Affairs of Honor
Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic
Yale University Press, 2001. 376 pp., notes, bibliography, index.
The Founding Fathers of the United States are deeply revered, held in awe, generally treated historically as demigods, and, by most of the population of the United States, virtually unknown as people with their own faults, foibles, and personalities.
They, by force of character, risk of life and property, and sheer determination, forge a new nation on the North American continent that has attempted, through the nearly two and a half centuries of its existence, to maintain the ideals of the Founders, and in large part has succeeded. The passing of political power from one administration to another, after the general election of the President every four years, is without violence, a peaceful transition of power that is taken for granted by the American citizenry. Generally speaking, among the population, this event is treated as just another average, expected event in the fabric of their lives, and not the momentous achievement it actually is. It wasn’t always that way. The Founders, whatever the impression today’s Americans have of them, were not a band of brothers. In point of fact, they were a cantankerous, often violent, and sometimes as disagreeable lot as has been found in the history of mankind.
In her excellent new book, Affairs of Honor, author and historian Joanne Freeman has given a fresh, new view of Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson, and the other gallant gentleman, famous or not, whose politics, ambitions, and actions made the atmosphere, political and otherwise, of the new American republic a very interesting place to live and a more interesting one to watch.
The various gentlemen who forged the new republic came from various backgrounds as well as from different parts of the new nation. Slavery was sometimes abhorred, but accepted. Brawling took place on the floor of Congress, angry members going at it with cane and fireplace tongs. Challenges were hurled between men now considered statesmen, sometimes ending up with the two antagonists shooting each other in illegal duels. One of Alexander Hamilton’s sons, to the everlasting grief of his father, was killed in one such duel three years before his famous father was, unfortunately for the country, shot down by treacherous, unreliable Aaron Burr.
Charge and countercharge were leveled between men whose memory is now considered sacrosanct: Adams and Jefferson went at it for years. Both were great men, Adams probably the better President, but both were pilloried in newspaper and broadside by their contemporaries. Both were signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The author also tells us of the less than famous that documented their times. Anxious, fearful William Maclay form Pennsylvania worried himself out of congressional office, but wrote about it for posterity. High living Ralph Izard is another personality revealed to us, definitely not a star, but a contributor nonetheless. Interesting, meticulous, and honest William Plumer found papers and records worth keeping strewn carelessly throughout congressional chambers, and just picked them up to save them for posterity. He built the largest private collection of official papers in the country, building a valuable archive, storing it in trunks as his ‘Repository.’
What this excellent volume does is paint an accurate, interesting picture of what politics, and the personalities, who engaged in those politics, were like in the early years of the Republic. Interestingly, George Washington was sacrosanct. In my opinion, as he should be. Commanding, building, and leading the Continental Army through a grueling eight year war successfully against the mother country, pulling off the first successful armed revolt of a colony, or group of colonies, against their mother country, ensuring its independence, he personified the American character (there were myriad reasons that Article II of the Constitution, the powers of the Executive Branch, were modeled on him) He was against political parties and entangling alliances, and definitely set the tone for the Presidency for years to come. To attack Washington was to attack the very essence of the Republic. Everything, and everyone else, however, was fair game.
This volume is highly recommended for every student of the period. It paints an excellent picture of the times and gives a down to earth evaluation of the Founders. If you think today’s politics and political campaigns are dirty, uneven, and full of ‘mudslinging’, then, in the common vernacular, ‘you ent seen nothin’ yet!’