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America and the Chivalric

America, Truth, and Honor (1982)

“Among all these gentlemen, isn’t there one man of honor?”

D.W. Griffith, Orphans of the Storm (1921)

“Has Mrs.---------- paid the rent yet?”

“No,” replied the agent.

“Well, but she must pay it,” said the poor old man.

“Mr. Astor,” rejoined the agent, “she can’t pay it now; she has had misfortunes, and we must give her time.”

“No, no,” said Astor. “I tell you she can pay it and she will pay it. You don’t go the right way about it.”

Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes (1909)

“There is no term in the English language that expresses such concentrated contempt as the word “scab.”

William Z. Foster, Pages from a Worker’s Life (1939) (1)

This is a lightly tweaked version of “Honor,” the penultimate chapter of America and the Patterns of Chivalry (1982), on which see the brief first section of Preface, the Table of Contents, and Excerpts. I am concerned here with the problematic relationship between truth, reason, and the chivalric.

In the perennial conflict between the clerical and the martial, as epitomized in the debate in the Gorgias between Socrates and the Nietzschean aristocrat Callicles, the clerisy have figured as the truth-seekers and truth-tellers, undercutting the irrational imaginings and insistencies of their more physical adversaries. The same undercutting might seem to be called for now.

Attractive though the chivalric patterns may be, and even if they may once have made some kind of sense (so the indictment might run), the proliferating and irreversible complexities of society can presumably no longer be comprehended in such terms. Whatever its limitations, enlightened expertise surely continues to offer the best chance for a society of rationally distributed benefits, and the most rewarding stance for intelligent persons who do not romantically aspire to become muckraking journalists or maverick radicals. Moreover, it can do so because it appears to be in touch with reality in ways that the chivalric attitudes, for all their charm, are not.

However, the actualities may be somewhat different.

Let me recapitulate certain points in the standard intellectual critique of the chivalric.


The fundamental struggle, in terms of that critique, is between reason and force, truth and fantasy, justice and arbitrariness.

Reasonable persons decide things by talking reasonably together, and if someone has recourse to violence it is because he unreasonably enjoys its gratifications or is too impatient to argue rationally. The life of reason—which is to say systematized reason—consists of an increasing refinement of ways of getting at the truth, particularly in the rational and extended training provided in universities. And the more complex organizations and structures are the most rational, because they corresponded closest to the complexities of reason and of the reality that reason uncovers, a complexity embodied in university disciplines.

From this point of view, it is not accidental that, in contrast to the inexorable growth of rational bureaucratic structures, the history of the chivalric has been largely a history of failure, and that so many of the images that I have talked about have been images of defeat—Pickett’s Virginians advancing in vain against the murderous fire from Cemetery Ridge, Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox, Roland and his rear guard perishing at Roncevalles, Arthur wounded almost to death in his last fight against Mordred, Quixote, broken, returning home to die, Zapata going down before the guns of his ambushers, and the rest.

As Damon Runyon remarked, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” (2) The Wobblies, broken by Wilson’ force majeure, were simply taking their place with all the other defeated chivalric-martial groups like the cowboys of the open range, the Secessionist Southerners, the Cavaliers of the English Civil War, the French chivalry, the knights of Camelot. And attractive as such groups may be, their defeats were merited because of a pattern of unreason that extended deeper than those that I have discussed already, and that centered around the idea of increasing one’s prestige by fighting honorably.


When I spoke of agonistic struggles between power-charged groups and of an agonistic approach to justice in the new radicalism, I was pointing to something fundamental. A recurring feature in the chivalric pattern is the duel, whether the formalized gentlemanly duel, the judicial duel, the duel of chivalric warfare, or the duel of the strike. And on the face of things, the duel is the antithesis of reason-based justice and peace, because the strongest or most skillful combatant is not necessarily the one who is in the right or who is telling the truth.

As the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga pointed out in the 1930s,

We moderns cannot conceive justice apart from abstract righteousness.… For us, the lawsuit is primarily a dispute about right and wrong; winning and losing take only a secondary place. Now it is precisely this preoccupation with ethical values that we must abandon if we are to understand archaic justice.… It is not so much the abstract question of right and wrong that occupy the archaic mind as the very concrete question of winning or losing.… The winning as such is, for the archaic mind, proof of truth and righteousness. (3)

The concern to win, whether against a fellow knight or a sociopolitical adversary, is liable to entail placing the claims of loyalty and “honor” above the claims of truth and the larger collectivity. When Lancelot defends Guinevere against their mutual enemies, he is obliged to affirm indignantly again and again, on his honor as a knight, that she is innocent of adultery, and in defense of that he is ready to challenge all comers…which is to say, to rest his case on his superiority as a fighter. In other traditions as well, the claims of truth have been sacrificed to the claims of honor and loyalty, such as in the systematic lying by underdog Irish, Italian, and Southerners to agents of law and order, and the labor-union detestation of the scab.

Furthermore, if honor-oriented persons or groups are not necessarily governed by the claims of universal truth and reason, they are likely to be bound by a set of rules at least as strong and far less rational. The seeming fundamental absurdity of such handicapping is indicated by the archetypical disillusioned preppy Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) when his old history teacher asks what the headmaster talked about in their farewell chat:

“Oh, … well, about Life being a game and all. And how you should play it according to the rules … “

“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”

“Yes, sir, I know it is. I know it.”

Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game. (4)

It is as if, where larger social ends are sought, the honor-governed person simultaneously insists that a particular state of affairs is immensely desirable and implicitly denies its importance by refusing to take the steps necessary for its realization, like the French knights who refused to profit from the lie of the land in battle for fear of being accused of not behaving honorably. And he is likely to be playing against persons like Margaret Mitchell’s Rhett Butler or the hard-boiled narrator of one of John McPartland’s thrillers who remarks of a reform politician, “I could have told him that being a gentleman is sometimes foolish and expensive.” (5)

Viewed in this light, radicals like the Wobblies were naïve in their failure to gauge the strength of the forces opposing them and the powers of the state that could be used against them. They were naïve to believe that they would be treated fairly in the courts, let alone by the forces of law and order.


And the handicapping effects of honor are seemingly compounded by certain intellectual problems.

