Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic available in Paperback
- Pub. Date:
- Yale University Press
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 and private papers of key figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton, Freeman reveals an alien and profoundly unstable political world grounded on the code of honor. In the absence of a party system and with few examples to guide America’s experiment in republican governance, the rituals and rhetoric of honor provided ground rules for political combat. Gossip, print warfare, and dueling were tools used to jostle for status and form alliances in an otherwise unstructured political realm. These political weapons were all deployed in the tumultuous presidential election of 1800an 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 and Hamilton. A major reconsideration of early American politics, Affairs of Honor offers a profoundly human look at the anxieties and political realities of leaders struggling to define themselves and their role in the new nation.
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The Theater of National Politics
Few national politicians were as anxious as Pennsylvania's Senator William Maclayor at least, few were as diligent about documenting it. For throughout the entirety of his two-year term of office, Maclay memorialized his anxieties on the pages of his diary in lavish detail. Judging from his entries, Maclay's fears were legion. He worried about his oratorical performances on the Senate floor. He worried about the counterthrusts and jabs of his peers. He worried about his comportment at social events, particularly in the presence of the great George Washington. He worried about Washington himself, fearful that the new president would allow corrupt friends and advisers to surround him with monarchical pomp and splendor. He worried about the political implications of almost everything; French lace, fancy carriages, and formal ceremonies all reeked of monarchical corruption, threatening the foundations of the new republic. Keenly observant, and anxious about almost everything he saw, Maclay suffered his way through his brief senatorial career (fig. 2).
It was not that he was unqualified for office. Like most of his colleagues, he had a long record of public service in his home state. Fifty-two years old, he boasted twenty-five years of experience in Pennsylvania politics, including membership in the State Assembly (1781-83) and Supreme Executive Council (1786-88), among other offices. Trained in law and an experienced surveyor, he was an extensive landholder in the western backcountry, one of the largest in NorthumberlandCounty. He counted Pennsylvania proprietor Thomas Penn among his surveying clients and had twice traveled to London in Penn's interests. Wealthy, well-traveled, and well-connected, Maclay was an unquestioned member of the ruling elite, one of only six Pennsylvanians considered for a Senate seat. Intimidated by Maclay's bearing and importance, a contemporary confessed, "I was always half afraid of him; he seemed to awe me into insignificance."
How can we reconcile this wealthy, self-assured landholder with the fretful grumbler of his diary? In part, the contrast reflects the difference between external appearance and internal reality: Maclay may have felt far less confident than he appeared. He was also dour and reserved by nature; "rather rigid and uncomplying" in temper by his own admission, he was a loner who tended to fear the worst rather than hope for the best. Though he attended the weekly dinners held by his state delegation, as well as other seemingly mandatory social events, he did not enjoy them. "We sat down to dinner half after 3," he noted after one Pennsylvania dinner. "Eating stopped our mouths Untill after about 4 & from that to near 9 I never heard such a Scene of Beastial Ba[w]dry kept up in my life." On another occasion, he "staid till the fumigation began, alias Smoking of Sigars, a thing I never could bear." His wonderfully acid sense of humor remained largely restricted to his diary, where he vented his passions at the end of the day.
Clearly, Maclay was no hail-fellow-well-met, but the stream of anxieties that fill his diary, invading even his dreams, suggests that he was profoundly unsettled by national public life. In part, he was feeling the impact of the national stage, fretting about his reputation before a national audience. Dishonor and shame loom large in Maclay's diary. As he put it, his new office placed him "on an eminence," and a poor performance (or a venomous enemy) could easily pull him down. It was fear of disgrace that made Maclay so painfully self-conscious; this same fear was a driving force behind his diary, virtually leaping from its pages. Like his colleagues, Maclay also feared for the fate of the new republic, particularly given the disappointing mediocrity of its first Congress. "The New Government, instead of being a powerful Machine whose Authority would support any Measure, needs helps and props on all sides, and must be supported by the ablest names and the most shining Characters which we can select," he insisted toward the start of his tenure. The reality was alarmingly far from the mark. But more than anything else, Maclay's fears stemmed from his political convictions, for he was part of a small minority of extreme republicans, distrustful of the slightest whiff of regal pageantry or aristocratic privilege.
