“Gentleman” Was More Than A Word On A Restroom Door

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

To some, it might seem naïve or even déclassé to honor the document’s closing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” We are a more secular age, and for many (particularly our opinion makers) patriotism is a suspect idea – many in academe say it smacks of “triumphalism,” an irrational belief in the superiority of the American experience. Much has been said in recent decades regarding the short-comings of the Revolutionary generation; much of it has been enlightening, even brilliant; some of it seems reflective of the anger and cynicism of academics who have in the words of the historian David Hackett Fischer “lost interest in liberty and freedom.” Fischer reminds those who write American history that “to lose touch with liberty and freedom is to condemn themselves to complete irrelevance in American and the world,” an intellectual failure that “severely weakened their own causes and done grave injury to public discourse and civic spirit in the United States.” It is worth remembering that with all their faults, their sometimes faltering steps toward representative democracy, and their contradictions expressed in word and deed, the men and women who trusted in the words of the Declaration of Independence had no idea whether the words it contained would survive to transform their lives in a nation that survived long enough to secure the Declaration’s promises. Some of them risked everything they held dear because of the side they chose. Some of us today might be uncomfortable with traditional admiration for a risky attempt at gaining a nation based on freedom and liberty. The Founders did not have the luxury of hindsight or a long-established nation that would have offered them the privilege to cynically appraise the sincerity of their actions.

In order to secure the claims for the American people promised in the Declaration of Independence, the United States needed to win a war against the greatest imperial power of the times. That imperial power possessed the best-trained equipped army of the time, backed by the best equipped and largest navy in the world. All of this military might was backed by the strongest system of public finance in the world and supported by at least 1/5 of the population of the 13 American colonies. The American Revolution was nothing less than a fight for national survival. Unless the Americans secured through warfare an independent state with the ability to govern themselves under their own authority and under their own laws, the republican philosophy of self-government, political equality, natural rights, and Whig tradition of expanding freedoms summarized in the Declaration would remain what had been in Europe, namely interesting political theory that was much debated, but little practiced. America’s success in this venture hinged on a war fought while facing long odds. We often forget how outlandish the proposition called “The United States of America” appeared in the 1770s to many other Americans and the political class of the 18th-century world. George Washington lost more battles than he ever won; American prisoners of war were often treated with cruelty; American women were often assaulted by British troops; Valley Forge is a by-word in American history for an army that suffered and died. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Gage’s forces sent to Lexington and Concord had orders to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both signers of the Declaration. Internet hagiography regarding the signers and their supposed sufferings abound, but it is a fact signers such as John Hart (a delegate from New Jersey) had his home burnt to the ground in the dead of winter by British forces, killing his children in the flames. Another New Jersey delegate, the Rev. John Witherspoon (then the president of what became Princeton University) had his library purposely destroyed by British soldiers who torched Nassau Hall. He spent most of his income on reconstruction efforts for the college after the war, nearly going broke. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:

Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginiawho said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.

Keeping those facts in mind, it is not hard to imagine how the revolutionary generation placed their lives and fortunes at stake. They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 232 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-centuryAmerica had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer,Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document.

Honor meant much to these men, too. They rejoiced in the title “gentleman,” a word that we today simply place on restroom doors. Good name, reputation, and status mattered because these qualities were the basis of their place in society. Honor mattered because they saw life as a public drama where you could be praised or blamed for your actions that were played out in front of the world, and the wrong choice could mark you for life as someone not worthy of the word “gentleman.”  Like any human beings, they had enormous flaws and their lives were often a contradiction of the ideals they followed. Yet, at least they aspired to those ideals, a quality singularly lacking even in recent American presidents, members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities, and sports figures. When they signed the Declaration they jeopardized what the world would think of their character, morality, and integrity. However, they considered it the right thing to do, and they often described how to continue doing the right thing to the younger generation that came in their wake. Thomas Jefferson, writing to his nephew Peter Carr, gave him this advice:

When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these, then, your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.

Honor was also very much part of the literary culture of the English language, the mother tongue that the Founders still adored even if they could no longer love the realm that gave them their cultural and intellectual birth. Among the three men most instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – many things bound them together, including a shared love of the works of William Shakespeare. Adams quoted him frequently in his writings and letters to his wife Abigail; Franklin ensured that the Philadelphia lending library had adequate copies of the Bard’s complete works; and Jefferson, a lifelong lover of theater, read Shakespeare’s plays his entire life and kept several editions of his complete works in his library at Monticello.  Perhaps the three men would have agreed that like Henry V in his namesake play, honor was worth the hazard when the cause was right, even if they and their cause stood in the shadow of overwhelming force and long odds.

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

They did not die in 1776, nor did the revolution they helped bring to the world. It was won only through one ofAmerica’s longest wars, fought against the global superpower of the age, based on political theories that up to the time had only enjoyed intellectual debate rather than practical application. Their honor was intact because they kept their promise: They created a nation where ordinary people could govern themselves because they made liberty and freedom their standard; they offered an asylum to the world searching for freedom and opportunity; and they set an example for all humankind that tolled the end of empires and the beginning of nations.

We should honor them.

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5 Comments

Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

5 responses to ““Gentleman” Was More Than A Word On A Restroom Door

  1. That’s so sad about John Hart.

    • paulrhuard

      Yes, it is. He is one of the Founders who truly did pay a high price for American liberty and independence.

    • paulrhuard

      J.G. your posts are excellent. Your interest in history is always matched by how well-read you are. I always enjoy checking in at your site.

  2. Ellen

    Superb post.

    • paulrhuard

      Ellen, thank you. You are one my most loyal sources of commentary. (Frankly, you are one of my few sources of commentary!) I honestly wondered if this post was too cerebral even by my standards. However, I have recently considered how much the Founding generation put at hazard when they supported American independence, yet took all the risks they did while keeping their promises to a new nation. As I point out, the delegates at the 2nd Continental Convention were gentlemen of substance, wealth, and prestige. They had a lot to lose — but there were some things during their time more horrible to endure than loss of fortune. The fact people like Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Franklin, and others understood that their status meant that they played out their public lives in a manner that showed they honestly believed that they would be judged by history and the nation they created is a sense of duty rarely found at any time in history. All of those men had their flaws, but I would trust them to keep their word to me. Republican or Democrat, there are few men or women in public life that are worthy of my trust today. It’s always good to hear from you, and I hope you will continue to stop by and read my musings.

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