Early American Honor Culture and the United States Congress

Joanne B. Freeman—

On Saturday, July 18, 1795, an angry crowd stood gathered before Federal Hall in New York City, eager to protest the Jay Treaty, which eased ongoing tensions between Great Britain and the United States. Convinced that the treaty was too favorable to the British, leading Republicans had organized a rally, plastering the city with handbills and newspaper notices. Several Federalists were also present, thanks to the last-minute efforts of Alexander Hamilton and a few likeminded men. Meeting the night before the rally they had arranged to publish a city-wide appeal in newspapers and handbills urging people to attend the rally and listen to an orderly examination of the treaty.

The Republican meeting was to start at noon. At the stroke of twelve, Hamilton mounted a stoop and began to address the crowd, only to be silenced by “hissings, coughings, and hootings.” Trying a different approach, he handed someone a resolution to read aloud. The crowd quieted in anticipation, but when they heard the resolution declaring it “unnecessary to give an opinion on the treaty,” they erupted in protest, someone throwing a rock that hit Hamilton in the head. Calling for the “friends of order” to follow him, Hamilton and a small body of Federalists stormed off, humiliated and defeated.

They soon encountered a loud public argument between Republican James Nicholson and Federalist Josiah Ogden Hoffman. Fearing that the two would incite a riot, Hamilton tried to quiet them, only to be silenced by Nicholson, who denounced Hamilton as an “Abettor of Tories” who had no business interrupting them. When Hamilton urged the men to settle matters indoors, Nicholson snapped that he had no reason to heed Hamilton, who had once dodged a duel. “No man could affirm that with truth,” Hamilton shot back, pledging “to convince Mr. Nicholson of his mistake” by challenging him to a duel. Stalking off, Hamilton and his friends soon encountered a group of Republicans, sparking a heated political discussion that quickly grew personal. Still seething from his first clash, Hamilton swore that if his opponents “were to contend in a personal way,” he would fight the whole lot of them, one by one. Then, dramatically waving his fist in the air, he upped the ante, offering “to fight the Whole ‘Detestable faction’ one by one,” a dare that Republican Maturin Livingston could not ignore. As “one of the party,” he accepted the challenge and offered to meet Hamilton with pistols “in half an hour where he pleased.” Explaining that he already “had an affair on his Hands . . . with one of the party,” Hamilton swore that when the first duel was settled, Livingston would get his due. Although Hamilton and Nicholson came within a day of dueling—Hamilton setting his finances in order in case of his death—both disputes were settled during negotiations.

Hissings, coughings, hootings, strong words, clenched fists, and the threat of gunplay: this story displays America’s founders as real people caught up in the heat of the moment on a summer afternoon, exposing with particular clarity the hot-headed, defensive streak that would cost Hamilton his career, and ultimately his life. But more than that, the events of July 18 offer insight into the personal reality of being a political leader in the early republic. Elevating himself above the crowd both literally and figuratively, Hamilton asserted his right to guide them as their superior—and the crowd responded with rocks rather than deference, adding injury to insult. The impact on Hamilton, both physical and spiritual, was profound and immediate, driving him to issue two duel challenges in a single afternoon. Clearly, far more than a treaty was under debate. The American political process was being hashed out on a New York City street. To men accustomed to power and leadership, this conflict had enormously personal implications.

This tug-of-war for political power was one of many unexpected consequences of America’s founding. A new constitution had been written and a new government put into place, but there was no telling what kind of polity would emerge. The burgeoning political power of the American populace was one of many surprise developments. Increasingly, politicians needed to win power and prestige from popular audiences with unpredictable demands and desires. Political methods had to change, as did the stance of political leadership—and the transition was a rocky one. Hamilton was fighting a losing battle when he tried to rein in the masses at the Jay Treaty rally. However aggressively he asserted his authority, in a democratic republic the crowd had the ultimate say.