Given his political predilections, Maclay had good reason to be disturbed. The opening of Congress raised a flood of questions about rules, regulations, and official ceremony, and to the rigidly republican Pennsylvanian the answers seemed unerringly geared toward converting the republic into a monarchy. The trouble began on April 23, 1789, the day George Washington was due to arrive in New York City, the new national capital. That morning, with the entire city "on tiptoe" in anticipation, as Maclay put it, the Senate began to plan Washington's inauguration. On "the great important day," both houses of Congress would receive the president-elect in the Senate chamber to administer the oath of officea seemingly simple ceremony that raised a multitude of questions. When the president arrived in the Senate chamber, should the senators rise in respect to a superior or sit as before an equal? The answer risked casting the president as a monarch or the Senate as a House of Lords, prompting an extended debate. One senator testified that during the king's speech, the House of Lords sat and the House of Commons stood, an observation that seemed to have deep political significance until another senator made "this sagacious discovery, that the Commons stood because they had no seats to sit on ... being arrived at the Bar of the House of lords." An interruption from the House clerk sparked yet another discussion; how should the clerk be received? Should he be admitted into the Senate chamber, or should the Sergeant at Arms (complete with ceremonial mace) receive his communication at the door? It was, Maclay sighed, "an Endless business."
Ridiculous as such quibbling might appear (reducing even Maclay to laughter on at least one occasion), it had deeper implications. High-toned manners and high-flown ceremony could corrupt the fledgling government, pushing it ever closer to monarchy. They were the "fooleries fopperies finerries and pomp of Royal etiquette," Maclay charged; they were Old World corruption being foisted on the republic in its formative years, proof that Americans were already slipping back into their "old habits and intercourse." Even worse, their foremost defender was presiding over the Senate. Vice President John Adams, a man of national renown whom Maclay himself had supported for office, seemed intent on creating a royal court and willing to manipulate Senate proceedings to achieve it. A large percentage of Maclay's fellow senators seemed similarly inclined. Supported by a majority, facilitated by legislative trickery, and secluded behind the Senate's closed doors, this monarchical agenda would almost certainly gain ground.
Secure in his republican virtue and fearing the fate of the nation, Maclay saw only one alternative. He would have to wage a war of resistance. His path would not be easy; the prudent Maclay saw this all too well. Unknown on the national stage, his talents yet unproven, he lacked the foremost weapons of political combat: reputation and personal influence. He had no trusted allies in this new arena, and no experience in interstate politicking. Alone and undefended, he would be pitting himself against powerful men of national repute, sacrificing all hope for reputation and influence in the process. As he concluded only days after Washington's arrival, by opposing pompous titles and "high handed Measures," he had "sacrificed every chance of being popular, and every grain of influence in the Senate."
Nor could Maclay count on an enraged citizenry to bolster his cause. The Senate's proceedings were private, noted only in an official record that Maclay considered full of "the grossest Mistakes." The public had no knowledge of his campaign against corruption, no evidence of his self-sacrifice. His state legislatorsthe men with the power to reappoint him to officelikewise would see no sign of his struggle, a pressing concern given his brief term of office. One of the unfortunate few who drew a two-year term when the Senate divided its members into two-, four-, and six-year classes, Maclay would have to impress his state audience right from the start. Underlying all these risks and challenges was Maclay's constant awareness that he was performing on an elevated stage, before a national, even international audience.
Within his first month in office, Maclay began to foresee his future. Unpopular and powerless on the national scene, he would earn powerful enemies, accomplish nothing, fail at reelection, and leave in disgrace. Desperate to avoid such a fate, he grasped at solutions. He corresponded with highly placed Pennsylvania friends, explaining his intentions and motives. He wrote newspaper essays to prod his home audience to action. He was obsessively attentive to the Senate record, insisting that it reflect his resistance with absolute accuracy, though Senate secretary Samuel Otis remained uncooperative, his frequent errors seeming to favor Adams's preferences every time. ("The Minutes are totally under the direction of our President [Adams] or rather Otis is his Creature," Maclay charged.) Ultimately, Maclay's entire national career would be little more than a series of "yeas" and "nays" in the Senate journaland a poorly kept journal at that.
