An Interview with Professor Craig Bruce Smith
JMC Resident Historian Elliott Drago sat down with JMC network member Craig Bruce Smith to discuss his early historical influences, “sacred honor,” George Washington, and what he considers “the most important moment in American history.” Dr. Smith is an associate professor of history at National Defense University in the Joint Advanced Warfighting School (JAWS) in Norfolk, Virginia.
ED: Why did you become an American historian?
CBS: I’m not actually sure how or why it happened exactly. I always loved history in school–there was never a doubt I would major in history in college. But throughout high school and even into college I thought I would become a lawyer and then a judge. Some courthouse internships changed my mind (not making it as an actor or as a professional hockey player also contributed).
Still, looking back on it, my AP US history teacher Ronald J. Vallar at Holy Cross High School in Queens, NY is most directly responsible. Mr. Vallar was an absolutely stellar educator. To this day, I haven’t encountered anyone in the classroom quite like him – he was dynamic, passionate, and cared about the students learning subjects in depth. Most of my previous history education was “Who, What, Where, When”, Vallar stressed the “Why.” No one had ever done that before.
But if I had to pick a moment? Vallar bet the class a dinner at a fancy steak house for anyone who could score a perfect score on the AP Exam. I wanted to win bad. It wasn’t about the steak, but getting to have dinner with him. That sparked me to study like I never studied before. I was the only one to collect, and I’m pretty sure it’s the start of my historian career (with lots of help and guidance from others along the way).
ED: What led you to write your latest book on honor, and why should we read it?
CBS: The initial spark came when I was an undergraduate at St. John’s University and I read three recently published books on honor by Joanne Freeman, Caroline Cox, and Judith Van Buskirk. This was my first real introduction to honor in early America and it sparked a decades long interest. Later the work of Bertram Wyatt-Brown and my grad school advisor David Hackett Fischer (with a dash of Gordon Wood) really shaped the project.
The book offers a new look at the causes and consequences of the American Revolution – specifically looking at how the concept of honor contributed to the war. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders “pledge[d], our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” It was nearly an exact repetition of the words uttered by the First Continental Congress in 1774 and by Washington during the Newburgh Address in 1783.
But what exactly was meant by the term, “sacred honor” and why was it so important that it was constantly referenced? Most of the books on honor focus on honor culture – and it’s more sinister manifestations like dueling. But honor culture isn’t honor. The Founding generation came to understand honor as an ethical ideal that was tied to the cause – of nation over self. Using collective biography by following the lives of Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, this book takes the Founders’ ideas seriously and argues that American honor was based on ethical behavior in service to the nation. It’s a concept that can certainly help us today during a particularly divisive moment in our history.
ED: Describe your favorite research “rabbit hole,” and the results of that quest.
CBS: That’s an easy pick: global views of George Washington. Washington was and remains so well known internationally that you can find references to him on literally every continent in the world. What’s even more remarkable, is that most of what’s said about him is glowing praise (the notable exceptions being Revolutionary War era Britain and radical Jacobin France). Whether it’s the first Washington monument going up in Ireland or a member of the Thai royal family being named Prince George Washington, he’s everywhere! The problem with the search for global Washington is that there’s so much in so many nations (and it continues to grow because he still remains so relevant today), that like the hunt for the Holy Grail or the Red October…the quest will never be over.
ED: What do you consider an underrated moment in the American founding?
CBS: That’s another one I can answer without hesitation! General Washington surrendering his commission back to Congress on December 23, 1783. Despite it being immortalized in a painting by John Trumbull that hangs in the Rotunda of the US Capitol, it’s not mentioned in the same breath as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or a military event like the Battle of Saratoga.
Not only is his resignation an underrated moment, I’d argue it’s THE most important moment in American history. Why? Because by giving up his commission Washington preserved the ideals of the American Revolution and set a firm precedent for civilian supremacy of the military that exists to this day.
Prior to this, you’d have to go back to the classical era and Roman general turned dictator Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus giving up power. History records far more victorious military commanders seizing power from Julius Casaer to Oliver Cromwell to Napoleon Bonaparte. If Washington did the same in 1783, the foundations of the Revolution would be shattered and the ideas would just be meaningless rhetoric. But in Annapolis that day, Washington showed by his actions that the Revolution’s ideals were not hollow words.
ED: What has your research taught you about America’s founding principles and history?
CBS: If I had to focus on one point, it’s that ideas matter. There have been many historical trends that have stressed self-interest, personal financial motivations, and many other explanations for why historical figures have made choices. Too often these trends dismiss the words and thoughts of historical actors as being cover for some sort of ulterior motives.
If we look at the primary sources, written by the Revolutionary generation, we constantly see words like “cause,” “liberty,” “freedom,” “honor,” and “virtue.” The Revolutionary generation built America based on these ideas and these concepts. They’re not just words, whether it’s Washington giving up power, soldiers suffering the hardships of war, or women launching boycotts against British goods – we see thought guiding action.
But perhaps the most compelling evidence in favor of the power of ideas is the global reach of the American Revolution and the Founding. Almost immediately these founding ideas spread around the world, inspiring numerous revolutions, constitutions, rights, and governments into the present day.
ED: What is your next project?
CBS: Towards the end of the Revolutionary War, King George III learned that General Washington was going to give up power and return home to Mount Vernon. He responded “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” My next book project, “The Greatest Man in the World”: A Global History of George Washington, is going to ask: what did the rest of the world think of the American general and president?
Following Washington from his emergence on the world scene at the start of the French and Indian War into the Revolution and his presidency and through his death and legacy, the book will look at Washington as a global figure not just an American one. I’ve found some amazing sources on how other nation’s have interpreted, used, and abused Washington and his legacy. Overall, the book will contend that Washington became a symbol of America and an international model based on his leadership and preservation of liberty. The covid pandemic and the shuttering of international archives slowed the research on this project by years, but portions are already written. It’s coming…
ED: What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about American history?
CBS: The quick take away after years of teaching and hearing countless people profess to “hate history” (usually due to their high school experience) is that history is not the memorization of names, dates, or a list of things fated to happen. History is about people making choices, which means I wish modern people would recognize historical figures were people like them.
A lot of the recent public discussion of historical figures (particularly the Founders), categorizes them as one thing alone or evaluates them with modern eyes. The best history requires us to strive for objectivity. It’s true that perfect objectivity is unattainable. Still, we must make the attempt and not impose our own standards on the past.
We need to understand the ways the past is different from today, while communicating with a modern audience the lessons that are still relevant for the present and future. Modern individuals are certainly free to interpret historical figures as they will, but the goal of history is to understand people, their actions, and their motivations in their own time.
History is filled with great deeds, precedents, and ideas that flawed historical figures contributed to. The movie musical 1776 offers perhaps the best interpretation I’ve seen on this point. Just before making a compromise to pass the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin says: “what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first…Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”
When thinking about the American Founders and any historical figures for that matter, we need to remember and commemorate the greatness – while acknowledging the flaws. And if it’s done right, historical figures will seem more relatable to us today. As the 250th Anniversaries of the American Revolution are already underway, this is more important than ever.
ED: Thank you for your time and inspiration, we will continue to follow your work!
All views are those of Dr. Smith.
Elliott Drago serves as the JMC’s Resident Historian and Editorial Manager. He is a historian of American history and the author of Street Diplomacy: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom in Philadelphia, 1820-1850 (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2022).
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