Affairs of honor : political combat and political character in the early republic

Freeman, Joanne Barrie, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter S., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Innes, Stephen, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph F., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Patricia M. Spacks, Patricia M. Spacks, Department of English, University of Virginia

Whether propounding the "first party system" or pronouncing it an anachronistic substitute for more transitory, unstructured parties, early national political history has long remained centered on the touchstone of political parties. This dissertation studies the period's national politics as a system with its own logic and integrity - revealing a world of fears, assumptions, expectations, and values quite different from our own. Rather than a rudimentary party system, we find a personal form of politics, shaped by political realities and cultural imperatives many of which have long since lost their power and meaning.

The strictures of honor were at the core of this political world - a shared etiquette that joined, defined, and restrained the ruling elite. National politicians shared a remarkably precise understanding of this code of conduct, selecting strategies from a clearly defined spectrum of political weapons, in response to a corresponding spectrum of attacks. They conformed to a grammar of political combat - a public-minded, honorbound, ritualistic code of conduct that both regulated and discouraged political conflict. Only by understanding this personal political dynamic can we perceive the appeal of party politics to nineteenth-century Americans.

The grammar of political combat structures this study, each chapter exploring the use and significance of a separate political weapon, and what it reveals about the development of an American style of governance. As a window into this alien political world, each chapter focuses on one central text: Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay's diary, Thomas Jefferson's private memoranda, Alexander Hamilton's 1804 duel apologia, John Adams's autobiographical Boston Patriot essays, and Aaron Burr's memoirs. Seemingly personal and idiosyncratic, these writings hold invaluable insights into the logic of national politics; once understood, this logic, in turn, reveals the true significance of these long misinterpreted documents.

On a more general level, this study demonstrates the importance of the link between politics and culture. Within any society, cultural imperatives shape the bounds and methods of political interaction. Applied to the early republic, this understanding uncovers a new level of political interaction; by revealing hidden assumptions that affected political decisions, it also enriches our understanding of the period's conventional political narrative.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:35:10.

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