It was one thing to establish a polity grounded on public opinion and the popular will and quite another to feel the full impact of this will firsthand, as suggested by Hamilton’s dramatic response. By literally hooting him off the stage, the crowd symbolically dismissed his rights of leadership, driving him into a defensive, fist-clenched rage. The precise meaning of political leadership was under debate in the early republic, and the practical business of politics compelled politicians to confront this unsettling assault on settled expectations on a continuing basis. Whether electioneering, running for office, or simply exercising the privileges of leadership, America’s ruling elite was dependent on the whims of the democratic many, a state of affairs that contributed to the volatility of early national politics and the defensive spirit of political leadership.

The culture of honor was a source of stability in this contested political landscape. Democratic politicking shook the earth beneath the feet of those accustomed to leadership; the tradition-bound culture of honor provided solid ground, virtually defining genteel status. Gentlemen restrained their passions and controlled their words. Their manners were refined, and their carriage easy. They were men of integrity and honesty whose promises could be trusted; their word was their bond. All these things were at the heart of the code of honor, which set standards of conduct and provided a controlled means of handling their violation. Its ethic limited and defined acceptable behavior; its rites and rituals displayed superiority of character through time-honored traditions recognized the world over. Far more than directives for negotiating a duel, the code of honor was a way of life. Particularly in a nation lacking an established aristocracy, this culture of honor was a crucial proving ground for the elite.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of personal honor to an eighteenth-century gentleman, let alone to a besieged leader whose status was under attack. Honor was the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood. A man without honor was no man at all. Honor was also entirely other-directed, determined before the eyes of the world; it did not exist unless bestowed by others. Indeed, a man of honor was defined by the respect that he received in public. Imagine, then, the impact of public disrespect. It struck at a man’s honor and reduced him as a man. Hamilton’s extreme actions are thus all the more comprehensible, for his very identity was up for grabs.

Central as the code of honor was to the political elite, it was not a codified rule book—at least, not entirely. Dueling rule books did exist, imported to America from Britain well into the nineteenth century. But although these books set out general rules and standards, they left much room for interpretation. Some things were common knowledge. A man of honor deserved respect, so signs of disrespect were dangerous. Certain slurs were off limits, tame as they are by modern standards. Rascal, scoundrel, liar, coward, and puppy: these were fighting words, and anyone who hurled them at an opponent was risking his life. The hushed anticipation at their mention is almost palpable in accounts of honor disputes. Faces blanch. People go still. Background noise stops. And all eyes turn to the accuser and his victim, waiting to see how the moment will play out. Hamilton needed no reminder of the implications of a charge of cowardice. Like any man of honor, he barely had to think before proffering his challenge.

Other aspects of the code were less predictable, for there could not help but be a vast gray area when dealing with things as subjective as honor and reputation. Not all insults demanded extreme action, for example. Perhaps a remark was unintentional or objectionable but within bounds; perhaps it was uttered in a drunken haze. Perhaps it was dropped on the floor of Congress, raising untold complications about the privilege of debate. Perhaps no one had witnessed the flashpoint of conflict. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances; extreme youth, extreme age, or even a large family sometimes excused an offense or ruled out a challenge. There were regional variants of this code as well. Southerners were quicker to duel than northerners, who withstood harsher insults but had their own breaking point. Such subtleties and subjectivities were the reason for “seconds”—friends who mediated between the principals and conducted negotiations in an affair of honor. There were many justifications for not “noticing” an offense, but a gentleman did so at his own peril, for as suggested by Nicholson’s cutting remark, ignoring an insult could have serious consequences.

On the unstructured national political stage, this code assumed great importance, for politicking was about conflict and competition above all else. Whether they were debating legislation or campaigning for election, politicians were competing for limited rewards. This was no great surprise to the first national officeholders. What did surprise them was the intensity of the political game. Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement—this was the tenor of national politics from the outset. The Union was fragile, and the Union makers were at odds. It was a recipe for disaster, disunion, and possibly civil war.

In this maelstrom of discontent, at least one thing held true. Disagree as men might on the purpose, structure, or tenor of national governance—argue as they did about the meaning of concepts like federalism and republicanism—clash as they must about the future of the nation—they expected their opponents to behave like gentlemen. The penalty for acting otherwise was too severe. And as gentlemen, there was one accepted way to settle disputes. In essence, the code of honor was a remedy for the barely controlled chaos of national public life. There was a method to the madness of early national politics.

