Three Good, Part III:

The last article is from Noel, authored by Harvey Mansfield, and titled "The Founders' Honor." It attempts to explore what honor meant to the Founders, who were willing to fight and even to die for it. Mansfield begins, though, badly.

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.
Whatever the Clinton saga was about, it was not about the honor of politicians -- except just one politician, Clinton, who had no interest in fighting for his honor. He swore an oath to tell the truth, violated it, got caught, and then shrugged it off as a matter of no importance.

Those who supported him did so in large part because they agreed with him. The argument was that the perjury was on a matter of no real importance, having only to do with a sexual liason with a girl who was past the legal age of consent. Indeed, as I recall, there was even a legalistic argument that the offense did not rise to perjury at all, because even though he had lied under oath, it was about a matter that was not legally material to the subject at hand. That there was a point of honor -- that a man keeps his oaths, or is no man at all -- was simply not something they believed to be true.

There were some on the pro-impeachment side who were motivated by this principle of honor. They were chiefly among the citizenry, not the political class. The reason that the price Mansfield cites was paid by Republican politicians is because they were guilty -- not of pushing too hard, but of hypocrisy. There are few in Congress who are fit even to say the word "honor." It is so obvious in their conduct, that the People of the United States were disgusted to see them parading around under its flag.

From there, Mansfield makes another serious error -- one caught, in the comments below, by our friend and co-blogger Major Joel Leggett. Mansfield argues that revulsion against the duel that killed Hamilton ended dueling as a political force in America. Joel responds:
That statement is absolutely historically inaccurate. Andrew Jackson’s duel with the Benton brothers in May of 1813, nine years after the Hamilton/Burr affair, had significant political ramifications through out the Old Southwest (The Southeast today) and ultimately contributed to Jackson’s national reputation, which in turn propelled him to the White House.
Quite right. In the South, dueling and its honor-based culture continued to be a very important political force through at least the Civil War. The caning of Sumner, for example, was very much a part of the duelist culture. The reason it was a caning and not a duel was only that Sumner was thought unfit for the honor of a duel. A gentleman duels only with equals. The duel, indeed, is principally about finding a way for the gentleman who has received offense at the hand of an equal to affirm their equality, and thus restore the balance on which the society depends. Normally this is done through the exchange of letters among the seconds; but if it comes to it, the willingness to face each other's fire fairly restores and affirms that these men are equals.

The failure to understand that is another critical error in the Mansfield piece. The Hamilton duel was deeply flawed by the point that Mansfield praises: Hamilton's intent not to fire his piece. The point of the duel is a radical affirmation of respect: you allow your opponent a chance to kill you, and he allows you the same. To refuse to fire is to assert that you are not equal to your opponent, but either better or worse than he is.

Hamilton showed faith and fidelity to his Christian principles, but not enough to refuse to attend the duel -- he cared for the accolades of this world enough that he could not refuse to participate in the institution. He showed some fidelity to the culture of honor, but not enough to participate fully in its rituals either: the duel would have been unsatisfactory even if he had survived.

His refusal to fire would have been another insult. Rather than resolving the feud, as was the purpose of the duel, it would have furthered and deepened it.

The real lesson of the Hamilton duel is that you should either fight, or not fight; you should choose pacifism, or else to fight for justice in the world. A priest or a pacifist can get by on his principles, which are widely respected, even though he must rely on others for protection.

A fighting man must fight, in his own defense and others'. This is necessary, and it is proper. The priests of the world depend upon him.

No comments: