Title Reviewed:
Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

Author Reviewed:
Joanne B. Freeman

Christine Sternberg Patrick


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 98, Issue 3, pp 245-246

Article Type:
Book Review

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Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. By Joanne B. Freeman. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. xxiv, 376. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

The Founding Fathers have enjoyed increased attention in recent years, and Joanne B. Freeman continues this trend with her examination of the "culture of honor" under which these men functioned. Freeman argues that in the absence of organized political parties, a code of honor "formed the very infrastructure of national politics, providing a governing logic and weapons of war" (p. xviii). Underlying her interpretation of the significance of this code is the premise that personal reputation was the basis for political influence.

To reveal the framework supporting the culture of honor, Freeman examines the writings of John Adams, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and others. She finds that a complex, unwritten code of honor, with its own vocabulary and a hierarchy of offenses and corresponding responses, was clearly understood by the Founding Fathers. Under Freeman's scrutiny, the line between personal and public writings often disappears. When Pennsylvania senator William Maclay kept a journal, it was not just a personal record for his own contemplation but primarily a "deliberately crafted political tool" (p. 18). Thomas Jefferson's Anas, a scrapbook of private conversations, and John Adams's letters published in the BostonPatriot, beginning in 1809, were likewise political devices. Journals, correspondence, memoirs, newspaper essays, pamphlets, broadsides, gossip, and social events were manipulated for partisan purposes, and Freeman convincingly demonstrates how individual Founding Fathers wielded these tools, each believing that he was defending the republic against an opponent's attempts to undermine it.

The arsenal of political tools included not only written and spoken words but also activities such as nose-tweaking, caning, and the ultimate weapon, dueling. Freeman incorporates her earlier academic research on the Burr-Hamilton duel of 1804 to explain the political aspects of duels and the carefully ritualized process and language connected with them. She shows that political duels were fought to influence the general public, were synchronized with larger political events, and "conveyed carefully scripted political messages" (p. 167).

The presidential election of 1800 reveals "the grammar of political combat in action" (p. 210). With Aaron Burr as the focus of her investigation, Freeman concludes that personal honor bound the nascent political parties together more than partisan loyalty and that Burr's more modern style of politics contributed to his characterization as a man without honor. Burr, however, did value his political reputation, and he attempted to salvage his honor, not only by dueling with Hamilton, but also by using a popular political weapon, the personal memoir, to redeem his reputation for posterity.

Although this book almost totally neglects ideology as a factor in national politics and omits a comprehensive examination of the writings and career of George Washington, for whom reputation was an ever-present concern, Freeman successfully discloses how a code of honor influenced the words and actions of the Founding Fathers. Historians probably will never look at the political tools outlined by Freeman without reference to the "culture of honor" she so aptly reveals.

CHRISTINE STERNBERG PATRICK is an assistant editor for The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.