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Affairs of Honor

Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

Joanne B. Freeman
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Affairs of Honor
    Book Description:

    In this extraordinary book, Joanne Freeman offers a major reassessment of political culture in the early years of the American republic. By exploring both the public actions and private papers of key figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton, Freeman reveals an alien and profoundly unstable political world grounded on the code of honor. In the absence of a party system and with few examples to guide America's experiment in republican governance, the rituals and rhetoric of honor provided ground rules for political combat. Gossip, print warfare, and dueling were tools used to jostle for status and form alliances in an otherwise unstructured political realm. These political weapons were all deployed in the tumultuous presidential election of 1800-an event that nearly toppled the new republic.By illuminating this culture of honor, Freeman offers new understandings of some of the most perplexing events of early American history, including the notorious duel between Burr and Hamilton. A major reconsideration of early American politics,Affairs of Honoroffers a profoundly human look at the anxieties and political realities of leaders struggling to define themselves and their role in the new nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13779-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    On Saturday, July 18, 1795, an angry crowd stood gathered before Federal Hall in New York City, eager to protest the Jay Treaty, which eased ongoing tensions between Great Britain and the United States. Convinced that the treaty was too favorable to the British, leading Republicans had organized a rally, plastering the city with handbills and newspaper notices. Several Federalists were also present, thanks to the last-minute efforts of Alexander Hamilton and a few like-minded men. Meeting the night before the rally they had arranged to publish a city-wide appeal in newspapers and handbills urging people to attend the rally...

  5. Prologue Walking on Untrodden Ground: THE CHALLENGES OF NATIONAL POLITICS
    (pp. 1-10)

    When the American republic sprang to life in the spring of 1789, many were disappointed. Compared with the members of the Continental Congress, the roughly one hundred men assembled in the national capital were none too impressive. “The appointments in general are not so good,” thought Georgia Representative Abraham Baldwin; the members were less “heroic” than those in previous congresses, agreed Massachusetts Representative Fisher Ames.¹

    There was good reason for such concern, because the new Congresswasdifferent from congresses that had come before, representative in membership and mission in a way that no former interstate congress had been. The...

  6. 1 The Theater of National Politics
    (pp. 11-61)

    Few national politicians were as anxious as Pennsylvania’s Senator William Maclay—or at least, few were as diligent about documenting it. For throughout the entirety of his two-year term of office, Maclay memorialized his anxieties on the pages of his diary in lavish detail. Judging from his entries, Maclay’s fears were legion. He worried about his oratorical performances on the Senate floor. He worried about the counterthrusts and jabs of his peers. He worried about his comportment at social events, particularly in the presence of the great George Washington. He worried about Washington himself, fearful that the new president would...

  7. 2 Slander, Poison, Whispers, and Fame: THE ART OF POLITICAL GOSSIP
    (pp. 62-104)

    Thomas Jefferson was angry. The first histories of the 1790s were appearing in print, filled with a pattern of Federalist lies. To Jefferson, the foremost offender was Chief Justice John Marshall’s monumental five-volume biography of Washington, a history lauded as the most accurate to date, based on Washington’s actual correspondence, the most authentic of evidence.¹ But Jefferson knew better. This history would tell the wrong story. He felt sure that it would be a Federalist diatribe, an intricate lie to dupe the people. To the aging president, such had been the Federalists’ practice since they had first cast their shadow...

  8. 3 The Art of Paper War
    (pp. 105-158)

    John Adams lacked Jefferson’s political finesse. He was too prone to emotional outbursts, too trusting, too honest, too passionate by half about friends and enemies. As his secretary of war James McHenry explained, whether Adams was “sportful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy, stiff, jealous, careless, cautious, confident, close, open, it is almost always in thewrong placeor to thewrong persons” (fig. 16). McHenry knew firsthand about Adams’s emotional eruptions; near the close of Adams’s presidency, in 1800, the secretary resigned his office during a presidential temper tantrum over Alexander Hamilton. As McHenry recorded it, Adams...

  9. 4 Dueling as Politics
    (pp. 159-198)

    On the evening of July 10, 1804, Alexander Hamilton was a man tormented. At dawn he would duel Aaron Burr. Hamilton considered himself “strongly opposed to the practice of Duelling,” yet the following morning he would stand opposite Burr on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, pistol in hand, awaiting the command to fire.¹

    This day of reckoning had been long approaching, for Hamilton had bitterly opposed Burr’s political career for fifteen years. Charismatic men of great talent and ambition, the two had been thrust into competition with the opening of the national government and the sudden availability of new...

  10. 5 An Honor Dispute of Grand Proportions: THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 1800
    (pp. 199-261)

    Matthew Davis read Aaron Burr’s letter of March 15, 1830, with a sense of foreboding. Here, again, was the cursed presidential election of 1800, a hotly contested campaign that had resulted in a tie between Republicans Burr and Thomas Jefferson, a deadlock in the House where the tie had to be broken, an outburst of intrigue and suspicion, Jefferson’s election, and Burr’s eventual downfall. The crisis had been sparked by the constitutional voting process, which did not differentiate between presidential and vice presidential candidates. Each elector cast two votes, and the man who received the most votes became president, the...

  11. Epilogue Constructing American History
    (pp. 262-288)

    To self-conscious, reputation-minded national politicians, only one thing could be more volatile than the partisan battles of the 1790s: documenting them in the historical record. By declaring winners and losers, heroes and villains, a history of the founding could shape national character to an extraordinary degree. Equally alarming, it could destroy reputations with the stroke of a pen. Yet the founding era was slipping from view. Washington’s death in 1799 and Jefferson’s “revolution” of 1800 were unquestionable heralds of historical change, particularly to those who had been overthrown.

    William Plumer of New Hampshire was one such Federalist. Tall, spare, simple...

  12. A Note on Method
    (pp. 289-294)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 295-346)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 347-364)
  15. Index
    (pp. 365-376)