When Lillian Hellmann observes of honor that “it’s all been decided long ago, when you were very young, all mixed up with your childhood’s definition of pride and dignity,’ the values involved are familiar enough. (6)

Walker Percy’s Lancelot Lamar, in his novel Lancelot (1977), speaks of “a stern code, a gentleness toward women and an intolerance of swinishness, a counsel kept, and above all a readiness to act, and act alone if necessary.” Dean Acheson refers to “some well-tested principles of conduct: That it was better to tell the truth than falsehoods; that a half-truth was no truth at all; that duties were older than and as fundamental as rights… ; that to perpetuate a harm was always wrong, no matter how many joined in it, but to perpetuate it on a weaker person was particularly detestable.” (7)

America’s archetypal natural gentleman the movie Westerner, respects and protects the weak, will not tolerate bullying, keeps his word, does not let down friends and associates, and always meets his obligations.

Yet despite Lamar’s assertion that “dishonor is sweeter and more mysterious than honor,” things become noticeably blurry in passages like the one in which Faulkner’s Bayard Sartoris compares a Civil War episode to

a meeting between two iron knights of the old time, not for martial gain but for principle—honor denied with honor, courage denied with courage—the deed done, not for the end but for the sake of the doing—put to the test and proving nothing save the finality of death and the vanity of all endeavor. (8)

There are similar blurs in feverish talk about stains on one’s honor that can only be wiped out by killing one’s wife, or one’s best friend, or an unarmed terrified drunk like old Boggs in Huckleberry Finn, or by thrashing with one’s cane, as did Congressman Preston Brooks, the middle-aged Senator Charles Sumner working at his Senate desk, or by going to war with a much weaker country.

The imperatives of honor invited Shakespeare’s and Corneille’s and Calderón’s probings and exposings. They invited the famous interrogation by Falstaff:

Honour pricks me on. Yes, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon—and so ends my catechism. (9)

The problems of honor are visible in the plight of the duelists of sixteenth-century France and the antebellum South who felt compelled to keep provoking duels for fear of seeming afraid of putting themselves to the test. They are visible in the craving for perfection symbolized by the Grail quest, in which ideals are never realized, and there is the omnipresent feeling that, in Hemingway’s words, “every damned thing is your own fault if you’re any good.” (10)

Among the results is the spectacle of the honorable man who, because he is too conscious of discrepancies between what he and society ought to be and what they are, retreats into irony, like a legion of courteously alcoholic Southerners, or Nick Carraway entangled in the moral ambiguities of the East in The Great Gatsby (1925) or those gentlemanly companions of unabashed political power grabbers, Ned Beaumont in Hammett’s The Glass Key (1931) and Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946). As Hemingway said in Death in the Afternoon(1932), “Too much honor destroys a man quicker than too much of any other fine quality.” (11)


The problems were further compounded by developments on the Left.

As Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism (1977) reminds us, the notion of the honorable fighter on the Left—courageous, loyal, self-sacrificing, dedicated to the pursuit of a social Grail—has had a strong continuing influence. (12) But obvious ironies are involved.

To talk about American radical politics is to talk not about pasts that did not exist—as with traditional nostalgia—but about futures that did not arrive, and there have been grounds for skepticism and irony beyond the normal vulnerability of idealism.

It isn’t simply that the IWW and Masses revolution, or the American Communist revolution, or the New Left revolution failed to materialize, and that further romantic Lost Causes have been added to the Lost Cause of the antebellum South. In retrospect, a central strand in the American Left since the Twenties has been the massive and deliberate dishonesty of the best-organized branch of it.

What was revealed in the Forties and Fifties was how all the nobility of aspiration, the talk about brotherhood, the yearning voiced by Mike Gold in one of his poems in the Twenties for “a time of revolution and love.… A time of workers’ joy in boats down a gay golden river,” (13) had become subordinate to the conviction that honest was a bourgeois luxury and that what mattered was not abstract truthfulness, but a concrete adherence to the “objective” truth of revolutionary socialist principles—which is to say, to the shifting dictates of Stalin’s Russia—with Gold as a commissar-like “enforcer.”

And just as the great epitomizing image of capitalist falsification in the Twenties was the trial of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, so the epitomizing image of Communist falsification in the Forties was provided in the trial of Alger Hiss.

On the one side there was the handsome, clean-cut Ivy League chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, the man of seeming honor, the man of whom the Secretary of State and fellow gentleman Dean Acheson said, “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss.” (14). On the other there was the shabby, lumpy, neurotic stool pigeon Whittaker Chambers, the turncoat, the failed intellectual—everything that the young would not have wished to take as a role model. And it was seemingly the turncoat who told the truth in the case and the man of honor who lied and went on lying through his teeth with unshakable poise and good manners.

Among the consequence of such disclosures were the flight in the Fifties from ideology as something that made for divisiveness and untruth, and the related popularity of irony as a dominant stance. And a host of further discrepancies between glittering ideal images and grubby underlying realities have become apparent in the revisionist aftermath of the Sixties.


Hence, when one contemplates what the historian Thomas L. Haskell calls “the towering edifice of institutional expertise that looms over contemporary society,” and the seeming irresistibility of the tendency, in Haskell’s words, “for impersonal calculations of least cost and maximum efficiency to enter, and finally dominate, every sphere of life,” (15), it is natural enough to opt for cool-headed professionalism as offering the best chance of survival and mastery. The professional is not naïve with respect to the rules of the game. He is not like troops doing battle by the book, such as General Braddock’s redcoats or the thick-headed knights of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and being shot to pieces by adversaries who have changed the rules or recognize that they have changed.

The really intelligent person is the person who devises strategies for getting beyond the constraints and anomalies of seemingly immutable rules. And even the fact that the idea of the professional has acquired certain unamiable associations has its advantages. As Michael Novak says,

“Americans love professionals, killers especially, ruthless investigators, determined secret agents, anybody who absolutely concentrates on proficiency, undistracted by human involvement.” (16)

Professionalism has come to stand against the idea of the amateur, construed as someone peculiarly prone to sentimental weakness and unwilling to act with the requisite skill and firmness. It has come to stand against “feminine” softness and idealism, and against the notion that one can have all the benefits of peace without any use of force or any hard decision-making. Professionals, as Haskell observes, “take… an inordinate pride in the cool self-mastery that enables them to bring talent and training to bear on challenging problems, thereby advancing themselves and serving society at the same time.” (17)


Yet Americans have obstinately, if at times apologetically, persisted in caring about the idea of honor and believing in its civic importance. They have continued to admire courage, to look askance at back-stabbing and finking, and to feel that loyalty even in a bad cause is preferable to a world of Machiavellian opportunism. (17a) A good deal of distortion, whether from dog-eat-dog pressures, or urban combat fatigue, or the theorizings of academic ironists like Marshall McLuhan, seems to be required before such perceptions can be seriously altered.