So in April 1789, Maclay began his own journal, taking cursory notes of each day's proceedings and fleshing them out in his diary each night (fig. 3). To expose his opponents and justify himself, he went one step further, noting his impressions, guessing at motives and intentions, and recording details of personal appearance and manner for insight into character and interests. His own contributions featured prominently, of course, including detailed accounts of his congressional oratory and voting record. But to reveal the depth of his commitment and sacrifice and the logic of his decisions, he had to record more than formal pronouncements from the Senate floor. He needed to document the full reality of politics, including the casual conversations and informal socializing that constituted the guts of political interaction. He thus described his social life in great detail, offering lengthy accounts of dinner parties and social calls, noting not only topics of discussion but also the demeanor of the guests, their gestures, and their tone of voice. To support his claims and accusations, he appended documentary evidence: newspaper clippings, correspondence, speaking notes, or suggested resolutions; twice, he solicited an affidavit from Otis attesting to his vote.
The end result was a massive three-volume diary, its published edition filling four hundred pages. Unflaggingly diligent, Maclay missed only twelve days in two years, his passionate and lengthy outpourings attesting to his diary's importance in his public life. The only eyewitness account of proceedings in the first Senate (aside from the cursory official record), it offers an invaluable insider's view of the national government's first unsteady years, warts and all. Historians have long recognized the descriptive value of Maclay's observations. Rare is the study of the period's high politics that does not include some of his descriptive gems, and for good reason, given his eye for detail and his unabashed criticism of revered Founders like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. But scholars have used the diary only as a sourcebook of anecdotes, never looking beneath the surface for Maclay's deeper message. He survives as little more than an acerbic quibbler, "one of those, to be met at almost any meeting, who are always rising to points of order." His diary in its entirety receives no attention at all.
Yet only when viewed in its entirety is the diary's message clear. Maclay was alarmed by an evolving process, not distinct episodes. It was the larger pattern of events that he considered most important, and he self-consciously structured his diary to expose their terrifying implications. He assumed that his political diatribe would be seen by his state legislators; indeed, when he traveled to Philadelphia between sessions, his diary was in his saddlebag, ready for the asking. Far more than a mere catalogue of detail, Maclay's diary is a narrative intended for people other than himself. A deliberately crafted political tool, it is a material artifact of an alien political world. It is also a rare testament to a national politician's mindset in the new republic. Full of hopes, fears, assumptions, and expectations, the diary presents one man's mental landscape at a critical moment in America's founding. Illogical or irrational as Maclay might seem, his diary contains immediate reactions to unfolding events, capturing the emotion and contingency of the moment as only a personal testimonial can. It offers a window on the realities of being a national politician on a shaky and unstructured stage.
"A Man Who Had Never Been Heard of Before"
Maclay's tribulations began almost upon his arrival in New York City (fig. 4). Well known and respected in Pennsylvania, he was entirely unknown on the national stage, a man without a reputation. As Abigail Adams expressed it, national politicians should be men "whose fame had resounded throughout the States." Maclay "might be a good man," but there were some who "did not like pensilvana's chusing a man who had never been heard of before." Although friends with national connections like Benjamin Rush tried to bolster Maclay's standing with letters of praise to their high-placed friends, such efforts did little more than invite people to be favorably disposed toward him. Maclay would have to prove himself in a new arena amid a multitude of strangers.
To Maclay, this sudden demotion was a nasty shock from which he never recovered. Elevated to the top of the political hierarchy, he had expected his reputation to benefit accordingly. Instead, he found himself struggling to make his name among inscrutable strangers of alien habits and conflicting interests. His disorientation justified his diary on a daily basis. Monitoring his colleagues might enable him to detect their motives, predict their actions, and plot a safe course. His diary was a personalized map of a foreign political landscape, every point within its compass significant in its relation to him alone.
This disorientation was distinctive to national politics, for in a state legislature, members largely were known quantities with familiar politics, histories, families, and friends. As John Adams put it in his early political career, "In a Provincial Assembly, where we know a Man's Pedigree and Biography, his Education, Profession and Connections, as well as his Fortune, it is easy to see what it is that governs a Man and determines him to this Party in Preference to that, to this System of Politicks rather than another, etc.... But here it is quite otherwise. We frequently see Phenomena which puzzles us. It requires Time to enquire and learn the Characters and Connections, the Interests and Views of a Multitude of Strangers." Conducting politics was almost impossible among a multitude of strangers, for how could one form alliances or predict attacks in an assembly of unknowns? Given the brief tenures of most national officeholders, extended time in office did little to help matters, for the cast of characters was ever changing.
