Yale lecturer Joanne Freeman (2001), in her book, “The Affairs of Honour”, dissects the New Republic through cultural microscopic lenses by focusing on the Founders’ personal honor and reputation as the underlying factor for all political action in America’s inchoate democracy. The auhor strengthens her thesis as she explores with compelling narratives how the nation’s Founders behaved and acted, all in the name of personal honor, to an extent of reckless violence in order to claim their rightful positions in the annals of history.
The most stunning account in the book is the renowned duel between then vice-president Col. Aaron Burr and Gen. Alexander Hamilton, former aide-de-camp to George Washington, stemming from a criticism allegedly made by Hamilton against Burr, saying the latter is, “one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government” (Freeman, 2001, p. 6). By publishing articles on the American Citizen that were deemed insulting to his honor and reputation, Burr eventually made the bold duel dare to Hamilton, who accepted, and lost his life in the end.
In saying , as a forewarning to the reader, that “…we must concede that there was a larger logic underlying the duel, a belief so strong that it compelled men to hazard their lives” (Freeman, 2001, p. 65), and proving later on that both men were compelled to risk their lives because of their own vanities, Freeman is actually telling the reader that both men, although great in their own respects, were too obsessed with personal honor to do anything of political significance. Freeman presents the Founders as alpha males out to satiate their personal egos and risking even their lives to prove so.
Freeman plays too much emphasis on looking at decisions at face value and ignoring to appreciate the political significance or rationale behind them. For instance, when she says “at various points in their political careers, even men of seemingly ironclad principles like Jefferson and Hamilton were rumored to have abandoned their supporters to join with former foes” (Freeman, 2001, p. 269), she is misleading and unfairly painting a picture of treachery and backstabbing in the Founders as if to do so would be unforgivable betrayal to the American people.
To Freeman, affairs of honor were a way out for great personalities of the New Republic to cope with the seemingly unstable political life, along with gossip networks, media, and duel as the last resort. As there were no established political parties yet, politics was personal, alliances were unpredictable and in short, you could trust no one during this period. Therefore, the “code of honour did more than channel and monitor political conflict; it formed the very infrastructure of national politics, providing a governing logic and weapons of war” (Freeman, 2001, p.
146). Dueling, like she says, was a trend. A careful reading of literature mentioned by David Waldstreicher (2002) in his article Founders Chic as Culture War appears to indicate a growing trend and acceptance in a cultural (re)writing of American history, from the traditional bottom-up approach to the top-bottom perspective, characterized by what I think, is an unfortunate emphasis on personalizing the progress and gains of the American revolution.
While themselves admittedly more appealing than the traditional textbook-styled accounts of history, the accounts by Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Joanne Freeman being reviewed by Waldstreicher have the effect of de-emphasizing the complex political process during those times to mere political squabbles and “affairs of honour” instead of an interplay of the yet fluid political divisions (governors) and the people (governed) and how these two groups came to terms in order to produce the democracy that America champions.
Judging by the way Waldstreicher presents his views on the three, it is apparent that he agrees with some of the authors, not particularly on Freeman, on how individually, the Founders struggled with their own personal demons, but the former carefully points out Ellis, in still adulating them, saying , “Things fell apart, but character—greatness—held” (Waldstreicher, 2002, p. 187).
A culturalist also, he is careful to create a demarcation line between the views espoused by Freeman and his own, suggesting that Freeman is in a way reviving the Washington beltway vision of how politics operates, telling it from the perspective of the leader or the general, and throwing aside ideologies, partisanship, policy and instutional development. Freeman’s return to the “dead white men” perspective and exaggerated emphasis to humanize Founders in her book undoubtedly makes for a compelling story; one that would make for a good history read.
However, the extreme focus on the personal traits of the Founders in her book undermines historiography in general. I do not believe that men like Adams or Jefferson, could be that dense, especially while basking at the still-idealistic mood out of the gains of the revolution, would have thought that only their personal honor was at stake. There is without a doubt several failings in character among the Founders, like all other human beings, but, like Waldstreicher, an appreciation of them should be based on the political significance of their actions, not on anything else.
I possess no sacred reverence for the Founders in excess of how I appreciate their individual contributions in concert with the actions of a vigilant people who, collectively, shaped America to what she is today, faults and all. By singling out the Founders and presenting evidence on how they backstabbed, deceived or shifted allegiances is to ignore that the same culture pervades in modern America and elsewhere as a political maneuver allowed in a democracy.
By representing history solely on individual action and characters of the Founders is to brandish a reportage of events that generally undermines American heritage. References Freeman, J. B. (2001). Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Waldstreicher, D. (2002). Founders Chic as Culture War. Radical History Review, 84, pp. 184-94.