In the following pages I shall try to define some of the energies at work in the concept of honor and to suggest that the dichotomies that I have been talking about are false dichotomies.

“The Power of Honor”

The idea of honor, as I have said, was particularly keen in the turn-of-the-century period. In 1866, Oliver Wendell Holmes,Jr., at age twenty-five, had declared that “the power of honor to bind men’s lives is not less now than it was in the Middle Ages. Now as then it is the breath of our nostrils; it is that for which we live, for which, if need be, we are willing to die.” (18) And man-of-letters and former Yale professor Henry Seidel Canby recalled of his own youth in Maryland in the Eighties and Nineties that ”the social code we really lived by was not an ‘ought’ code, but a code of honor—what an honorable man should feel toward his friend, his wife, his duty.” (19)

The appeal of the idea of honorableness for romantic youths like Canby, Max Eastman (editor of The Masses), and, out in Oregon, John Reed was strong. (19a)

As Huizinga says, “from the life of childhood right up to the highest achievements of civilization one of the strongest incentives to perfectionism both individual and social, is the desire to be praised and honoured for one’s excellence.” (20) Honorable excellence, when attained, made easier the kind of self-esteem described by the fifteenth-century soldier-author who affirmed that “whoever achieves distinction in arms is thereby ennobled, whatever his rank may be. The greatest king may combat the poorest knight, for the armor itself is of such nobility that when the knight has put the helmet on his head he is the equal of anyone in the world.” (21)

It was a self-esteem that had been earned, not given, as Canby indicated when he remembered how “we all knew that children who belonged to Us had standards of conduct … far more rigorous than the creed of the hated ‘micks.’” And when he added that “we had to be polite under stress, and to wear clean underclothes—the outer clothing made no difference,” he was pointing to a continuum wherein small things as well as large became charged with significance and every social occasion could “seem a little more than it was.”

The code of honorableness assimilated from one’s private reading as well as from family traditions enriched life in a further way. As Canby said, “you lived in two dimensions, the present and your breeding,” rather than in “one dimension of current opinion.” (22) If one judged oneself against earlier honorable figures, whether historical or fictional, one could also judge one’s immediate family and friends against them too, and have the assistance of a mental court of appeal in one’s daily affairs.

And if at times one had to condemn this or that failure or failing in oneself, one was only doing what fallible men of honor had done earlier, in Malory and elsewhere, and could retain one’s self-respect. (23)


The concern with honor was particularly significant with respect to the desired emergence of a better type of person having social power, and the growing recognition of the need for what William James in 1910 called “ideas of honor and standards of efficiency.” (24) “We cannot, “ affirmed the hero of the American novelist Winston Churchill’s Mr. Crewe’s Career in the same year, “have commercial and political stability without commercial and political honor.” (25)

Other voices were saying the same thing, with an increasing emphasis on duty, responsibility, tact, and what the historian Theodore F. Greene in America’s Heroes (1970) calls “a measure of urbane self-control.” In some ways, Greene reports, the new-style heroes described in magazines between 1914 and 1918 “seemed closer to the gentlemanly neo-classic models of 1800 than they did to the forceful, domineering individualists of 1900.” (26) Gore Vidal was rather Johnny-come-lately when he suggested in the 1970s that “perhaps our schools should train a proper civil service. Train people who prefer payment in honor rather than in money.” (27)

More particularly, honorable professionalism was increasingly seen as offering an alternative to business values and effectively challenging the captains-of-industry image of valor. In that influential guide to class attitudes, Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (1912), one of the undergraduate intellectuals complained that

“Twenty years ago we had the idea of the lawyer, of the doctor, of the statesman, of the gentleman, of the man of letters, of the soldier. Now the lawyer is simply a supernumerary enlisting under any banner for pay; the doctor is overshadowed by the specialist with his business development of the possibilities of the rich; we have politicians, and politics are deemed impossible for a gentleman; the gentleman cultured, simple, hospitable, and kind is of the dying generation; the soldier is simply on parade… Everything has conformed to business, everything has been made to pay.” (28)

The Progressive period witnessed a growing confidence that honorable work in professional fields was possible. As a social scientist observed in 1907, “Certainly you may rate the business man by the money he has been able to make under the rules of the game. But the sages of all time agree that the writer, thinker, scholar, clergyman, jurist officer, administrator, and statesman must not be mere profit seekers, nor may their moral standard depend on their financial rating.” (29)

The new kind of hero, Greene reports, “might be a government surveyor who has braved the hardship of Alaska,” or a medical researcher who was not tempted away from his work by the prospect of earning a huge income as a surgeon.” (30) In The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist Anthony Patch would note of his Harvard contemporaries from those years that “most of them were in business, it is true, and several were converting the heathen of China or America to a nebulous protestantism; but a few, he found, were working constructively at professions that were neither sinecures nor routines”—a medical relief doctor in Serbia, a contributor to the New Democracy (i.e. New Republic), a professor ‘preaching Marxian doctrines in the classroom.’(31)


Moreover, there was a growing feeling that big businessmen and their political agents were not just selfish or crooked but dishonorable. “There is something to be said for government by a great aristocracy,” Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged in a letter in 1912. “But there is absolutely nothing to be said for government by plutocracy, for government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with the money touch, but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers.” (32)

Pondering the conduct of George M. Pullman during the railroad strike of 1894, Finley Peter Dunne’s Irish saloon-keeper Mr. Dooley commented:

“Th’ women an’ childhern is dyin’ iv hunger” they says. “Will ye not put out ye’er hand to help thim?” they says. “Ah, what th’ ‘ell, what th’ ‘ell,” says George. “What th’ ‘ell,’ he says. “James,” he says, “a bottle iv champagne an’ a piece of crambree pie. What th’ ‘ell, what th’ ‘ell,’ what th’ ‘ell.” (33)

Addressing strikers in Colorado in 1913, the great labor organizer Mother Jones told them how during a strike in West Virginia I called a committee and I said, ‘Boys, take this document into the governor’s office … don’t get on your knees … and don’t say ‘Your Honour,’ because very few of those fellows … know what it is’ [laughter].” (34)

