Review: Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

Joanne B. Freeman, a social historian, writes an engaging and entertaining book Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. People who would not be prone to read history books would find this book very interesting. One of the reasons why Affairs of Honor is so appealing is due to its focus on culture.

The cultural approach to history according to NCSS Standard 1 states centers on a society’s beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions. This is true in Freeman’s book and she concludes that the culture of the New Republic can be based on the idea of honor. As a high school socials studies teacher I would use the social/cultural approach in a comparative analysis of history.
Freeman’s book provides evidence for her theory that honor is the basis for all political action in the early years of the United States. Freeman asserts that understanding the idea of honor and its saturation into every political event will allow modern historians and readers to understand seemingly barbaric episodes in history “âÂ?¦we must concede that there was a larger logic underlying the duel, a belief so strong that it compelled men to hazard their lives” (290).

Freeman supports her theory of an honor-based culture in her study of human emotions of the time period, which she finds in letters, diaries, personal notes of key historic figures and figures that watched history form the sidelines. Freeman does not look at the traditional documents of information, which have been the primary sources of information. Emotions and feelings are the keys to understanding the days of early republican culture.

NCSS Standard 1 asks students and teachers to recognize multiple perspectives of a culture from different vantage points. The ultimate goal of NCSS Standard 1 is to allow students to understand the cultures of other time periods, places, and time and compare it with their own beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions. I believe the best way to understand the culture of a time period is to gather all information on that particular time period; however, if a teacher was trying to get students to apply what they have learned about culture I think having students reach a higher level of learning by comparing culture of the past to the present would be an effective social studies teaching method.

The common characteristic of early republican culture, held over from colonial culture, in Freeman’s view is honor. NCSS wants students to be able understand this characteristic and Freeman provides a lot of evidence of her theory. Freeman dives into the personal diary of William Maclay to argue her case that honor was the dominate motivation in early politics. One could maintain honor by maintaining a pristine reputation. Political attacks were attacks on one’s character and reputation just as a political attack was a reflection of the attacker. Many politicians in the early Republic timed their diatribes as an official was leaving the Senate to another office to try and discredit them.

Another aspect of culture was dress. Politicians tried to maintain a reputation by superficial manners apparel. Apparel in the early Republic had huge political implications. One did not want to seem arrogant and “monarchical” by wearing fine clothing, this would insinuate that you were a federalist implying that you were detached from the American people. Those who dressed down, like Thomas Jefferson, were viewed as more republican and more in touch with the people. Dress was a tricky balancing act because your appearance could associate you with certain ideals and theories of government. This huge amount of importance placed on dress could have been due to the lack of set political parties. At the time of the early republic political parties were not officially set and each man was on his own. The early politicians were floating in a difficult, sharp and un-relentless political ocean without parties based on dress, reputations, associations, parties attended all in the name of honor.

After I had firmly established the code of honor and the many rituals associated with that honor in the early republic I would ask students what constitutes honor today. Is politics still based on honor? Party loyalty? Wealth? After a brainstorming session I would proceed to compare early 21st century politics with the politics of the later 18th century. In doing this comparison, I would be weary of taking 18th century politics out of context. An activity like the aforementioned one could be done at the end of a school year or in grade 8 or 11 after students have studied the full range of U.S. politics and government. Participation in Government could also be a possible setting for the comparison of U.S. government over time. Assuming my class had come to a consensus I would proceed to analyze.

For this paper I will assume that modern politics’ code of honor is mass approval by the people. I would proceed to address NCSS Standard 1 by looking at how these values, technology, culture, political party system, business, and other variables contribute to a modern day politician’s desire for mass approval. After assessing today’s political culture I would then compare. Today there is less of an emphasis on apparel because all politicians, business people and professionals all look the same. There is not distinct difference in dress except for men and women. The only modern day distinctions in dress are to separate economic class, not political class. Today we have a two party political system where politicians can find refuge when confronted with a crisis or hot political topic. Partisanship is a necessity in maintaining appearance for mass approval by voters.

