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Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic Paperback – September 1, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0300097559 ISBN-10: 0300097557
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Editorial Reviews Review

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Modern American politics may often resemble a demented circus, but thus it has always been. So writes historian Joanne Freeman in this vigorous account of America's first national leaders, those entrusted with creating a nation unlike any other on Earth, one "egalitarian, democratic, representative, straightforward, and virtuous in spirit, public-minded in practice." The reality was less noble than all that; as Freeman writes, the first postrevolutionary Congress, convened in the spring of 1789, was marked by regional and private rivalries, mudslinging, acrimony, favor-seeking, and backroom bargaining, all of which produced far more discord than unity. In that climate, as John Adams and George Washington would often complain, these early politicians were more interested in "their interests, careers, reputations, and pocketbooks" than in matters of the public good. Yet, Freeman suggests, it could scarcely have been otherwise; an "emotional logic" governed the governors, involving a shared code of honor that drew no lines between the personal with the political, so that any disagreement over policy was liable to turn into a duel or campaign of slander; a day-to-day style of conduct in which panic, paranoia, and shrill accusations were the norm; a fortress mentality in which anyone who was not a sworn friend was a sworn enemy.

Amazingly, it sometimes seems, they made a nation. Freeman's well-crafted study makes a useful corrective to the view that contemporary politics represents a freefall from some golden age, and it adds much to our understanding of America's past. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Yale Nota Bene S
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300097557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300097559
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.2 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #306,245 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is that rarest of books -- a work of pathbreaking scholarship that's a joy to read. Joanne B. Freeman, assistant professor of history at Yale University, combines the analytical talents of a subtle historian, the story-telling ability of a first-rate journalist, and the gift of empathy with historical figures. Her remarkable book examines the ways that the leading figures of the first decades of the American republic practiced politics. In her pages, such leading spirits as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton are not serene philosopher statesmen but self-conscious, harried, angry, fearful, insistent, sometimes even fanatical -- as they were in real life.
Freeman examines a series of episodes -- which previous historians have either overlooked altogether or have dismissed as idiosyncratic or crazy -- and explains them by setting them into the context of a key value that pervaded the political life and assumptions of the period: honor. With skill and grace, she shows that a political leader's honor and reputation were essential components of his case for his own right to be seen as a political leader. Indeed, many of the most bitter and previously inexplicable conflicts of the early Republic can be explained by reference to politicians' battles to shore up their own honor and reputation and to undermine that of their opponents.
Freeman's book begins with an incisive prologue recapturing the sense of uncertainty and anxiety that accompanied the launch of the American constitutional experiment in 1789.
Chapter 1 examines "the politics of self-presentation" through a close, attentive interpretation of one of the minor classics of American political writing, Senator William Maclay's diary of his service in the First Congress (1789-1791).
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By R. Price on December 25, 2003
Format: Paperback
If you have read enough books on early American politics it begins to appear redundant, that there isn't really any new areas that haven't been discovered. Joanne Freeman shows this simply isn't true by presenting an entirely original framework to understanding early American politics. Freeman presents an argument that early politics is best understood within a overarching framework of personal honor; that the political elites of the day operated within a traditional and highly regimented system of honor that controlled thier political actions. Freeman examines this system through a variety of case studies of the uses of gossip, paper, and dueling within the system and ends with a discussion of the 1800 election. While her arguments is strong, I'm not convinced that all of her claims necessarily hold water. But the best part of this book is that a new perspective is shown and that even heavily researched areas of history still have unexplored potential. I highly recomend this book for many reasons, not the least of which is it dispells the myth that the founders were above partisian politics. Freeman presents a picture of politics that is every bit as dirty and nasty as modern day, albeit for different reasons.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Panopticonman on September 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a groundbreaking work that will be sure to change how we think about the revolutionary and postrevolutionary generations. In Affairs of Honor, Joanne Freeman illuminates the importance of the forgotten cultural force of honor among the Founding Fathers and the generations immediately following the revolutionary generation.
She proves her thesis admirably, and has chosen fascinating examples of how honor and its related values of fame and virtue were driving forces for their behavior. She demonstrates that through the prism of honor we can better understand behavior that we now find puzzling, having lost to history the central importance of the demands of honor upon our early leaders. Incidentally, she notes the relative paucity of historic sources during this period in American history, but argues convincingly that the influence of the code of honor, once recognized, appear everywhere in the documents of the time. She tells her story convincingly through the journals, diaries, and papers of politicians, pamphlets, newspapers and other historical documents, as well as through the histories crafted by Jefferson and Burr which she argues convincingly were written above all to defend their actions and their honor.
If it is true that every history book rewrites history, Affairs of Honor does so more than most. By exploring the complex interplay and shifting meanings of honor among the founding generation and how the code influenced understandings and misunderstandings among early lawmakers, she shows that the correct observance the cultural code was often more important than the actual programs and laws that were under consideration.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Regrettably, it appears that the reviewer from Paterson, NJ, either hasn't bothered to read the book or has not read it with care. Professor Freeman proves beyond dispute that previous historians have not understood the central importance of honor culture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Professor Freeman also proves beyond dispute that it is impossible to understand substantive political issues without careful attention to their cultural context.
One important point: Joseph E. Ellis and Jack N. Rakove are pretty dang good political historians who have paid close attention to substantive political issues in this period. And they both praise this book highly for its vital contribution not only to our understanding of politics in the early American republic but also to our understanding of how to do political history.
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