Book Review

Joanne B. Freeman’s Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2001) is a study of the personal and political ties that held together, however tenuously, the new American government in the 1790s, when political parties did not yet exist in the modern sense. Freeman asks the question, ‘What determined the dynamics of relationships between national politicians when government had virtually no infrastructure, no impersonal governing apparatus, no modern party system, and aristocracy was beginning to succumb to democracy?’ Her answer is that national politics revolved around a code of honor to which all gentleman, and thus all politicians, were expected to adhere. This code, she says, “formed the very infrastructure of national politics, providing a governing logic and weapons of war” (p. xviii). Politics was essentially personal; everything depended on one’s reputation as an honorable man. “Honor was the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood” (p. xvi). As a result, honor, or the concern for one’s reputation, was seen as the force that would keep politicians’ behavior within the bounds of respectability and integrity, and in so doing would lubricate the gears of political machinery. It would permit the functioning of the political arena, prevent its descent into a chaos of self-interest and greed. The code of honor was therefore the precondition for republican virtue and public-spiritedness.

           

Freeman divides her book into five chapters (or six, including the epilogue) each of which focuses on a particular politician and a document he wrote. William Maclay, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr are thus the principal characters of the book. In each chapter Freeman looks at one facet of the honor code through the refracted lens of her chosen document. For example, the papers that Jefferson collected from his tenure as secretary of state and assembled into three volumes show the centrality of gossip to politics. “Focused on attacking and defending reputations, [gossip] was the language of national politics” (p. 69). Gossip that impugned a man’s honor could do such damage to his reputation that he might challenge the ‘gossiper’ to a duel as a last resort to prove his honor. The gossip, spoken or written (in newspapers, pamphlets, letters), that saturated political circles therefore ensured that beneath the polite veneer of this chivalrous society were fierce rivalries, suspicions, petty resentments and longstanding feuds, changing alliances, bonds of friendship that could mutate suddenly into implacable hatred. The book’s culmination is a detailed account of the divisive election of 1800, which took the form of a war between Federalists and Republicans and ended in a tie between Burr and Jefferson. In Freeman’s interpretation, the election and its aftermath were the ultimate expression of the personal nature of politics and the political nature of politicians’ private socializing in this era prior to impersonal party bureaucracies.

           

What changed with the institutionalization of parties was not the mudslinging or gossip or even the venomous nature of politicking but the decline of the aristocratic code of etiquette, the code of honor. In lieu of the honor code as the recognized means of regulating politicians’ behavior arose the anonymous discipline of the party organization. Political enemies could now remain friends; as politicians they acted in an ‘impersonal’ capacity. In the republic’s early years when there were no genuine parties, “political losses or public humiliations were no temporary setbacks; they struck at a man’s core and threatened to rob him of his self-respect as a man and his identity as a leader” (p. 283). With political parties, by contrast, politicians had ‘safety in numbers’: they “were freed from personal responsibility for party directives” (p. 284). The culture of the honor code and the duel receded as politics and society became more impersonal.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright