Can the novel American conception of honor, propagated by Benjamin Franklin and others at the Founding, serve to unify a diverse and democratic population?
Or, more importantly, can the notion of ascending honor, as Craig Bruce Smith puts it, serve as a glue which holds together a republican government in lieu of dogmatic religious belief?
The answer, it seems, is a very tentative yes.
The following is a consideration of some of the main themes in Craig Bruce Smith’s presentation “Early to Rise: Benjamin Franklin and the Creation of Ascending Honor,” given on September 15th, 2017 at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy. What honor these words contain is solely attributable to the presenter and, perhaps, to Benjamin Franklin’s inability to resist the, ahem, excesses of the French aristocracy.
A New Kind of Honor
Honor, in a certain classical sense, is status tied to birth and social hierarchy. An individual was traditionally granted distinctions due more to their family name or birth class than anything they did for themselves. As least, this was the view of Benjamin Franklin who, according to Smith, wished to see men and women held in high esteem for their own achievements as opposed to those of their ancestors.
Honor, as Ben Franklin would have it, was something that “properly ascends, not descends.” For Franklin, honor was a thing that ought to be directly dependent on a person’s actions for the greater good of their community — it was also, critically, synonymous with having a virtuous and ethical reputation.
Honor is something that must actively be “lived” and not simply possessed by virtue of birth status.
In Smith’s painting, Franklin’s conception of honor was one that readily adhered to the cause of revolution in the late 18th Century. While it served to fire up men like Thomas Paine and rally others around the idea of just revolution, it at the same time contributed to healthy notions of republican duty and civic engagement. In this sense then, Franklin’s thought became intertwined with a broader ethical and ideological transformation in American thought and culture.
There is, however, a matter of practical difficulty with Franklin’s transition to a democratic sense of honor. While Franklin’s conception of honor may be viewed as an early expression of “The American Dream,” where individuals of any race, class, or parentage might better themselves in society, his near complete rejection of dogmatic belief leaves room for the failure of new honor as a social adhesive.
What, for instance, encourages a person to live out this new honor, especially as it seems to demand a republican duty toward fellow citizens? In short, where is the coercion?
The life of Benjamin Franklin himself offers some insight.
Benjamin Franklin as a Model of the American Dream?
Born of nothing circa 1706, Smith amusing recounts the life and early struggles of Ben Franklin who, while brilliant in his own right, had to work incredibly hard to receive the honor that he believed he was due.
As he grew in renown, Franklin set himself upon the old traditional displays of public honor so that he might “worship them” as Herod once tried to “worship” Christ. There were no titles of nobility among God’s chosen in the scriptures, Franklin contended, therefore there should be none in modern society.
But how could this secular religion of ascending honor keep men in pursuit of the good of society?
In Smith’s telling, Franklin wrote daily of his attempts to be virtuous. According to Franklin, a self-proclaimed deist, there existed 13 cardinal virtues to which all citizens should dedicate themselves. Among these were humility, chastity, temperance, and order. The difficulty, as should be made plain, was that Franklin thought these could only be practiced one at a time. Since “man is only human,” Franklin went about for weeks being temperate while “letting the cards fall where they may” in issues of chastity and humility and all the rest.
The result seems a lukewarm defense of honorable virtue and an occasional (albeit passive) hearty encouragement of democratic excess — while both of which may have their place, Franklin’s sense of honor appears to have encouraged more of the latter, which even led Smith to suggest that, “although humility was on his list, Franklin knew little of it.”
At heart, Franklin wrestled with the principle issue in a diverse society: A citizen ought to behave ethically in the service of their nation without belonging to a particular faith. Certainly, individuals need not agree upon a specific belief system to find common ground in the dignity of human life. People do, however, as Tocqueville cautions, somehow need to be reinforced in their belief in human dignity. To that end, it remains unclear as to whether Franklin’s sense of deism provides enough guidance for moral reasoning in the long run.
Standardized Belief (And Education)
But what standard of ethics exists to hold subsequent generations to them? In the United States, how would the post-Founding generation view ascending honor and republican duty?
In a sense, Franklin’s thought paralleled that of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Good behavior is rewarded by society while bad behavior is gradually weeded out, like in a marketplace. Ascending honor will become the norm in a democratic society as men and women are increasingly able to make names for themselves without having important families. What is honorable, in this view, will inevitably serve the greater good.
Yet the trouble remains — how do you instill the notion that the freedom granted under a republican government to obtain individual honor must be used to benefit the whole mass of people?
Franklin’s answer, according to Craig Bruce Smith, was a rigorous education program — education that, specifically, relied on the thought of Franklin himself among others.
Honor, for Franklin, as something personal, when done for the common good, ascended toward the transcendent. It is something obtainable by all for the good of all — but that point needs to be taught. The family unit therefore became important for Franklin in an entirely new way. Not only the wealthy families, but each and every one had the obligation to instill in their offspring the idea of civic engagement and republican duty.
As Mary Beth McConahey suggests, when Franklin told the woman in Philadelphia that he had helped create “a republic, if you can keep it,” he meant that particularly mothers, but also fathers, had a new responsibility in America to cultivate good honorable citizens.
While Franklin’s eclectic deism, and sense of honor, is certainly and importantly accessible, it permits too much deviation to ultimately bind together a diverse nation on its own.
Of course the problem for Franklin, and us today, remains potent. In the absence of dogmatic beliefs, what’s to stop the definition of morality or ethical behavior from changing over time? What’s to stop Franklin’s own 13 cardinal virtues from being eventually dismissed because, to paraphrase his own words, man is not strong enough to tackle all virtuous behavior at once?
I do not pretend, as Franklin did, to produce an answer. Yet perhaps the very consideration of problem has its own merit. To that end, I am indebted to those who came before me and their attempts to wrestle with these issues. They have made American citizenship a historically communal effort.