Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/National Honor

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
National Honor
From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLII, No. 2152 (March 19, 1898), p. 267. Reprinted in Frederic Bancroft, ed., Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1913), Volume V, pp. 452-457.



The honor of a person, in the general sense of the term, is his moral dignity. To offend or wound a person's honor means to deny or impeach his moral dignity so as to lower it in the estimation of others, and perhaps also in his own self-respect. To forfeit one's honor means to do something, or to permit something to be done, which is incompatible with one's moral dignity. This applies to nations as well as to individuals. What true honor consists in, what constitutes an offense to one's honor and how the offended honor can or should be vindicated or restored, are questions which in different places and at different times have received different answers, according to the different conventional conceptions of honor or the different states of civilization there and then prevailing.

Whatever divergences of opinion on these points may still exist in this country, no American capable of sober reflection can seriously hold the belief that considerations of national honor would require, or even that its moral dignity would permit, this great republic to swagger about among the nations of the world with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist under everybody's nose, and telling the world on every possible occasion that we can “whip” any power that might choose to resent this, and that we would be rather glad of an opportunity for doing so. A private individual taking such an attitude would certainly not be called a gentleman. He would be considered a vulgar bully. If a person of great physical strength, he would be feared by some, esteemed by nobody and heartily detested as a public nuisance by the whole decent part of the community. A nation playing such a rôle would deserve and meet with the same judgment in the family of civilized nations, and at the same time it would cultivate within itself those forces of evil which are always developed by a perversion of the sense of honor, and the consequent loss of true moral dignity and of genuine self-respect.

Neither would any American having the honor of his country sincerely at heart find it compatible with the true moral dignity of this great republic that the American people should always be nervously on the lookout for something to offend or affront it, and eager to construe as a grievous injury or a deadly insult anything in the slightest degree capable of an unpleasant interpretation, in order to avenge it. He would remember the common experience of private life that the honor of the “hero” of many so-called “affairs of honor,” the ever-ready duellist, is apt to be not the genuine article, and that few things are more derogatory to the character of a gentleman than a propensity to pick unnecessary quarrels — that is, quarrels which might honorably be avoided. There is one duty which strong men and strong nations that are imbued with a strong sense of honor will never forget. It is that the strong should scrupulously abstain from abusing their strength when dealing with the weak. Strong men and strong nations, conscious of their moral dignity, will be slow to take offense. They will, of course, not permit themselves to be injured, or insulted, or trifled with, or balked by anybody at will, or to any length; but they will be especially solicitous to exhaust all peaceable means for the enforcement of their just demands, or for the amicable composition of differences, before their superiority of brute strength is brought into play. They can afford and they should use the greater forbearance as it cannot be charged either to weakness or timidity.

A true sense of national honor will move the American people to keep this well in mind at the present moment. It is not intended to inquire here what our grievance against Spain may be. Let us assume it to be very grave. What will then be the situation? This republic is very strong. Spain is, in comparison, very weak. We have a population of nearly 75,000,000. Spain has 18,000,000. We are immensely rich in ready means and still undeveloped resources. Spain is poor, with a heavy debt and impaired credit. Although Spain might annoy us much with her fleet at the beginning of hostilities, in case of war, there is no doubt of our ability to defeat her thoroughly in a contest, the final result of which depends upon material staying-power and the tenacity of the popular spirit. Nobody questions this. Our manifest superiority is so great that there would be little glory in our triumph. Neither are we in the situation of a people whose reputation as to courage, bravery or patriotism is still to be established. All this is so well-known and so universally acknowledged that no forbearance on our part can ever by any possibility be misinterpreted as a lack of power or of pluck — or that, in fact, it can appear as anything else than the considerate self-control of conscious strength. “But,” we are told, “the dons are insolent. Unless we give them a sound beating, they will say that the Americans are afraid of them!” Well, what of it if they were foolish enough to say or even to think so? Would anybody else believe it? Would it in any manner diminish the power of this republic or lower its moral dignity, its national honor, in the estimation of other nations or in its own? No; if this republic, conscious of its superior strength, seeks to obtain what it considers just and proper, with that generous forbearance which is the finest privilege of the strong when dealing with the weak, and avoids war with sedulous solicitude, until all honest efforts to preserve peace have been exhausted in vain, and thinks of it then only as an extreme exigency and a most unwelcome one, it will serve the national honor, the moral dignity of the Nation, infinitely better than by the most grandiloquent bluster or by any unnecessary demonstration that we are strong enough to “whip” anybody whenever we like.

For a just appreciation of the requirements of national honor in the premises it may be useful to look also at the Spanish side of the question. Spain, as the weaker party, will be much more open to the imputation of timidity if she yields on any dubious point. Her proverbial pride may render it therefore especially painful to her to abandon any position she once has held. The impulse to vindicate what she conceives to be her national honor by fighting at any cost to the last extremity for what she had once claimed as her right, or against what she had once denounced as a wrong or an indignity, may therefore be especially potent with her, even though she might herself feel that she could not justly maintain her contentions. But if she were conscious of that, would her national honor demand that she should at least try to uphold those contentions at the cost of more bloody and destructive war? Whatever may be thought of the character of Spanish rule, nobody will say that the Spanish nation needs further proof of its courage or national spirit. Of those qualities at least the tremendous sacrifice of blood and treasure with which Spain has struggled to keep her grasp upon Cuba has given new and ample demonstration. In that respect, therefore, her national honor would not be jeoparded by submission to any fair demands, if such were made upon her on our part.

Neither would her national honor, in any sense, suffer by the abandonment of Cuba as soon as she has to admit that her rule over the inhabitants of that island can no longer be maintained. There has been a rumor that the proud Spaniard, when the loss of Cuba becomes certain, will then, for national honor's sake, provoke a war with the United States, so as to preserve at least the appearance of succumbing only to the superior strength of one of the great powers of the world. No misconception of national honor could be more grotesque than the fancy that the moral dignity of a nation can better be saved by punishing one's self with an absolutely useless demonstration of willingness to shed more blood and to squander more wealth and to create more misery, than by a wise and decorous acceptance of the inevitable. It is a monstrous notion, which can have sprung only from some very much overheated brain; but it fairly illustrates the strange confusion of ideas in which national honor figures as something that stands above the dictates of common-sense, as well as of common morality.

We have had much of this wild sort of talk in this country, and we may have more. But there is good reason for hoping that it will not run away with the self-respect of the American people. We may well be proud of the self-contained dignity with which so far President McKinley and his ministers have conducted our foreign affairs amid the excitements of the day; proud of the well-nigh unanimous applause which the calm attitude of those in power has elicited from the citizenship of the country; and proud of the fact that a bill to put the republic in a state of defense could pass both Houses of Congress without hot appeals to warlike passions. This gives us a taste of that sense of national honor which draws its inspiration not from hysterical spasms, but from sober wisdom; not from the brutal wantonness of superior strength, but from the noble resolve to be all the more just and generous, because strong.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.