Our Sacred Honor

– By Shelby Cullom Davis, delivered at Windsor Castle


This address given by Ambassador Shelby Cullom Davis, a founding member of the Board of Governors of the Endowment’s Heritage Trust, eloquently embodies the spirit and goals of the Foundation.


Shelby Cullom Davis made a lasting and significant contribution to the public life of the United States as United States Ambassador to Switzerland.


He addresses the challenges that confront all free societies today, and the nature of the response that is required of us. We are honored to share with you Ambassador Davis’ important and stirring message.


I have entitled my address “Our Sacred Honor” and the text lies in our country’s Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence we mutually pledge our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”


This earnest oath which concludes the Declaration of Independence may sound strange to our ears today. To be sure, we still go through the ritual of making vows in various ceremonies . . . the pledge of fidelity in taking the oath of public office, the assertion with a hand on the Bible that we will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in court, and the promise to forsake all others until death do us part in the wedding rites — but the news and social statistics suggest that many people do not really take these vows seriously.


As for pledging one’s life and one’s fortune and really meaning it, most of us would probably have difficulty identifying any fifty-six living Americans who would seriously volunteer such a commitment despite the fact that the population from which we would choose the fifty-six is almost a hundred times more numerous. Turning to that final phrase, “our sacred Honor,” it is for many a concept from another time and another culture, like binding the feet or entombing a Pharaoh in a pyramid, so remote as to have little personal significance two centuries later. But to those fifty-six who signed there was great personal future significance.


Nine signers died of wounds or hardships during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured or imprisoned, in some cases with brutal treatment. The wives, sons and daughters of others were killed, jailed, mistreated, persecuted or left penniless. One was driven from his wife’s deathbed and lost all his children. The houses of twelve signers were burned to the ground. Seventeen lost everything they owned.


Every signer was proscribed as a traitor; every one was hunted. Most were driven into flight; most were at one time or another barred from their families or their homes. Most were offered immunity, freedom, rewards, their property or the lives and release of loved ones to break their pledged word or to take the King’s protection. Their fortunes were forfeit, but their honor was not. No signer defected or changed his stand throughout the darkest hours.


It is cruelly evident that the pledge they made was not just a perfunctory assent to a rhetorical flourish of Thomas Jefferson’s pen; it was an earnest commitment entered into by thoughtful, pious and intrepid men.


Let us return now to the last phrase, “our sacred Honor,” and try to understand what it meant to them. First of all, the term refers to a concept of virtue and the sincere effort to live and act according to that concept. Although the leaders of the American Revolution came from vastly differing backgrounds, they had a remarkable commonality in what they regarded as the components of virtue. Aristocrats and commoners, plantation-owners and city dwellers, members of diverse churches and varying professions, they held similar views about the code of conduct which should guide one’s life.


Religion played a dominant part in their personal as well as their political philosophy.


Washington’s public speeches and private correspondence are interwoven with sincere religious supplications. Indeed, most of the leaders of the Revolutionary period made genuine and devout reference to God in their various statements, almost as frequently as some of today’s leaders use God’s name irreverently and profanely in their daily language.


Patrick Henry listed the principles which guided his life:

To be true and just in all my dealings. To bear no malice or hatred in my heart. To keep my hands from picking and stealing. Not to covet other men’s goods, but to learn and labor truly to get my own living, and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.


John Adams wrote in his diary at the time he began his legal training, “The study and the practice of law, I am sure, does not dissolve the obligations of morality and religion.”


Such comments, in our era of cynicism, may sound stilted and self-conscious and self-righteous, but in those days the cultivation and the preservation of character was a paramount goal of both religious and secular education, accepted and fervently supported by most of the leadership of the society. Alexander Hamilton reflects this orthodoxy in a letter to a friend. Having had to go to work at the age of eleven, he hoped for better things than he found in his modest job at an accounting firm. “I condemn the groveling existence of a clerk,” he wrote, “and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station.”


The concern for righteous conduct was even embodied in the Virginia Bill of Rights adopted by the Virginia Assembly in June of 1776. Included was the statement “No free government or the blessing of liberty can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue.”


Before offering some thoughts about the significance of this concept for us today, it may be useful to identify certain key elements within the colonial conception of honorable conduct which were believed indispensable to the existence of responsible freedom. They are self-discipline, self-reliance, respect for the law, respect for private property, all pervaded by an unselfish concern for the public good.