Comparing the political theatres of 18th century politician and 21st century politicians would be a very interesting comparison. In the early republic the political theatre was in closed meetings arguing topics with peers, dinner parties with people one might not like to keep up appearances, the Senate floor where political insults could be thrown, and receptions. These places were where politicians played the game of politics. Today the theatre of politics is interviews with late night comedians, press junkets, fundraising dinners, and support rallies. I would ask students what the main difference between the theatre of early republic politics and modern politics. I would say that in early republic politicians had less avenues of joining with people with like-minded ideas. The main reason why this was true of the 18th century was the lack of a firm party system, which we have today. Today politicians do not have to attend one convention for or campaigning. Each political party has its own convention and eliminates Democrats and Republicans having to share events. There are separate conventions, parties, fundraisers, and many other separate functions. The changing of the theatre of politics over time reflects NCSS Standard 1’s statement of observing culture as it changes to accommodate different beliefs and ideals. The culture of 18th century did not tolerate political parties or official parties. Today our whole political culture has changed because of the practices carried out by the mass of the people who are either one of two political parties in the country.

The old form of gossip including slander, poison, whispers, and fame are both prevalent in early republic politics and modern politics. Gossip in the early republic was used to dishonor political opponents. Today gossip is intended to lower approval ratings. Freeman makes it clear that one way to slander in the early republic was to write history the way one sought fit.

Thomas Jefferson decided write history the way he saw fit after the initial histories were being written with a Federalist slant. The main difference between early politics and modern politics is that politicians of the early republic knew that they were founding fathers. The need for reputation and honor were much more important to them than that of today’s politicians. It is true that many presidential and political scandals are obviously avoided at all costs but scandals of the early republic were much tamer considering the wild sex scandals of the Kennedy and Clinton eras. Saying that sex scandals did not happen in the early republic is foolish; however, smaller scandals took the place of such extreme incidents because they were as big as the current scandals. A scandal concerning the reputation of a politician could be as scandalous in the early republic as a sex scandal today.

The art of paper war has changed from early republic day to modern politics. Freeman discusses the extent to which politicians would try to taint the image or honor of an opponent. If need be for a defense many politicians would turn to a defense pamphlet to defend their honor, personal letters, broadsides, and occasionally newspapers. Today’s paper wars consist of billboards, magazines, newspapers, and most notably, television. Freeman states that John Adam’s decision to write in the newspaper medium was unusual because it appealed to the masses and invited the public into political squabbles. Today every single political squabble is in the form of a political commercial denouncing candidates or pieces of legislation. Television is the main source of paper war for the very reason why early politicians avoided it; it reached the masses. Still assuming today’s politicians only objective is to have public favor; television is the key to gaining public sympathy and support.

One of the most engaging comparisons of political culture from the days of early republic and modern politics is the act of dueling. Freeman makes clear that dueling was not a barbaric sport in the 18th politics; rather it was honorable and a way to save face in the world of political slander. Freeman recounts a diary entry by a supporter of Alexander Hamilton “If we were truly brave we should not accept a challenge; but we are all cowards” and then later another supporter stated “âÂ?¦yet I doubt whether he would so far brave the public opinion as to refuse a challenge” referring to Hamilton. Duels were not mere closed door events; rather they were very public displays of political battles. The crucial difference was that Hamilton and Burr did not duel to win public opinion polls or favor; they fought to guard their honor. 21st century does not have such dire results of a duel; however televised debates have become a political loaded weapon. The debate between Nixon and Kennedy is a perfect example of one opponent killing off another opponent. Image and the desire for approval is the new honor in the political arena.

Cautiously using the comparative approach to history is more effective than just analyzing why one group of people acted the way they did in one place and time. Students want to have a reason to study a subject. By using a comparison approach students will learn a great deal about the culture being studied and learn about current issues and force them to analyze their own culture. The use of a culture centered approach to history is highly engaging and gains attention from people who love history and people who love a great story.

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