3 of The Spectator a sharp-tongued critique of the expectation that honor, even if initially earned through virtuous behavior, would transfer to younger generations based on grandeur of station rather than merit of action.
It was the fundamental artifice of a notion of honor rooted in birth that his alter ego, Mrs. Silence Dogood, took aim at in lampooning Harvard College for allowing “dunces and blockheads” to ascend to prominence and title based on the contents of their purses, and that would remain central to Franklin’s thinking about honor during its somewhat serpentine evolution: a hedonistic left turn in London that he recanted on the return trip to Philadelphia; a diligent pursuit of the thirteen virtues that expediently deviated from the Christian equation of self-denial and virtuousness; and most importantly, a slow-to-form, patriotic tethering of honor to Revolutionary-era colonists acting on behalf of the state.
The implications of Franklin’s connecting honor to behavior in service of the common good in many ways crystallized in his critique of the 1783 founding of the Society of the Cincinnati. His issue was not so much with the Society itself, a fraternal order of Continental Army officers, but instead with the fact that future membership in it would be limited to blood descendants of these officers, rather than extended to individuals who embodied in their actions the revolutionary spirit of sacrifice. Franklin’s frustration with this ultimately boiled over into the artful abbreviation at the center of Prof. Smith’s talk: the democratized formulation of honor as incompatible with heredity and dependent instead on an embrace of communal duty that he described in a 1784 letter to his daughter when he wrote that “honour does not descend, but ascends.” For Franklin, this aphorism likewise revealed the degree to which he believed honor due to parents for the act of raising children who do work for the state, and it is from here, Prof. Smith concluded, that we can trace his creation of ascending honor forward in time, to the trope of the “republican mother” as responsible for preserving civic virtue in the new nation.
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.”