Times unfortunately have changed. Morality has been scoffed and scorned into a small corner. Certainly no responsible observer of this society would judge any of the four – self-discipline, self-reliance, respect for the law or respect for private property — to be a dominant characteristic of our nation today. These traits are on the wane.


As Milton, the poet, wrote several hundred years ago:

But what more oft, in nations grown corrupt And by their vices brought to servitude, Than to love bondage more than liberty — Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.


Far easier, we suppose, to expect the government to impose such virtue as we must have than for each citizen to take upon himself the strenuous burden of a virtuous life. It is time to recognize that doing one’s own thing is totally incompatible with responsible liberty. This, I believe, is what Solzhenitsyn had in mind when he said, “I insist that the problems of the West are not political. They are psychological and moral.” And Solzhenitsyn continued: “A loss of courage may be the most striking feature in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations . . . . Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”


In higher education today, the reigning philosophy is governed by a value-free concept. How the student, and everyone else, behaves is his own business. Every view of everything is granted equal status and the only offense is to insist that one view is more important than the others. The results of such a philosophy are predictable. Self-discipline lapses if there are no acknowledged evils to avoid. There is no incentive to self-reliance if there is no acknowledged concept of human dignity. If a law is found inconvenient, one simply disregards it, as in the case of using marijuana. Value-free education simply annuls virtue, for virtuous conduct requires a specific understanding of what is right and what is wrong, and behavior consistent with that understanding. Value-free education leaves everyone free to indulge his whims and his passions without regard to the laws or the general welfare. It is a blueprint for anarchy, and, to some extent, an unintentional training ground for crime.


I think it is useful to try to understand the change in educational philosophy that has taken place over the last years. The ascendancy of value-free education was not the result of mere perverseness. It has generated great support precisely because it represents the fulfillment of one of the most fundamental principles of liberty — what might be called the political principle. That principle, reinforced by the First Amendment, asserts that every citizen has the right to his own beliefs, to express them publicly and to engage in partisan activities in their behalf. This is, and must continue to be, the right of a free citizen.


There is, however, another principle of liberty, of at least equal importance, that sometimes stands in conflict with the political principle. It is the education principle. It assumes that man can learn from experience, that knowledge has something to teach ignorance, that informed judgment should prevail over raw judgment. Unfortunately the political principle has to a great extent overwhelmed the educational principle and our society finds itself tormented by the moral shambles which has resulted.


It is short-sighted to permit some of the colleges to become moral swamps where the students may defy the law of the land – using illegal drugs with little fear of interference, indulge in promiscuity with the full blessing of the administration – and without reprisal or rebuff engage in organized effrontery to speakers or others who have come to campus on legitimate business. As Bishop Bayne of Washington once said, “There is no such thing as moral neutrality. The person who does not stand firmly in behalf of that which is right, stands effectively in behalf of that which is wrong.”


A leading American historian, author of THE END OF THE ERA, asserts:

Only a few decades remain to complete the era America will have known as a nation. For the United States has embarked on its decline since the closing days of the Second World War . . . . It is too late in our history to restore order or re-establish authority: the American temperament has passed the point where self-interest can subordinate itself to citizenship.


Another writer points out that when he was a boy, England was the number one world empire. It never occurred to anyone then that Britain might be living out the last years of its greatness.


A century before that, he noted, France under Napoleon was the number one world power. And before France – Spain – Rome – Greece – Egypt – Babylon and many other nations, once great, some of which are now lost from the face of the earth.


Gibbon, the historian, wrote why Roman civilization withered and died:

  • The sanctity of the home was undermined.
  • Higher and higher taxes; the spending of public money for free bread and circuses for the populace.
  • The mad craze for pleasure; sports becoming every year more exciting, more brutal, more immoral.
  • The building of armaments when the real enemy was within . . . the decay of individual responsibility.
  • The decline of religion, faith fading into mere form, losing touch with life, losing power to guide people.


These nations passed through the following sequence:


From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance to self-indulgence; from self-indulgence to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back again to bondage.

The average span of the world’s great civilizations has been 200 years. It is a sobering fact that the United States is now more than 200 years old. This cycle of decline and decay is not inevitable. It depends on us! How much do we love our country?


May I close with a few lines from the sonnet of an unknown bard:


God give us men! A time like this demands Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands; Men whom the lust of office does not kill! Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy; Men who possess opinions and a will; Men who have honor; men who will not lie; Men who can stand before a demagogue, And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking; Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog In public duty and in private thinking.


For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds, Their large professions, and their little deeds, Mingle in selfish strife, Lo! Freedom weeps, Wrong rules the land, and waiting justice sleeps.