And the contempt was to continue. The historian James Truslow Adams, for example, recalled of an unexpected act of generosity by Pierpont Morgan to Adams’s father during the financial panic of 1907 that “Morgan alone in that day made such gestures. As contrasted with him, many of the other ‘great’ bankers with whom I was occasionally mixed up in episodes as intimately personal as the above, had the souls of pushcart peddlers.” (35)


Furthermore, such accusations told. In A Certain Rich Man (1909), William Allen White reported of his fictional financier, with his ‘furtive mouth, hard and naked,” and “square mean jaw that every cartoonist … has emphasized for a dozen years,” that around 1902 “Barclay was beginning to feel upon him, night and day, the crushing weight of popular scorn.” (36) And in Churchill’s Mr. Crewe’s Career the previous year, a railroad magnate perceives that the reformist hero

had somehow accomplished the incredible feat of making Hilary Vane [the railroad’s lawyer] ashamed—and when such men as Hilary Vane are ashamed, their usefulness is over. Mr. Flint had seen the same thing happen with a certain kind of financiers, one day aggressive, combative, and the next broken, querulous men. Let a man cease to believe in what he is doing, and he loses force. (37)

It was not just in fiction that the voiced contempt had consequences.

Hanna cartoon
Hanna cartoon

Greene describes a sudden concern around 1902 on the part of magazine biographers to display business heroes who cared about the feelings of the public. John D. Rockefeller, put on the defensive by Ida Tarbell’s massive History of the Standard Oil Company (1902), sought to improve his image with the help of a public-relations man. The rich and very influential Republican Mark Hanna, according to the Progressive reformer Frederick Howe, “suffered from newspaper attacks. He was not content with the plaudits of his immediate associates; he wanted the approval of the crowd.” (38)

A similar disquiet would be at work later in the phenomenon reported by John Kenneth Galbraith in 1977 about corporate executives: “There is possibly no group of people anywhere in the world who … complain more persistently, plaintively, and even pathologically of the unfairness with which they are treated or of the depths of the misunderstanding to which they are subject.” (39)

The potency of the accusation that one is behaving dishonorably is significant. Its force in the turn-of-the-century period is especially noteworthy, given the attitude described by White in A Certain Rich Man: “The term honest wealth, which was creeping into respectable periodicals, was exceedingly annoying to [Barclay]. For the very presence of the term seemed to indicate that there was such a thing as dishonest wealth—an obvious absurdity.” (40)

Let me try to define what the accusation involved.


A hatred of injustice and unfairness, as I have said, was prominent during the period. As Greene puts it, “almost all the changes in the heroic occupations served to identify the Progressive heroes as the Idols of Justice,” heroes who displayed at times what Everybody’s called “the underlying quality of intense, passionate sadness that is inherent in the character of men who fight to liberate their fellow men.” (41)

It was the great period of moral indignation—of Twain’s cold anger on behalf of the “black” Roxy in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), and Finley Peter Dunne’s dry characterization of the Dreyfus case in passages like, “’Let us pro-ceed,’ says the impartial an’ fair-minded judge, ‘to the ’thrile iv the hyanous monsther Cap Dreyfus,’” (42) and both writers’ attacks on American brutality in the Philippines, and the national sense of outrage over Germany’s invasion of plucky little Belgium.

It was the period of a hunger for fair play, a craving to equalize things so that the powerful—the rich, the strong and brutal and ruthless—could not simply beat down the less powerful by force majeure. The successful businessman and popular reformist mayor of Toledo, Ohio, “Golden Rule” Jones, pointed out in 1899 how

The ethical code of business under the competitive system is far below that of such brutal sports as football and prize-fighting, against which there is such an outcry on the part of respectable people. … Prize-fighting is guarded by the most carefully prepared, scientific rules to secure to each combatant a fair chance in the battle; but there are no Marquis of Queensbury [sic] … rules to protect the contestants in the daily competitive [war] of business.” (43)

Teddy Roosevelt challenged the trusts in the name of “decent government and fair play” and defined his Square Deal as not only playing fair under the existing rules but amending the rules so as to make for fairer competition.” (44) Ida M. Tarbell concluded her lacerating exposé of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company by suggesting that

As for the ethical side, there is no cure but an increasing scorn of unfair play—an increasing sense that a thing won by breaking the rules of the game is not worth the winning. Where the business man who fights to secure a special privilege, to crowd his competitor off the track by other than fair competitive methods, receives the same summary disdainful ostracism by his fellows that the doctor or lawyer who is “unprofessional,” the athlete who abuses the rules, receives we shall have gone a long ay toward making commerce a fit pursuit for our young men. (45)


The relationship between the idea of fair play and the intensity of feeling elicited by unfair play was more complex than it might appear.

Utility and convenience came into it, of course, such as in the desire of numerous Progressives for a state of business competition in which smaller businesses would have a chance against the trusts and combines. So too with the yearning for gentlemanliness in business. It would obviously be pleasanter all round if business were conducted in the spirit described by Collier’s in 1906: “Our navy and our army have from the beginning set and maintained unblemished that sportsman’s standard in dark and serious days, and that same spirit should rule the nation in its hour of play—that bright, confident courtesy which accepts no unfair advantage [and] instantly accords the odds demanded.” (46)

Moreover, many Progressives obviously relished the image of themselves and their surrogates as judges and umpires impartially and accurately penalizing unfairness.

But such attitudes, or a related desire for a more equitable distribution of social benefits, do not by themselves account for the resentment aroused by certain kinsd of conduct.

I am thinking here of episodes like the one in Rockefeller’s career, described in Collier’s in 1905, in which he

forced a widow who had inherited from her husband and was successfully carrying on a refining business paying her a clear profit of $25,000 a year, to sell out for $60,000, refusing to let her retain a dollar’s interest in the enterprise, and this after he had personally promised her, with tears in his eyes, that she should not be wronged and that she could keep any amount of stock she desired. (47)

I am thinking of Frederick Howe’s recollection that “liberal laws for the protection of women and children in industry were always discovered to be unconstitutional, while fifty-year grants to street railways were upheld.” (48)

This kind of injustice would be epitomized in the classic situation in Westerns in which the big rancher, aided by his shyster lawyer, his gunslingers, and his bought sheriff, takes over the land of the homesteader or the homesteader’s widow on some legal technicality, and adds insult to injury by blandly suggesting that the victim is the sort of person who easily gets facts wrong and cannot be trusted as a witness.

