Review of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. By Joanne B. Freeman (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001) 376 pp.
by: R. Davis
Under the newly ratified Constitution, the United States government was decidedly republican. What that republicanism would look like in practice, however, was a mystery—and a highly contested debate—for the nation’s first congress. In the absence of a rich political tradition or today’s partisan stability, leaders ascribed political meaning to familiar structures, marrying old culture with uncharted political territory.
For Joanne Freeman, this cultural structure was a “code of honor.” Not only did the code “set the standards for conduct,” Freeman asserts in Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, but was in fact, “the very infrastructure of national politics” (pp. xv-xviii). In the protean and incipient political environment of the early Republic, men clung to the rules that had always governed their behavior as gentlemen. This resulted in an informal, but strictly adhered to, set of procedural guidelines and a “shared understanding of the weapons” that could be used in political warfare (p. xxii).
In her artfully written and effectively crafted analysis, Freeman systematically describes these weapons. Each chapter focuses on one historical figure and the form of honor culture that he encountered. In the first chapter, Freeman uses the diary of William Maclay to animate a political world that, without established parties, was inherently personal. In his brief, unremarkable senatorial tenure, Maclay constantly scrutinizes relationships between congressmen, referencing all of the friendships, hostilities and backdoor deal making. His short-lived career and obscurity illustrate the difficulty of maintaining a federal reputation in this environment.
Chapters Two and Three examine the code of honor-turned-political tactics of gossip and the written word. Freeman describes Thomas Jefferson’s “dinner table as a political stage,” making note of his ability to subtly sway the minds of politicians with fine wine and carefully chosen words (p. 86). The political gossip of men like those dining at Monticello, she explains, slowly transformed into regular channels of communication and national networks, providing, to some degree, the foundation of partisanship. In the heat of fierce political battle, John Adams instead turned to paper. Freeman chronicles his use of letters and newspapers (as well as the use of broadsides and pamphlets by others) in his attempt to publicly defend his reputation and combat the pillory he faced from Alexander Hamilton.
In Chapters Four and Five, the author recounts the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel and the election of 1800 to examine the code of honor in action. Duels, which Freeman insists are wrongly dismissed by many historians as the work of the hotheaded or the mentally disabled, generally “did not result from a sudden flare of temper,” but were timed “strategically” or even induced “deliberately” (167). They were legitimate political weapons. Defending reputations in this ritual was the ultimate proof of honor and character—qualities of a man fit for political leadership. As Freeman points out, Hamilton accepted the challenge, at least in part, so that he would still be worthy of office, should he survive. The election of 1800 was also a battle of reputations. Although historians are correct to characterize the contest as a turning point in the development of political parties, there is more, Freeman argues, to its historical significance. To her, it was an election centered on honor. Burr, Jefferson and James Bayard, the eventual tie-breaking vote in the House of Representatives, were almost as concerned with how they appeared to act during the crisis (virtuous versus treacherous) as the results of the election themselves—Bayard’s descendants attempting to clear his name as late as until 1907.
Affairs of Honor is a work of many virtues. Freeman manages to remove politics from the vacuum it so often inhabits, exposing its interconnectedness with culture and the society it governed. Her insightful interpretation breathes new life into well-known sources, like Maclay’s diary or Jefferson’s Anas, in search of an understanding beyond their words, of the founders’ fears and emotions. In this thorough examination of countless letters, diaries, pamphlets and newspapers, Freeman captures the anxiety and ambiguity of the early national period. For her, honor forged the political landscape, and restrained men who, equal parts passion and uncertainty, genuinely feared for the future of their country, especially if placed in the wrong hands. Through the lens of honor, Freeman has shed new light on the motives and decisions of the nation’s first leaders—a refreshing perspective that cannot be ignored in subsequent studies of the early republic.