Cover image for Affairs of honor : national politics in the New Republic
Affairs of honor : national politics in the New Republic
Freeman, Joanne B., 1962-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xxiv, 376 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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E310 .F85 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this extraordinary book, Joanne Freeman offers a major reassessment of political culture in the early years of the American republic. By exploring both the public actions & private papers of key figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, & Alexander Hamilton, Freeman reveals an alien & profoundly unstable political world grounded on the code of honor. In the absence of a party system & with few examples to guide America's experiment in republican governance, the rituals & rhetoric of honor provided ground rules for political combat. Gossip, print warfare, & dueling were tools used to jostle for status & form alliances in an otherwise unstructured political realm. These political weapons were all deployed in the tumultuous presidential election of 1800--an event that nearly toppled the new republic. By illuminating this culture of honor, Freeman offers new understandings of some of the most perplexing events of early American history, including the notorious duel between Burr & Hamilton. A major reconsideration of early American politics, Affairs of Honor offers a profoundly human look at the anxieties & political realities of leaders struggling to define themselves & their role in the new nation.

Author Notes

Joanne B. Freeman is assistant professor of history at Yale University. She recently appeared in the PBS American Experience documentary "The Duel", exploring the fatal 1804 clash between Burr and Hamilton.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Study of the Founding Fathers never quite goes out of style, but the last few years have seen rising interest in the men who served in Congress and the White House in the early years of the republic. Freeman, a Yale historian, seeks to establish a context for the sometimes puzzling behavior of the founders by exploring the "honor culture" that structured their political status before political parties developed. In those early years, she argues, "the culture of honor met with a burgeoning democracy and an ambiguous egalitarian ethic of republicanism; the former questioned assumptions about political leadership, the latter renounced the trappings of aristocracy without offering a defined alternative." Freeman describes the challenges and the "theater" of national politics in the new nation, devotes chapters to three major techniques wielded by political players--political gossip, "a paper war," and dueling--and then examines, as a case study, the 1800 presidential election. A fascinating analysis of the interaction of politics and culture in the early U.S. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

This study illuminates the founders, but it also promises to reshape the way historians think about politics, which in their time, contends Freeman (an assistant professor of history at Yale), was girded by the notion of honor "reputation with a moral dimension and an elite cast." John Adams and Aaron Burr were no less conscious than Bill Clinton of how they were being perceived and how they would be remembered. The elected representatives in the early republic, Freeman says artfully, were "constructing a machine already in motion, with few instructions and no precise model." They were not only reinventing the shape of the government from monarchic colony to loose confederation to national republic. They were also reinventing the way people did politics. One mark of this new politics was theater, which Freeman illustrates by way of the career of Pennsylvania senator William Maclay, a consummate thespian. Another new political tool was gossip, which Freeman locates in the contretemps between Burr and Hamilton and in the career of Thomas Jefferson. She also examines the early national "paper war," investigating how newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides and correspondence shaped political opinion. Freeman demonstrates that our conception of politics is often too narrow; that the "private" papers of Jefferson and co. reveal every bit as much about politics as their official state papers; and that the highly charged emotions of the founders are political data to be taken seriously, not individual idiosyncrasies to be overlooked. Freeman's prose is lively, and she balances entertaining narrative with sharp analysis. The last few years have seen a spate of books about the founding fathers and the early republic: Freeman's elegant study of honor and politics in the new nation will easily tower over most of them. (Sept.) Forecast: Launched with a blurb from Joseph J. Ellis, this should find a ready audience if it is widely reviewed, as it deserves. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Building on the work of Douglass Adair and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Freeman (history, Yale Univ.) asserts that in the early national period of the US, the political elite, confronted by a growing democracy and the egalitarian aspects of republicanism, embraced a culture of honor to prove themselves as leaders. Indeed, she argues that the honor culture formed the very infrastructure of a national politics of shifting coalitions and changing loyalties, providing stability to the system. "Forging, defending, and attacking reputations--this was the national political game." These goals were accomplished in various ways, including verbal and written political gossip. Dueling, an extreme threat, was deliberately used in times of crisis as proof of character. Freeman especially analyzes the statements and actions of William Maclay, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Aaron Burr, and in the concluding chapter weaves together many of the book's themes in a case study of the presidential election of 1800. Overall, Freeman offers numerous useful insights, but certainly debatable is her assertion that the culture of honor was a source of stability in the political world. Recommended for general readers and all academic levels. S. E. Siry Baldwin-Wallace College