An interesting set of feelings is involved, particularly when legalistic maneuvers are employed.


There is, of course, intense empathy with the victims, an appreciation of what it is like to be in a situation in which whatever arguments one uses, one will not be taken seriously and cannot win.

But there is also indignation against the victimizer as not only a bully but a cheat—a conviction that he has violated an agreed-upon code in a way that makes his negating of his victims especially intolerable. The cheat does not simply break or rig the rules. He insists that he is observing them and that he is a man scrupulous about the ways of law and injustice.

It was indignation against what was perceived as cheating that had been aroused by Sherman’s march to the sea. In a Southern literary historian’s words, “the memory that rankled in the South for generations was that the enemy, while masking himself under pretensions of moral superiority, had dropped the code of civilization and won in a dishonorable manner.” (49) As a Southern woman said at the time about the Northern attitude toward the march: “the South has suffered; that they admit in general terms, and add, ‘Such is war.’ I desire to call their attention to the fact that such is NOT war, as their own standards declare.” (50) If the archetypal Northern perception of the South was of a group of dominators and oppressors, the archetypal Southern perception of the North was of people capable of not fighting fair.

The cheat, in other words, plays by a double set of rules, simultaneously claiming benefits for himself and denying them to others. He profits from legality while bending or breaking laws, and from the idea of honorableness while behaving ignobly. He demands the protection of rules—the right to fair treatment in combat, the right to the protection of rules—while insisting on his own right to ignore those rules whenever it suits him.


All these attitudes were at work in the critique of business and businessmen. The large businessman was increasingly perceived as playing by a double set of rules, both when eliminating competitors and when suppressing troublesome workers. This perception was the more consequential in view of what Owen Johnson called “that typical quality so perplexing in the American millionaire of sudden fortune—the childlike eagerness for admiration.” (51)

Implicit in that eagerness was the belief that their occupation was in fact a traditionally honorable one. The metaphors about robber barons and industrial wars pointed to deeper truths.

In 1854, the well-born Boston Abolitionist Charles Sumner had suggested that,

As the feudal chief allocated to himself and his followers the soil, which was the prize of his strong arm, so now the merchant, with a grasp more subtle and reaching, allocates to himself and followers, ranging through multitudinous degrees of dependence, all the spoils of every land triumphantly won by trade. I will not press this parallel too far, but, at this moment, especially in our country, the merchant, more than any other character, stands in the very boots of the feudal chief. (52)

It wasn’t simply hypocrisy that made the New York Stock Exchange, according to a critic in 1903, affirm that “All within our sacred walls is honest and honorable,” or that created what the investigative journalist David Graham Phillips called the “hypocritical mask of ‘Senatorial courtesy,’” (53) Nor was it solely a lust for economic dominance that Max Eastman drew attention to when he said that what existed in the Colorado mining towns was “a state of feudal serfdom. The miners belong to the mineowners in the first place, and what follows follows from that.” (54)

The self-made businessmen at the end of the nineteenth century, says the historian Oscar Handlin,

gave their goal various names—order, efficiency, duty—and they described it as God’s plan or economic law. But power was what they sought and business was the form in which their society recognized power. They took pleasure when the press referred to them as captains of industry, barons, kings and czars; and Morgan appropriately called the yacht he loved Corsair. Zeal for battle led them on, in fascinated absorption with the luck that would test their pluck. They were self-made, not in the sense that they had all risen from nothing, but in the sense that their achievements demonstrated their merit. (55)

“There are few man,” said Ida M. Tarbell in 1905, “whatever their practices, who do not instinctively desire to be called honorable and generous, and to be considered gentlemen.” (56)

Essentially the self-made rich were trying to achieve the honorable stature that merchants had traditionally enjoyed. (Charles Sumner had called the merchant the “successor to the chivalrous knight” (57)) and to profit morally from the notion of a benevolent quasi-feudal paternalism. Whether they knew it or not, they were attempting to replicate the pattern of late medieval and Renaissance Europe, wherein mercantile and chivalric magnificence intertwined and merchant princes could treat with aristocrats on equal terms because they were partly governed by the same values. (58)

But the corollary of such attitudes was also pointed out by Sumner: “If the merchant be in reality our feudal lord, he must render feudal service; if he be the baron of our day, let him maintain baronial charity to the humble—aye, sir, and baronial courage, against tyrannical wrong, in whatsoever form it may assume.” (59)

And the departures of American businessmen from the patterns of honor were becoming increasingly blatant.

Gibson image
Gibson image

Given the image of paternalism, the sufferings of women and children were especially eye-catching, not only in the conduct of strike-breaking, but in the daily conditions of life and work.

The basic inconsistency was underlined in a cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson called “The Army of Work; dedicated to Employers of Child Labor” that appeared in Collier’s in 1904 when Mother Jones marched a group of child textile workers from Philadelphia to Roosevelt’s summer home at Oyster Bay. In an allegorical procession of persons going to work, the two principal figures were a dour top-hatted and traditionally goateed employer and a big-eyed skinny-legged working girl of ten or eleven, the latter gazing warily out at the reader. (60)

Businessmen were likewise inconsistent with respect to the supposedly honorable warfare of business.

As the historians Charles and Mary Beards noted, “the armor of mediaeval knights … stood in the halls of captains of industry whose boldest strokes were outrageous guesses on the stock market or the employment of Pinkerton detectives against striking workmen. (61) Not only had the robber barons, as Gustavus Myers pointed out in his History of the Great American Fortunes (1910), dodged actual military service during the Civil War, much to their economic advantage. In the conduct of their metaphorical wars they were equally unchivalrous. As Henry Demarest Lloyd observed in Wealth Aganst Commonwealth (1894), “war has been made on poor men, paralytics, boys, cripples, widows, any one who had ‘the business that belongs to us,’” with weapons such as the railroad rebate, which means “universal dominion to him who will use it with an iron hand,” a weapon “smokeless, noiseless, invisible, of extraordinary range, and the deadliest gun known to commercial warfare.” (62)

A tycoon like Rockefeller, as a Collier’s writer noted, had

never been willing to ‘live and let live,’ but from the beginning acted on the principle that every competitor must be frozen out, choked out, or clubbed out of his way. [He] has never observed the rules of war, but has resorted to man-traps, explosive bullets, and poisoned wells when open fighting has not served his turn. (63)

And Andrew Carnegie, who in the mid-Eighties was commending the “honor and loyalty” of labor leaders, had eight years later hidden away on his Scottish estate while his associate Henry Frick smashed the iron and steel workers’ strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania, and broke the union, conduct that contributed to the paradox that “the man who had given more money for the benefit of the public than any philanthropist of ancient or modern times is one of the most unpopular men in America.” (64)


At bottom, the magnates were seen as cheats and frauds who had loaded the dice and stacked the cards in their supposedly heroic and unprotected business venturings.

