Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Researching the giants of history has made me sensitive to the erosion of honor and integrity in our day. When most of us hear about violations of honesty and the public trust, images of government leaders or captains of industry generally come to mind. The idea that a man's handshake or word bound him; or that, like Alexander Hamilton, a man would risk his very life to uphold his honor, are nearly incomprehensible concepts today.

As an author of historical fiction, I've noticed this shift in thinking as well. In accurately recreating a historical period, an author must frame the characters within the moral and ethical codes of the day. Some readers can no longer wrap their minds around heroes who place honor above self-gratification, or who make selfless, vulnerable, sometimes self-sacrificing choices. Yet it was the norm. It was how men and women of good faith lived, and not so very long ago.

I love this glimpse from the Revolution. It gives us an arm-tingling view of General Washington as well as of the hearts of the men he led. Here it is, told in the words of David McCullough, author of "1776."

"On Dec. 31, 1776, all the enlistments for the entire army had expired leaving every soldier free to go home. Washington called the troops into formation and urged them to reenlist, promising them a large bonus if they did. As the drums rolled, he asked those willing to re-up to step forward, but nobody did. Many of their farms were neglected, their fields had lain barren and their families were starving. Despite their desperate poverty they were ready to reject the money. They just wanted to go home. Washington turned and rode away from them. Then he stopped, received a moment of inspiration, turned back and rode up to them again. Listen carefully to what he said:"

“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.”

"Again the drums rolled. This time the men began stepping forward. “God Almighty,” wrote Nathanael Greene, “inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.”

They were all men who put honor above self. Remarkable!

I think of scriptural stories where a man's promise or oath could stop a blood bath or win an enemy's trust. Remember Nephi and Zoram from I Nephi:4 30-35? Both men had cause to slay the other to assure their own safety, but instead, they chose honor first. Said Nephi, "I spake with him, that if he would hearken unto my words, as the Lord liveth, and as I live, even so that if he would hearken unto our words, we would spare his life. . . And it came to pass that Zoram did take courage at the words which I spake. Now Zoram was the name of the servant; and he promised that he would go down into the wilderness unto our father. Yea, and he also made an oath unto us that he would tarry with us from that time forth."

What tremendous faith they each had in the binding power of their word! Can you imagine laying your life on the line based solely on the promise of an enemy?

It seems improbable today, especially in a world where the excuse, "I'm over-sheduled" casually liberates us from obligations, or when calling in sick to enjoy a day of recreation is deemed expected instead of a lie. Is your word your bond? Can a friend take your promise to the bank? When you say you'll be somewhere, do something, keep a secret, or that your loved one is unable to come to the phone--is it the truth?

This culture of quasi-honesty is more than a nuisance. It's dangerous and a fundamental cause of failures in marriages and families. A national poll rated honesty and integrity critical elements in a relationship. Does that surprise you? I hope not. Integrity and our ability to make and keep small truths, small commitments is the foundation of keeping vows and covenants--the basis of marriage and family.

We can learn so much about honor from studying history and from reading the biographies of great men and women. We've got a generation to change, before the ideas are too foreign.

1 comment:

  1. It's sad how that has changed, isn't it? You're right about how important integrity is. Thanks for a great post. BTW, my 17 year old son picked up Awakening Avery. I was surprised, since it's way outside his normal genre choices, but he is enjoying it!