Historic America Reviews

Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

Using other documents, such as the papers and notes of Thomas Jefferson, Freeman convincingly shows how political disputes and positions were frequently interpreted as personal slights and insults. Politics was played out in alliances and anonymous newspaper essays and pamphlets where gossip became crucial for determining political allies. Failing to return a personal visit was interpreted as a slight against the visitor’s political ideas.

In that environment, Freeman argued, the election of 1800 became an honor dispute between Republicans Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. The men involved were preoccupied with the outcome of that election for decades after, each convinced they had been personally insulted by the decision, especially the loser, Aaron Burr, who was eager to save his reputation.

The importance of honor in politics collapsed, according to Freeman, because “men could rally under the banner of a party name rather than the reputation of a political chief.” It was the establishment of formal political parties that finally laid to rest the honor system. A reasonable conclusion, but it fails to take into account how the idea of personal honor in politics was carried on into the later nineteenth century, even though the formal duel had gone out of fashion. Freeman makes her case well, however, and opened up the possibility of examining the idea of honor in national political culture throughout American history.

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