The Magazine

The Founders' Honor

There's more to American politics than self-interest or principle.

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Editor's Note: Harvey Mansfield, one of America's leading political scientists and a widely published author, will deliver the 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 8, 2007. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. We have reposted these Mansfield classics from THE WEEKLY STANDARD archive in honor of that event.

THE WORD "HONOR" is not one we hear much these days. It sounds quaint when we read it of the past and pretentious if applied to the present. We prefer to speak more realistically, more candidly, of self-interest.

Yet the biggest recent events in American politics make sense only when seen as motivated by a sense of honor. When President Clinton was impeached, he refused to resign, one could say, for reasons of both honor and self-interest. But the Democrats in public office who supported him could have done so only for honor. They did not want to give in to those prissy, self-righteous Republicans, who would have crowed in triumph at his fall. In refusing to sacrifice their tainted champion as self-interest would have dictated, the Democrats paid a price. Their candidate Al Gore, chief among Clinton loyalists, suffered from "Clinton fatigue" (or Clinton disgust) in the electorate, and he lost a close election he probably would have won if Clinton had resigned and had taken his bad odor with him, leaving Gore to run as a relatively unembarrassed incumbent.

The Republicans for their part might have been well advised by self-interest to leave well enough alone, and not insist on impeachment in the House or a trial in the Senate. But they were overcome by their outrage. They felt it necessary to uphold law and propriety against a liar who had, at long last, been caught in his lie. So the Republicans refused to "move on" and diminished their advantage from Clinton fatigue because they seemed too eager for his removal.

Honor always has a sticking point: something you refuse to accept even though it might be in your own best interest. President Clinton, the one who spoke of "moving on," stayed where he was and brought his party to defeat. His sense of honor was no doubt perverse, but even in better cases, there is always something perverse about honor.

Honor is a feature of human nature that does not disappear with the arrival of democracy, though it takes new forms. We did not see President Clinton subjected to a public caning by Monica Lewinsky's father--to the mixed approval and consternation of the Secret Service--which he so richly deserved under the old code of honor. Mr. Lewinsky was more concerned for his president's honor than for his daughter's or for his own.

Affairs of Honor, a new book by Yale historian Joanne Freeman on the early American republic, has much to teach political theorists and American historians, as well as other souls with a merely personal interest in how to live. Freeman treats two of the most dramatic events in American political history. If you want to know about honor, look for drama; if you prefer life to be dull, if you want to be an economist, stay with self-interest--if you can. Freeman gives a careful analysis of the presidential election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson won out over Aaron Burr in the House of Representatives, and the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. She intends to use the later--and lesser--event of the duel to explain the earlier and greater event of the election. But because honor has its own priorities, she makes it appear that the central event of the period was the duel, despite its peculiar irrationalities--and not the coming of democracy to America, in what Jefferson called the "revolution" of 1800.