05/08/2013 07:27 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Whatever Happened to Honor?

At the end of the Declaration of Independence, its signers pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." More than two centuries later, we seem rather disconnected from the meaning of those last two words.

The voters of South Carolina recently elected to Congress a former governor who finished his term in disgrace, having conducted an extramarital affair and gone incommunicado for several days (with state money, later repaid) with his Argentinean girlfriend. A former governor of New York resigned after admitting that he spent time with call girls over several years, though he has since emerged as a talk show host and commentator. A former governor of Alaska left her post without finishing her term so that she could go on the political stump, write books, and appear on TV. A former president had something he denies met the definition of "sex" while just steps from the Oval Office -- and then lied about it. He is now a popular speaker and has launched a charitable foundation.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with public officials who have dishonored the public trust seeking to reclaim their lives and live better futures than their pasts. But there may be something wrong with how easily we and they accept this as the natural trajectory of so many in public life. They may claim themselves redeemed, but it is much harder to redeem the damage they have done to the public's trust in government.

In the 18th century, honor as a public official meant striving for an impeccable reputation. It meant having and keeping the good opinion of those who elected you. It meant conducting your life with attention to moral values and duty to one's country. When your honor was compromised, you were shamed -- and felt it. When it was wrongly challenged, you felt compelled to defend it. These were not halcyon days -- Thomas Jefferson, after all, had a slave mistress and held six hundred people in bondage over the course of his public career. But the expectation was there -- and when you failed and were caught at it, it mattered. This is why Washington, in his Farewell Address, spent several opening paragraphs pleading with his countrymen to accept his decision to step down after two terms. Just leaving his post without seeking the public's acceptance was inconceivable.

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was offered several private sector jobs at high salaries. He turned them down to take the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), at $125 a month. He felt he owed it to the young men (and it was just men at the time) to educate them to help restore the union. Honor compelled him -- and he introduced an honor system in the college as well. When George C. Marshall (who had a portrait of Lee in his Leesburg home for just this reason) was Army Chief of Staff, he refused to socialize with President Roosevelt or even vote, fearing that both could compromise his objectivity and the need for candor when he disagreed with his boss. Honor showed him the way. Is this honor culture lost?

In the 21st century, talk of honor seems quaint, if it is talked about at all. Public officials no doubt care about their reputations, and the voters care about the conduct of public officials. But actions that would have been dishonorable to those for whom honor was "sacred" seem viewed today as missteps for which one apologizes and then moves on, expecting the public to forgive, even possibly forget. Shame, if it is felt at all, seems more connected with being discovered than with the loss of one's honor -- and, as we've usually seen -- that shame is a very fleeting emotion.

No doubt the honor culture of the founding period sometimes went too far. Alexander Hamilton did neither himself nor the country any favor when he got into a duel with Aaron Burr to protect his honor. But the importance of honor did create an expectation that public officials should care about something other than their lives and fortunes.

This is not a problem restricted to elected officials. Some military officers, for whom "Duty, Honor, Country" should still resound as a clarion call, have also in recent years given us pause. Whether through extramarital affairs, sexual assault, insubordination in the face of the president, or the failure of the moral courage required to disagree with civilian leadership or abstain from condoning torture, they have dishonored themselves and their profession.

Americans hold many of their public officials in low esteem. There are no doubt multiple reasons for this. Could those reasons include that they detect a lack of honor in those who serve them. Could it also be that, as citizens, we have lost the meaning and importance of honor as expectations not just for others but in our own lives? Franklin Roosevelt pondered the impact of honor on whether people would trust their government: "Confidence . . . thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live."

There are women and men of honor in public and private life, many of them. Their stories are not always told, and are more often drowned out amidst the media frenzy directed at their more salacious contemporaries. We would do well to recapture what those 56 signers of the Declaration meant -- and what that might still mean for us.