Think then of the impact of a democratized politics: when men of varied rank reached the national plateau, all standards would dissolve and chaos reign supreme—so it felt to many elite politicians, as revealed in their yelps of protest when their ranks were infiltrated. Thus the 1798 Sedition Act aimed at men who engaged in seditious libel against the government—but only certain men. The logic behind it is clear. War with France loomed on the horizon, making order a matter of national security. Attacks on national leaders upset this order and reduced the authority of government as well. The honor code channeled such confrontation between equals; offenses had a defined price and path of resolution. But what of one’s inferiors? What of insulting newspaper editors and parvenu politicians? Before the Sedition Act the only recourse to an open insult in such cases was physical violence or a libel suit. The Sedition Act was an attempt to institutionalize and regulate an aspect of honor defense by providing leaders with a controlled way of defending themselves against inferiors at a time of crisis. Significantly, it was deployed almost exclusively against newspaper editors and men of questionable status. Restrictive, repressive, and wrong-headed as it was, its inherent logic was tied up with the culture of honor.

The everyday impact of this culture is plain to see in the Nicholson-Hamilton clash. The two combatants needed no coaching on its dictates. In the blink of an eye, they converted a verbal shoving match into a regimented ritual of honor. A flash of outrage followed by a scripted stillness: it was a pattern that echoed throughout the lives of elite men in early national America. The threat of this moment governed their words and actions, compelling them to approach personal exchanges with care. Particularly in cockpits of political dissension like electoral campaigns and congressional debate, shared standards of honor kept passions in check and channeled those that flamed out of control. This was all the more necessary on the fragile national stage.

But the code of honor did more than channel and monitor political conflict; it formed the very infrastructure of national politics, providing a governing logic and weapons of war. There were no organized parties in this unstructured new arena, no set teams of combat or institutionalized rules for battle. Political combat in the new national government was like a war without uniforms; it was almost impossible to distinguish friends from foes. National politics was personal, alliances were unpredictable, and victory went to those who trusted the right people at the right time in the right way. This was a politics of shifting coalitions and unknown loyalties, where an ally could become an opponent at the drop of a hat. There were any number of reasons to change course; regional interests, personal relationships, political principles and practicalities—all these and more guided a man’s politics, and rare was the moment when they all agreed. Tempting as it is to see a two-party system in the clash of Federalists and Republicans, national politics had no such clarity to the men in the trenches.

This is not to say that Federalism and Republicanism were indistinguishable. Certain types of men flocked to one ideological banner, others to the other. “Money-men” and merchants, New Englanders and city-dwellers tended to be attracted to the Federalist persuasion, which favored a strong national government and distrusted mass popular politicking outside of elections; southerners, farmers, and, eventually, ambitious members of the lower ranks tended to migrate toward Republicanism, which preferred a weaker national government and was friendlier to popular politicking. It was certainly possible to predict a man’s politics, and amid so much ambiguity, politicians spent much time and energy doing just that. But absolute assurance and group discipline were rare commodities, and the most partisan man could occasionally leap a divide. Even Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—the leading symbols of Federalism and Republicanism, respectively—sometimes seemed to drift into the opposite camp, or so their contemporaries assumed on several occasions. Underneath the ideological umbrellas of Federalism and Republicanism seethed a profusion of insecurities and unknowns, which this book seeks to understand. Count and graph votes, lump and split them as we might, our modern sense of team combat had no place on the early national political stage. Only in hindsight did political divisions become so clear. As these pages show, in many ways politicians looking back on the battles of their youth imposed much of the structure and order now taken for granted.

Reputation was at the heart of this personal form of politics. Men gained office on the basis of it, formed alliances when they trusted it, and assumed that they would earn it by accepting high office. Indeed, so predictable was the concern for reputation that many considered it a regulated force of government, the ultimate check in an intricate system of checks and balances. As Hamilton noted in The Federalist Nos. 69 and 70, only personal responsibility before the eyes of the public— the threat of dishonor before an ever-vigilant audience—could restrain self-serving, ambitious politicians.