In addition, like many of his colleagues, Maclay was experiencing his first extended interaction with men from other regionsand he was not impressed. New Englanders seemed arrogant and disdainful, considering "Good humor[,] affability of temper conversation, and accomodation of temper and sentiment, as qualities too vulgar, for a Gentleman." New Yorkers were "Pompous People" with "high toned Manners," and the "Frothy Manners" of the southerners were entirely off-putting. Whom could Maclay trust in such an odd assemblage? As he confessed to his diary after a mere eight weeks in office, "I have been a bird alone. I have had to bear the Chilling cold of the North, and the intemperate Warmth of the South. Neither of which are favourable to the Middle State from which I come.... I could not find a confidant, in one of them, or say to my heart, here is the Man I can trust." Surrounded by colleagues with alien habits, Maclay grew to enjoy the "Company of Pennsylvanians" at the end of a trying day. Rather than broadening Maclay's perspective, the diversity of national public life reinforced his provincialism. Amid an array of clashing cultures from foreign nation-states, Maclay became morenot lessaware of his own.
Yet much to his alarm, even fellow Pennsylvanians seemed strange and forbidding in this new arena. In part, they were mirroring Maclay's caution; unsure of themselves and their colleagues, they were wise to remain wary. As Maclay observed of represantatives George Clymer and Thomas Fitzsimons, "I know not how it is, but I cannot get into these Men. There is a kind of guarded distance on their parts, that seems to preclude sociability. I believe I had best be guarded too." Competition also inspired unfriendliness. Desperate to maintain their slightest advantage, his Pennsylvania colleagues were often deliberately difficult and standoffish. For example, Fitzsimons attacked Maclay for corresponding with Pennsylvania Comptroller General John Nicholson; to the competitive Fitzsimons, Maclay's letters were an ambitious attempt to garner information about state finances. Fitzsimons "would wish, that no man but himself should know any thing of the finances of Pennsylvania," Maclay griped. The status of high office was itself a reason for hostility,, inspiring some delegates to assume airs. "What a Strange Peice of Pomposity this thing is grown," Maclay observed of Thomas Hartley after a year in office. Clymer's attitude was particularly grating. "The cold distant stiff and let me add stinking Manner of this Man ... is really painful to be submitted to," Maclay fumed. "I really think out of respect to myself I ought to avoid his Company." Other Pennsylvania delegates remained detached out of a desire to avoid controversy, simply voting with the majority. As Maclay noted of Henry Wynkoop, "He never speaks never acts in Congress ... but implicitly follows the Two City Members[.] he does not seem formed to act alone [in] even the most Triffling affair, well for him is it that he is not a Woman & handsome, or every fellow would debauch him."
Whatever the reason, on the elevated stage of national public life, the wise politician remained a cautious observer, scrutinizing his peers in search of men to trust. What Maclay perceived as self-interested aloofness was in fact the mirror image of his own wary disorientation. Massachusetts Representative Elbridge Gerry declared himself "a spectator" until he could "form some adequate idea of Men and Measures." Fisher Ames felt similarly. "I am as silent as I can possibly be," he confessed to a friend in May 1789. "I am resolved to apply closely to the necessary means of knowledge, as I well know it is the only means of acquiring reputation." Even that "Strange Peice of Pomposity" Thomas Hartley felt overwhelmed, vowing to "study to understand my Duty and endeavour to practice it." It was too easy to trust the wrong man or utter the wrong words, irreparably damaging one's reputation.
As revealed in Maclay's diary, close observation was a tool of survival in this uncharted political world. Each day Maclay scrutinized groups of congressmen whispering in corners or antechambers, seeking potential alliances. Sometimes, he hoped to manipulate these "friendships" for political advantage. The camaraderie between House Secretary John Beckley and Maclay's fellow Pennsylvanian, Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg, for example, had potential significance. "Buckley is very intimate with the speaker on one hand and Madison on the other," Maclay noted. Given Maclay's familiarity with Muhlenberg, he could "thro this Channel communicate" what he pleased to Madison. Having already failed to exchange ideas with Madison, who would not condescend to hear Maclay's thoughts, Maclay had discovered a way to lead Madison without "letting him ... see the String."
Excerpted from Affairs of Honor by Joanne B. Freeman. Copyright © 2001 by Joanne B. Freeman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.