As Charles Francis Adams, Jr., had observed of the cosseting of railroads by legislatures after the Civil War, “every expedient which the mind of man can devise [had] been brought into play to secure to the capitalist the largest possible profit with the least possible risk.” (65)

Capitalists invited the criticism voiced by a. character in William Allen White’s A Certain Rich Man to the tycoon Barclay: “Why, man, look at yourself—look at yourself—you’d cheat our own mother playing cards with matches for counters—just to win the game.” (66) They invited the contempt of the Masses writer who, in a description of a hearing at the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations, noted the contrast between Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Jr., and the Rockefellers, with “their craft, their cunning, their fox-like evasions and downright mendacity,” and “the frankness, sincerity, candor, straightforwardness, the passionate conviction and the forthright expression” of a labor organizer like John Lawson. (67)

Capitalists and their agents were seen as man who lied without compunction whenever the profit motive demanded it.

Muckrakers like Lloyd and Tarbell drew attention to their bland prevarications at Congressional hearings into price fixing and rebates. H.G. Wells, in The Future in America (1906), spoke of the “sustained quality of the lying” in the case made against of the labor “troublemaker” Robert MacQueen by the forces of business law-and-order in Paterson, NJ. The working-class born and future governor of New York, Al Smith, seeing a law student at his studies with the presumable aspiration of becoming a company attorney, reportedly remarked, “There’s a boy learning to take a bribe and call it a fee.” (68)

In all these respects the business pattern was at odds with a major element in the chivalric.


The association of truthfulness with the chivalric and martial was old and strong. Bayard’s biographer reported that “he was very inexpert at flattery and fawning; he had the greatest possible regard for truth.” (69) The ideal Renaissance gentleman, according to one scholar, “was a man of absolute honesty and integrity. Hence one of the traditional privileges of the aristocrat had been his right to testify in court without bond and without witnesses,” (70) Francis J. Grund had reported in 1839 how, when Andrew Jackson was sitting for a portrait bust, “The truth, sir! the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!’ exclaimed the general with a stern voice; ‘you have no right to represent me otherwise than I am.’” (71)

Conversely, in Nietzsche’s words, “what is despised is … above all the liar: it is the basic faith of all aristocrats that the common people are liars.” (72) Finley Peter Dunne remembered that “of all sins [Teddy] Roosevelt hated lying most,” and Roosevelt himself called in 1906 for “the most unsparing exposure of … the politician who betrays his trust, of the big businessman who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways.” (73) Johnson’s Stover, quizzed about an unpopular decision he gave as a football linesman, rounds on his baffled Lawrenceville schoolmates with, “Why? Because you all, every damn one of you, expected me to lie.” (74)

At the bottom of the duel or judicial combat, furthermore, often lay the fact of someone’s word being impugned, an issue coming up again in the special ominousness of the question, “Are you calling me a liar?” As has been said about the South, “even today the suggestion that a man is a liar is an accepted provocation to a blow even more than the suggestion that he is a murderer.” (75)

Honor and Integrity

It is important to see what is involved in this concern for truth.

In terms of the chivalric-martial system, there was no dislike of cunning per se. Warfare could entail a good deal of honorable deception, misdirecting, surprising. As the brilliant Confederate guerrilla leader John S. Mosby said, “I confess my theory of war was severely practical—one not acquired by reading the Waverley novels—but we observed the ethics of the code of war. Strategy is only another name for deception and can be practiced by any commander.” (76) Lee had been a master of that kind of deception. So, earlier, had the Chevalier de Bayard (1473-1524), the exemplary knight and military commander, sans peur et sans reproche. (76a)

Certain kinds of deception would be perfectly acceptable in sports as well, at least in American terms, so that one of Frank Merriwell’s classmates could note admiringly how Merriwell was “full of tricks.” (77) In poker, that miniaturization of warfare, bluffing and misdirecting were part of the game’s essence. And Twain’s works, especially Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, were full of admiration for successful deceptions and masqueradings, such as the multiple improvisations of Huck, the conning by the King and Duke of the townspeople of Bricksville (“Greenhorns, flatheads!” (78)), and the riverboat card game between professional cheats in which the seeming sucker turned out to be the master cheater.

But certain things were unacceptable. Gentlemen did not cheat at cards while playing with fellow gentlemen. Officers, as the West Point code announced, did not lie, cheat, or steal. (79)


There were, of course, some very practical reasons for that kind of condemnation and for the related emphasis on a man’s word.

As Newton D. Baker, the then Secretary of War, pointed out in 1921, “men may be inexact or even untruthful in ordinary matters and suffer as a consequence only the disesteem of their associates or the inconvenience of unfavorable litigation, but the inexact or untruthful soldier trifles with the lives of fellow men and with the honor of his government.” (80) It was necessary in a battle to be able to trust a fellow soldier’s statements about what was going on, and to feel confident that he would trust one’s own. It was important to know that one’s associates would not lie when under pressure. Of the Dean Acheson’s exemplary service in the State Department, Harry Truman said,

“I sensed immediately that he was a man I could count on in every way. I knew that he would do what had to be done, and I knew that I could count on him to tell me the truth at all times. … When you get to be in a position of authority, which I was at that time, that’s the most important thing there is. You’ve got to be able to count on a man’s word.” (81)

In business matters, too, there were obvious advantages to dealing with men whose word was their bond, in contrast to Machiavellians like the one in White’s A Certain Rich Man.

“Then you lied to me, sir,” snapped Barclay.

“Oh hell, John—come off,” sneered Bemis. “Haven’t I got a right to lie to you if I want to?” (82)


But it was not only practicality that was at stake in such matters or in the felt heinousness of falsifying marine logbooks or cheating in examinations.

