Amid the echoes of gunfire and roars of artillery continents away, a foreign people who had fought and bled alongside the United States military looked to that nation with hopes of aid. The president chose to do nothing despite passionate pleas for the United States “to be grateful” to their ally. The political opposition pounced, charging that he was violating American honor.

The year was 1793, not 2019, and the French Revolution had spread beyond France and become a general war against the monarchs of Europe. President George Washington decided not to commit American lives to a war that posed no immediate threat out of “duty and interest” to the nation, provoking James Madison to lament to Thomas Jefferson that Washington’s “unfortunate error” “wounds the National honor.”

This story has reverberations in what’s happening right now in Syria. President Trump removed U.S. troops from the Turkey-Syria border, stating: “It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”

His decision, and a deal cut between Vice President Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aroused anger from both sides of the political aisle. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) publicly lamented that “American honor has already been tarnished.” Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg declared during a Democratic presidential candidates’ debate that Trump was “undermining” our “honor.”

But rather than necessarily exposing the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s decision, what these critiques reveal is how the concept of honor is — and has virtually always been — a weapon in U.S. politics, one that allowed politicians to present themselves as patriotic while painting the opposition as anything but.

Honor is an ancient global concept that typically has been associated with reputation, but during the American Revolution, a distinctly American version emerged. In the United States, honor came to be synonymous with ethical behavior — a form of secular morality in a nation with separated church and state — and advancing the good of the nation over personal interest. For the founding generation, this ethos became a deeply and widely held belief.

Then, with the formation of political parties in the late 1780s, the concept also became a potent political weapon. Politicians routinely accused opponents of failing to uphold or sacrificing American honor.

It was Washington’s 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality that further separated the parties and allowed American honor to become further politicized in a way that still resonates today. Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton, and Democratic-Republicans, such as Jefferson and Madison, each accused the other of not holding to the principles of national honor, while presenting their own party as the only guardian of the sacred concept. Far from conceding the point however, Washington, too, vowed to “employ the constitutional authority of my office, to support the national honor, and enforce that impartiality, which ought to be observed, toward the powers engaged in the present war.”

The issue of the French alliance exacerbated a partisan split, whereby party loyalty became essentially the determining factor over who possessed honor. A situation in which, years later, even the party-hopping future Vice President Aaron Burr (who later killed Hamilton) could be considered “politically honest” by one side, while the other viewed him as guided by personal interest and “unbound ambition,” forsaking all “political ethics.”

A few decades into the American experiment, author and historian Mercy Otis Warren worried that while “every free mind should be tenacious of supporting the honor of a national character,” the “party feuds” had already deeply “divided a nation” and caused its citizens to “lose sight of the sacred obligations of virtue.”

The debate over the French Revolution began as an earnest attempt to define American obligations and what was the “right action” based on both the Alliance of 1778 and the need to maintain U.S. stability. But instead of setting out rules for American politics, long term, this push simply resulted in combatants framing their disagreements not in narrow, policy or even partisan terms, but in terms of who would uphold American honor and, in turn, the country’s ideals. The language of honor was invoked during many critical political debates, including the South’s secession in 1861 and the decision by the United States to depart Vietnam in 1975.

Why has the vague concept of American honor remained politically potent for more two centuries? Partly, because we’ve long had fierce partisan divides. Each generation has repurposed the original Revolutionary concept along party lines. But the strength of this political weapon also stems from the fact that while all Americans have agreed about the importance of national honor, and see it as rooted in the Revolution, the concept is so malleable that it can be understood entirely through a partisan lens today. One party’s action in favor of the greater good or honor of the nation can appear to be self-interested to the other, and vice versa.

Language about honor is omnipresent in our politics these days, and not only with regard to Trump’s treatment of the Kurds. At last week’s Democratic debate, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) echoed the Founders when he stated his campaign was an effort to “restore” the “sacred honor” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, presumably lost during the Trump presidency.

And just as Booker sees Democrats as ready to restore honor, in 2010 the tea party held a Restoring Honor rally, led by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, that saw conservatives as the side who could reclaim honor they perceived as lost by the Obama administration.

The tea party example reminds us that while charges of betraying American honor have often grabbed public attention, they have not always swayed the public — Obama was reelected — or even shaped the public’s memory of these debates and fights.

With the benefit of hindsight, Washington’s decision to maintain neutrality in the French Revolution and ensure domestic tranquility has been recognized as the prudent course of action. Despite the immediate and vocal detractions, only time will tell how Trump’s handling of Syria is remembered.

But what is certain is that “American honor” is a potent concept that divided the founding generation and has been claimed by every side in American political debates since. Rather than using it as a partisan, political sword, however, we ought to recall its roots in a Revolution designed to forge a nation of commonly held beliefs and ethical ideals. If we do that, then perhaps we can once again jointly “pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to upholding these founding American values.