Overrated Book

Freeman, Joanne, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the Early Republic (2001).

More than half a century ago, Lewis Namier argued that English political history needed to be understood as a series of transactions among status-seeking insiders. In this book Joanne B. Freeman depicts early national politics was nothing less and nothing more than the deeply charged and culturally programmed interactions of statesmen in the new capitals of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. A code of honor was “the very infrastructure of national politics,” while enmities, gossip, duels, and “friendship” stood as its “central organizing force.” Even the presidential election of 1800 becomes “an honor affair of grand proportions” determined by the personal reasons vice-presidential candidate Aaron Burr refused to withdraw from the field after the tie in the electoral college. Freeman claims to be studying “complex dialogue between politicians and the public” but is too concerned with the maneuvers between leaders and leaders to ever say much about the dialogue between politicians and the people, except that it existed somewhere off the cultural map of honor. Moreover, honor was a class-based discourse preferred by the Federalists and used by them (with real if temporary success) to trounce the Jeffersonians, whom they depicted as insufficiently concerned with national as well as personal honor. So this book merely continues the neo-Federalist revival in recent scholarship but without even bothering to defend the Federalists on the issues or their achievements.

Freeman is no Founders worshipper; but at least the filiopietistic tradition has some room for real politics. Founders appear to Freeman as self-interested politicians and bumbling male egos – not unlike Bill Clinton according to his critics (and some of his loyal supporters). In Founders Chic a la Freeman, the personal battles of quaint Founders gain our sympathy where ideology and glory fail to move our jaded souls. The founders had careers and reputations at stake in their gossip and duels; it is too much to expect them to have actually been battling over anything of particular significance. Look elsewhere if you really want to understand the early republic or its politics.

By David Waldstreicher, University of Notre Dame

David Waldstreicher teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He has written In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 and most recently published The Struggle Against Slavery: A History in Documents, a book for young adults in Oxford’s Pages from History series. He is currently writing a book about Benjamin Franklin and slavery.