Deneen’s third essay is about virtue; not just the morality of doing no wrong, rather the much higher, more ancient, demanding and courageous virtue of Honor. He uses the words and actions of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence as his first example. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin worked bravely and tirelessly to move the Continental Congress to declare independence from England. The signers did not stand to gain much personally but stood to lose everything. Benjamin Franklin famously said “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately”.
They were committing treason against England and took great personal risk to give us the liberty that so many Americans take for granted today. The last phrase of The Declaration illuminates what was at stake. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor”. Their willingness to pledge their lives for liberty is based the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704), who believed that the sole purpose of Government is to protect our individual rights – life, liberty and property. It’s the Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) social contract theory that we value self-preservation more than TOTAL liberty because we are willing to give up some liberty so that Government can protect our lives.
Locke noted that soldiers couldn’t be forced to fight but that superior officers clearly have the right to shoot their own men if they refuse to fight. Self-preservation is then up to each soldier – either refuse to fight and die, or take your chances with the enemy. John Adams legally defended the British Boston Massacre soldiers successfully on the grounds that they had to kill those civilians on the grounds of self-defense. What a paradox – the principle of self-preservation must be defended by the willingness to die. What’s really going on is that we value something more than life, liberty and property – we value the ancient virtue of honor. Honor is an aristocratic virtue of warrior societies and it’s built into the United States and into our War Chest.
The signers of the Declaration were not only willing to give up their lives, liberty and property – they pledged something much greater, their sacred honor. Imagine if the patriots had lost. Nathan Hale (who honorably said at his execution “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) would have gone down in history as a traitor and Benedict Arnold would have been a hero. The signers were making a huge bet. They ended up being the most honored men in our nation’s history but, and here’s the catch, their words and actions were not guaranteed to be honorable at that time. Next week, we’ll look at Deneen’s other example of honor – the civil war hero Robert Gould Shaw.