All such cheating was liable to lead to a situation in which two parties appealed to a third to determine which them was speaking the truth. And in the solemn face-to-face asseveration of falsehood in such a situation there was an implicit and disturbing cancellation of social bonds. The collectivity was simply considered unworthy of being told the truth, and the perjurer played by a private set of rules.

The same applied to cheating at cards, as distinct from being a skillfully deceptive card player. It too broke the communal contract and destroyed the idea of the game itself, or at least the publicly defined game. At times it might involve the creation of a different game, the cheating game, which could be morally acceptable among people with some knowledge of its implicit rules, such as the cheating game in Life on the Mississippi. But when done against innocents, it destroyed the social compact and involced a fundamental contempt for others.

For the same reason, it was acceptable for Twain’s King and Duke to con the playgoers of Bricksville, who prided themselves on their own cunning and were prepared to con in return, but unacceptable for them to try and cheat the three trusting Wilks girls out of their inheritance.

Something else usually went on in cheating, too, whether at cards or on a larger scale.


In one of her novels in this period the British writer E, Nesbit described how her chivalrous children protagonists “had a law unalterable as those of the Medes and Persians, that one had to stand by the results of a toss-up, or a drawing of lots, or any other appeal to chance however much one might happen to dislike the way things were turning out.” (83)

The cheat, in contrast, refused to abide by the decisions of chance or fate, the deal of the cards, the fall of the dice, after he had declared his readiness to do so. And implicit in that refusal was an overestimation of winning and excessive fear of losing.

Such attitudes were especially obvious where money was at stake. The logical inference was that what counted for the cheat, above everything, was the financial gain, and that it was simply the amount of money that brought credit in his eyes, not the kind of daring and coolness demanded by playing for high stakes. (83a) Hence he appeared both overly self-regarding and, because of his dread of losing, ignoble, like the monarch described in William Gilmore Simms’s 1847 life of Bayard, who “had the soul of a shopkeeper, rather than a prince—was mean, mercenary and cowardly—audacious when the danger was remote, and impotent when it approached him.” (84)

In these attitudes towards honesty there were deeper questions of psychological coherence and stability.

Dean Acheson went to the heart of the matter when he spoke of how “one must live with one’s self, and the consequences of living with a decision which one knows has sprung from timidity and cowardice go to the roots of one’s life. It is not merely a question of peace of mind, although it is vital; it is a matter of integrity of character.” (85)


Implicit in the idea of honor was the committing of oneself to a set of rules that one had chosen with a clear understanding of what they entailed. As Huizinga explains,

though play as such is outside the range of good and bad, the element of tension imparts to it a certain ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the player’s prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources and, last but not least, his spiritual powers—his ‘fairness,’ because, despite his ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game.” (86)

One does what one commits oneself to, and abides by the outcome of one’s chosen rules, in the recognition that merit comes because of the very existence of those rules. When the young Stover realized at one point that a teacher whom he and his schoolmates were trying to trick was putting him on his honor, “it took away all the elements of danger that glorified the conspiracy. It made it easy and, therefore, mean.” (87)

The same attitude was displayed in Gilbert Patten’s Frank Merriwell at Yale (1897) when one of Frank’s antagonists refused to beat him with a trick, telling a classmate that “it is not a square deal, although no referee would call it a foul.… That man has entrusted this entire affair to our honor, and if I can’t whip him fair I won’t whip him at all.” (88)

The principle of coherence was also at work in the notion of staying loyal to one’s associates and of being prepared to value certain commitments above everything else, including staying alive.

“The gentleman,” Emerson said, “is a man of truth, lord of his own actions, and expressing that lordship in his behavior.” (89) And the idea of wholeness and self-determination, so appealing to the young, kept coming in celebrations of honorable chivalric figures. Francis J. Grund had called Andrew Jackson “a politician, a soldier, an enthusiast for the rights of the people, and a Christian at the same time,” and reported that “he is always a whole; head, heart, and hand—conception, determination, and action—being one and inseparable.” (90)

A variety of turn-of-the-century figures, among them the great reform mayor of Cleveland Tom Johnson, the great Wobbly leader Bill Hayward, and the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, likewise demonstrated the soundness of Ruth Kelso’s suggestion that “integrity comes the closest perhaps to [honor ] as a synonym.” (91) The anarchist journalist Hutchins Hapgood would remember being impressed by “the real marriage there was between Haywood’s feeling and his active life. His was not a … split-up personality… His nature was that of a straight line.” (92)

Conversely, the accusation of having behaved dishonorably hinted at deep self-contradictions in one’s psyche and the alarming possibility that one deserved to stand condemned by virtue of the very principles that gave one energy. The bad conscience resulting from a fear of such doubleness was obviously at work in some of the more hysterical violences against the Wobblies, such as the 1917 deportation of close to two thousand striking miners from Bisbee, Arizona, into the desert in stinking cattle cars.


When looked at more closely, then, the dichotomies and antitheses that I spoke of at the start of this chapter shimmer and blur, especially the putative disjunction of honor and truth. Rightly viewed, the martial and civil overlap, and both are pervaded by the principles of truth and reality.

The idea of honorable integrity implies that one’s commitments to individuals or groups or principles are pondered ones, and that one has chosen values in which one can take pride and whose implications—including, ultimately, the possibility of violence—one understands, so that there is no inevitable professional discrepancy between what one says and what one thinks.

These interrelationships had been especially plain in that greatest of chivalric wars which did so much to shape the thinking of coevals like Oliver Wendall Holmes and William James, and which deservedly has continued to exercise so strong a fascination.


Far from being mindless and irrational, war has always been informed by intellect, as epitomized in the abstract versions of it in card games and chess, those popular pastimes in medieval castles. Like other games, in Huizinga’s extended sense of the term, it involved remembering and predicting, inferring, calculating odds, assessing stakes, bluffing, counterbluffing, bluff calling; and as Carl von Clausewitz had brilliantly demonstrated in On War (1832), its modern practitioners needed powers of analysis and synthesis of a high order.

