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,
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
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
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!'