Sex-tinged scandals, political mudslinging, sectarian division, tabloid exposés: Bill Clinton may have had a bad time, but the Founding Fathers had it worse.
Freeman (History/Yale) opens her lucid study of early American politics with an anecdote. Arguing before a hostile crowd to defend the Jay Treaty of 1795, Alexander Hamilton was beaned by a rock. The bleeding Federalist left the podium only to encounter a Republican opponent and, after an exchange of angry words, challenge him to a duel. Rebuffed, Hamilton challenged the next group of Republicans he met to a fistfight; one of them responded with an offer to duel with pistols. The events of that summer day were by no means unusual, Freeman writes. Governed by a class-bound code of honor, the revolutionary generation regarded political contests as personal ones; they were quick to take offense and quick to fight. Early American politics, she maintains, was a rough-and-tumble affair of wounded egos and hurt pride that can be understood only in the context of this “honor culture,” which had rules we moderns can scarcely comprehend. “There was an emotional logic to [early politicians’] actions and reactions that is apparent only in the context of their time,” Freeman notes, adding, “Of course, logical decisions can be bad decisions.” Among the many she chronicles are the vicious wars Thomas Jefferson waged in print on his many opponents (including sometime friend John Adams), the duel that left Hamilton dead and opponent Aaron Burr disgraced, and the vituperative presidential election of 1800, during which, a Republican recalled, a Federalist was “insolent enough to dictate to me that tho’ he esteemed me as a Man, yet we must all be crushed and that my life was of little Importance when compared to the peace of the State.” To judge by Freeman’s vivid anecdotes and smart analysis, it’s a wonder the republic survived the Founders.
Good reading, especially for students of political culture and early American history.