There were many dimensions to the concept of reputation. Rank, credit, fame, character, name, and honor all played a role. Defining these terms for all civilizations and all times is impossible for they varied according to a particular society’s culture and structure; defining them for a specific population is likewise no easy task, for their precise meanings overlapped and shifted depending on the people or circumstances under discussion. Still, ambiguous and abstract as they may appear, these words had clear meanings to those who lived by them.

Rank was a somewhat impersonal way of referring to a person’s place within the social order. As in most societies, there were subtleties of rank in early America that are all but invisible now. Credit was a more personalized quality, encompassing a person’s social and financial worth; people with good credit were trustworthy enough to merit financial risks. Fame embraced both the present and the future, referring to immediate celebrity as well as future renown; earned through great acts of public service, it carried a virtuous connotation that many related terms lacked. Character was personality with a moral dimension, referring to the mixture of traits, vices, and virtues that determined a person’s social worth. Taken together, rank, credit, fame, and character formed a name or reputation—an identity as determined by others. Reputation was not unlike honor, and indeed, early Americans often used these words interchangeably. Honor was reputation with a moral dimension and an elite cast. A man of good reputation was respected and esteemed; a man of honor had an exalted reputation that encompassed qualities like bravery, self-command, and integrity—the core requirements for leadership.

Political power and victory thus required close protection of one’s reputation, as well as the savvy to assess the reputations of one’s peers. It also required a talent for jabbing at the reputations of one’s enemies, for a man dishonored or discredited lost his influence and lost the field. Forging, defending, and attacking reputations—this was the national political game, and different weapons accomplished these goals in different ways. Self-presentation was fundamental, for one’s outward appearance affected one’s reputation in the public eye and potentially broadcast one’s politics as well. The political elite thought carefully about their clothing, manners, and lifestyles, costuming and conducting themselves to earn the right sort of reputation. More aggressive weapons centered on the deployment of words, the fodder for a politics of reputation. Whether spoken or written, words could stab at a man’s character and destroy his influence. “Such a man is an apostate, says some impudent Quack. . . . The Calumny is believed and Character is lost,” quipped one politician. Alexander Pope put matters even more concisely: “At ev’ry word a reputation dies.”

There were several ways to deploy this verbal ammunition. Political gossip was the easiest and most direct. “Collected” or “dropped” in “whisper campaigns,” it was a deliberately deployed weapon governed by rules and standards. Broadsides, newspapers, pamphlets, and letters committed gossip to paper, addressing different audiences in different ways. Politicians opted for one medium over another depending on the nature of an insult or accusation; the subtleties of honor and reputation governed the logic of paper war. Dueling was a weapon of extremes, a threat hovering above the political playing field. Yet, dangerous as they were, duels too were deliberately deployed at moments of crisis as proof of character; contrary to popular belief, they were not the mere fallout of a slip of the tongue. Hamilton’s humiliation at the Jay Treaty rally and his two challenges were cause and effect, a fact long overlooked by scholars unattuned to the political significance of dueling.

These weapons were not limited to the national stage, the American republic, or even the late eighteenth century. Politics, power, and character assassination go hand in hand in many times and cultures, and gossip still greases the wheels of governance. Neither is honor an American invention; it has assumed an endless variety of shapes across time. Indeed, this is precisely the point. In different places and at different times, honor culture has shaped politics in different ways, and because its vocabulary, rituals, and logic are not set in stone, close study of its impact in a given population offers invaluable information about a people’s values, culture, and concepts of leadership and manhood. Thus the remarkable outpouring of honor studies since 1990.

In the early American republic, the culture of honor met with a burgeoning democracy and an ambiguous egalitarian ethic of republicanism; the former questioned assumptions about political leadership, the latter renounced the trappings of aristocracy without offering a defined alternative. Threatened from below and above, the political elite turned to honor culture to prove themselves leaders, as did Hamilton when dismissed by an angry crowd. His claim to leadership directly challenged, he was all the more ready to prove it through a trial by fire; thus his remarkable two challenges in a single afternoon. Nicholson’s quick thrust at Hamilton grew from similar insecurities, for he thought that Hamilton’s public attempt to quiet him “implied censure.”

