Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders. Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy. The president can’t be counted on for honesty. Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”
The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times. A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era. Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention. Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased. A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.
Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust. Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues. So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”
Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest. The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies. The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?
Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today. Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral. The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.
Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.