The American Civil War had been exceptionally rich in that kind of military greatness—Jackson dominating the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman planning and executing his great march, Lee throughout his long brilliant campaigns, Grant taking Vicksburg and learning, in the words of the British military theorist J.F.C. Fuller, “”how to stamp his mind on his operations, turning intellectual conceptions into co-ordinated actions.” (93)

It had also demonstrated that, as Napoleon observed, “the personality of the general is indispensable, he is the head, he is the all of an army. The Gauls were not conquered by the Roman legions, but by Caesar.” (94) The Chevalier de Bayard had been, for an admiring adversary, “of that stamp that, had he the greatest dastards upon earth under him he would make the valiant,” and his grieving men-at-arms allegedly declared that though death had “deprived him of life in this world, his renown and glory shall be immortal while that shall endure; for his life has been so exemplary that the memory of it shall survive to all the valiant and virtuous Knights that shall come after him.” (95)

The Civil War shone with greatness of that sort too, and it involved much more than professional skill in strategy and tactics. What counted was the whole man in his full integrity, just as it had with Bayard, with his courage, his energy, his humor, his courteousness, his sense of justice. And that integrity entailed both intellectual and moral clarity.


Because thought in warfare has more immediate and grave consequences than it does in almost any other area of activity, not only does the commander need to be able to plan resolutely, in full knowledge of the possible human cost; he also has to be confident that his plans wll be willingly executed. The Civil War was peculiarly a war in which that willingness had to be earned.

As a British military observer noted at the time, “the only way in which an officer could acquire influence over the Confederate soldier was by his personal conduct under fire.” (96) But the moral authority of generals like Lee and Jackson did not come simply from their great personal courage and resoluteness on the battlefield, or from their military genius. It also came from their manifest purity and disinterestedness, the recognition that their eyes were totally on the winning of the war and the restoration of peace and not on personal advantages or vaporous notions of martial glory, and that any sacrifices that they asked for were asked for because there were no alternatives.

The same was true of their Union counterparts, who not only shared the dangers of the men whose lives they were risking and losing, but knew that those men were reading newspapers in which their strategies and tactics were being scrutinized. In 1864, Sherman reported of his troops that “they will march to certain death if I order it, because they know and feel that night and day I labor to the end that not a life shall be lost in vain.” (97) Grant too, according to Fuller, could have legitimately said the same of his own planning and preoccupations, even with respect to the dreadful Wilderness campaign.

All four generals—and not they alone, of course—displayed what Joyce Cary calls “those simple fundamental qualities which are the elements of greatness: courage, independence of will, devotion to a cause larger than one’s own; a contempt of mean ambition.” (98)

Moreover, to an unprecedented extent the great commanders on both sides had been obliged to come to terms intellectually with large and problematic moral aspects of the war that they were fighting, such as the slavery issue, the rival claims of States’ Rights and of the Union, and the pervasive American resentment of military discipline and military hierarchies.

And they were conscious of the obligation not only to convince their opponents that they would persist unshakably until victory had been achieved, but to demonstrate to the world at large, in the behavior of their armies and in their own civility, the strength and validity of the cultural values on whose behalf they were fighting.


Honorableness, in sum, not only enabled the honor-governed individual to see his own life as charged with meaning, valor, and difficulties overcome as that of the Napoleonic magnate, and furnished him with a secure base from which to criticize the latter. As the Civil War had demonstrated, in practical public terms honor “worked,” just as it had worked earlier in the years of the American Revolution and the shaping of the Republic by men like Jefferson, with his complexity, his restlessly analytical intelligence, and his admonition to a favorite nephew, “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.” (99)

Rightly apprehended, honor intensified rather than diminished energy and efficiency. As that shrewd observer John William De Forest noted of the archetypal American man of honor, “

a Virginian gentleman is popularly supposed to be a combination of laziness and dignity. But this is an error; the type would be considered a marvel of energy in some countries, and … it is capable of amazing activity, audacity, and perseverance. Of all the States which have fought against the Union Virginia has displayed the most formidable military qualities. (100)

Honor was perfectly compatible with realism. John S. Mosby, for example, described by Edmund Wilson as “a knight errant in the sense that his audacious successes were in the nature of individual exploits,” said in his memoirs that

in one sense the charge that I did not fight fair is true. I fought for success and not for display. There was no man in the Confederate army who had less of the spirit of knight-aerrantry than I did. The combat between Richard and Saladin by the Diamond of the Desert [ in The Talisman ] is a beautiful picture for the imagination to dwell on, but it isn’t war, and was no model for me

But he also felt entitled to add that “there is no authenticated act of mine which is not perfectly in accordance with approved military usage. Grant, Sheridan, and Stonewall Jackson had about the same ideas that I had on the subject of war.” (101)

Honorableness could also display itself without any of the conventional trappings of glamour, as it did in a figure like Grant—shabbily attired, modest of mien, implacable in carrying out his plans, and delicately sparing of the sensibilities of the surrendered foe at Vicksburg and Appamattox. (102)

And behind Grant stood that greatest American embodiment of the chivalric values without the chivalric trappings, of whom Herbet Croly declared in 1910 that “the life of no other American has revealed with anything like the same completeness the peculiar moral promise of genuine democracy.” (103)

I am referring, of course, to Lincoln, so different from and yet so rightly paired with Lee, with his complex maskings and maneuverings, his miseries, grandeurs, and compassions, his imperturbable courage, his non-vindictiveness towards the foe, his playfulness and flair for debate, his theatrical tale telling and anti-theatrical theatrical style, his profound self-education, his deep historical sense of the meaning and potentialities of the Republic. (104)


In these pages and in earlier ones, I have talked about a wide variety of honorable types and individuals. They include complex, flexible intelligences, capable of deviousness without being Machiavellian, and able to respond imaginatively to the idea of grandeur without opting for a Napoleonic dominativeness. (105) Among them are some of the ablest public men that America has produced.

If their roots, and the roots of honor, are partly in romance, especially the romance of childhood, the moral is not that romance is in conflict with reality and needs to be eliminated, but that the sturdiest psyche is one in which connections stay open with the attitudes of childhood, and that those attitudes are fundamentally true to reality—the reality of social relations—and not in conflict with it.

Appropriately, one of the master ironists of the turn-of-the-century years had his surrogate Jack Tanner in Man and Superman (1903) confess to having discovered as a boy that “veracity and honor were no longer goody-goody expressions in the mouths of grown-up people, but compelling principles in myself.” (106)

From America and the Patterns of Chivalry, Cambridge U.P., 1982. Reformatted and lightly tweaked, 2007.


© John Fraser


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