The problem with this logic was its inherent elitism, for honor culture was an aristocratic holdover premised on social distinctions. Only equals could duel; inferiors had to be beaten with a cane or publicly proclaimed (posted) as scoundrels. Only a privileged elite could do such things with impunity. This mindset hardly fit comfortably with an egalitarian regime. National politicians were not ethereal aristocrats competing for fine degrees of rank and distinction among a coterie of peers. Their personal and political careers relied on mass public opinion, as did the entire American political system. Obligated to be accountable to the body politic, political leaders performed before a vigilant and judgmental audience, so they adapted honor rituals to suit their purposes.

Nothing better shows this American difference than the newspaper appeals that often followed political duels. Rather than relying on word of mouth to transmit a duel’s impact to a select few, politicians advertised their duels in newspapers, displaying their qualities of leadership before the voting public. They were aristocratic democrats, fighting battles of honor as part of the democratic process.

In early national America, honor, democracy, and republicanism joined to form a distinctive political culture, governed by a grammar of political combat: a shared understanding of the weapons at one’s disposal—their power, use, and impact. This grammar was no defined rule book, no concrete tactical guide. It was a body of assumptions too familiar to record and thus almost invisible to modern eyes. National politicians had a remarkably precise understanding of this code, sifting through a defined spectrum of weapons in response to a corresponding spectrum of attacks. Publicly insulted by John Adams in 1798, James Monroe methodically considered these weapons when planning his response. Ignoring the offense was impossible, for “not to notice it may with many leave an unfavorable impression agnst me.” Responding to Adams “personally” with a challenge to a duel was also impossible: “I cannot I presume, as he is an old man & the Presidt.” A pamphlet might serve, but Monroe had tried that, and Adams continued to insult him. Here is the application of an honor-bound grammar of combat.

Affairs of Honor is structured around this grammar, each chapter exploring a different weapon, its use, logic, and wider implications. Beginning with the fundamentals of reputation on the national stage, it proceeds from political gossip to the more specialized weapons of paper war and finally to the dramatic extreme and ultimate threat, the duel. The concluding chapter is a case study of these weapons in action during the presidential election of 1800. Finally, a brief epilogue looks back at these first years of national governance through the eyes of aged veterans who converted it into history in their memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. To uncover this hidden world, each chapter focuses on a politician and a document, using his intentions, emotions, and language to expose the logic and impact of a specific weapon.

Within the time span broached by this book, the body politic learned to assert its power and influence, constructing local political institutions in the process. The political elite likewise learned the nuts and bolts of effective mobilization, and the meeting point of these learning processes represents the birth of a truly national politics. This complex dialogue between politicians and the public is studied most frequently from the perspective of the constituent rather than the congressman, detailing the birth of a political consciousness and public voice among the American people. This work explores this interaction from another perspective, revealing how the nation’s leaders struggled to find their public voice. Though elevated to their country’s highest offices, they did not control this debate. Rather, they were caught in a difficult bind, torn between an unstoppable wave of democratic mass empowerment and their own assumptions about their status and role in the political process. This book examines the compromises they forged between the demands of the people and the demands of their own psyches. Rather than studying elite politics to the exclusion of all else, it reveals the enormous impact of the body politic on the self-perception and political practices of the ruling elite. Whether seen through the eyes of a national politician or an average citizen, this interaction between rulers and ruled holds the key to the birth of our political system.

On a more general level, this book also demonstrates the importance of the link between politics and culture. Any population has a code of conduct, a mutual understanding of constraints, fears, assumptions, and expectations that shaped decisions both personal and political; understanding this mental landscape frames these decisions in new and unexpected ways. There can be no better test of this theory than applying it to something as seemingly rigid as the conventional story of America’s founding, a familiar tale peopled by Founders cast in stone. By applying the tool of culture, this book recasts this familiar story, restoring a neglected dimension of its logic; by acknowledging the link between honor and politics, it reveals a new political world.

From Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic by Joanne B. Freeman, published by Yale University Press in 2002. Reproduced by permission.


Joanne B. Freeman, professor of history at Yale University, is also the editor of The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings published by the Library of America. She is a co-host of the public radio program, BackStory.

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Featured Image: “Congressional Pugilists, 1798” licensed for use on the public domain by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: American Cartoon Prints Collection.

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