HIST 2111 20 – Culture of Honor

HIST 2111 20 – Culture of Honor


This is lecture 20. Last time we talked about
the election of 1800 and the emerging hostility between the Vice President, Aaron Burr, and
the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Before we get into the duel, I want
to talk about what we call the culture of honor that is very much a part of the young
republic. Let me give you a little more context for
this discussion. We have here a shift beginning, whereby we’re moving from a politics of
deference – as historians call it – to a politics of a wider democracy. A politics
of deference, for instance John Adams; George Washington; Thomas Jefferson. They did not
go out and actively campaign for the presidency. They might issue a letter now and again, or
a response to another letter. But they would allow their friends and political associates
to campaign for them and to try to drum up support for them. This is going to change,
whereby politicians are going to become much more face to face with the people, as opposed
to being ostensibly disinterested in the outcome of an election, they’re going to be more
active campaigning. So we’re moving from a politics of deference to a politics of active
democracy in this early republic. I want you to remember these ideas of republicanism,
of civic virtue, disinterested service, of pretending that you’re not interested in
the outcome of an election, that you will serve if called upon by the people. Now when we talk about this culture of honor,
I think it’s significant because it represents an extralegal system, an extralegal code of
behavior and it’s reserved for society’s elite. By extralegal I’m meaning outside
the law, that these elite political leaders of the early republic could do things, including
shoot each other, with some impunity. So this is a system to regulate elite behavior, that’s
not available to the mass public. I’m going to quote here from Joanna Freeman’s
excellent book called Affairs of Honor. I’m going to quote here to give you an idea, her
description is quite good – “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 gentile 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 culture of honor or the code of honor, which set a standard of conduct
and provided a controlled means for handling the violation of these codes. Its ethic limited
and defined acceptable behavior. Its rights 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
political elite.” Now how do we control the behavior of the
political leadership through this code of honor? I want to talk here about a grammar of political
combat. Tools – non-lethal weapons that included gossip, broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers,
and then finally dueling, which obviously is lethal. There are certain fighting words
that if used could land you in trouble with a political opponent. Certain slurs were off
limits and these seem tame by our standards today, but in the early republic these were
fighting words. Rascal, if you called your political opponent a rascal that indicates
low character. Scoundrel would do the same thing. A liar, men of honor do not lie; their
word is their bond. If you called a man a coward, that was certainly an invitation to
find. Men of honor are not cowards; they like to display their disinterest in death. I remember
Alexander Hamilton repeatedly putting himself under fire at the siege of Yorktown in 1781,
to demonstrate his courage and to establish himself as an honorable gentleman. This is
my favorite of these fighting words – Puppy. If you called your opponent a puppy, you can
expect a response. A puppy being a harmless, ineffectual creature. As loveable as they
are, men of honor are not puppies. Honor is reputation and reputation, of course,
is established in public among one’s peers and followers. It sort of sets your place
in hierarchy of public life. Character, of course this refers to virtues
and vices. Fame – Fame is achieved through public service,
just as I mentioned with Hamilton leading these rather dangerous, reckless charges during
the siege of Yorktown, in public, so that men can see and discuss his fame in later
times. Hamilton, for instance, in the Federalist
number 69 and 70, wrote that only personal responsibility before the eyes of the public.
The threat of dishonor before an ever-vigilant audience could restrain self-serving, ambitious
politicians, and this of course, is the type of charge that Hamilton will level at Aaron
Burr, that he was unrestrained in his pursuit of power and that he sought power not for
the national good but for his own personal glory. Let’s talk about these non-lethal weapons
used by men of honor. Gossip – Gossip should not be written. If
gossip is written it lends or it opens the purveyor of the gossip to charges of slander.
Gossip is an effective political tool, however. You may recall that Thomas Jefferson was a
renowned inventor; he invented the lazy Susan. Legend has it, he invented the lazy Susan
to keep servants out of the dining room when he was discussing political matters with his
associates. He feared that a servant might have loose lips and might repeat what he heard
during dinner, perhaps to an opponent of Jefferson. So the lazy Susan allowed the gentlemen at
the table to serve themselves. The dumbwaiter, also, same idea. Now gossip, again, the reputation of the gossiper
counted for much. A man of high standing, his gossip should be believable and credible.
A man of low standing, by definition, could be a liar and his credibility at stake. You didn’t reveal the source of your gossip
without permission. This seems strange in our day and time with the social media as
it is, but gossip does start somewhere and you can track it, and so this is supposed
to be kept secret at each stop. Undisclosed disclosure amounted to gossiping about a friend.
This, of course, is viewed as a hostile act. A man should show no malice when gossiping.
Conspicuous hostility is bad politics because it shows that you are distinctly interested
in the outcome as opposed to the republican idea of disinterest. Gossip, of course, creates
networks of friends and associates and political alliances. Now let me talk about another type of non-lethal
weapon, and these are broadsides. Broadside – think of it as you see modern-day graffiti
on the sides of buildings, you see them on the sides of railroad cars as they go by.
Broadside is much like this. It’s a condemnation of an opponent’s political program advertised
for the public to see it. Let me see if I can find some examples here.
If a broadside is issued against you, you can be said to have been ‘posted’. A posted
offender was either too low or cowardly to duel and with no other way to redeem his reputation,
the wounded party was entitled to ‘post’ his offender with broadsides tacked up in
public spaces. So you could tack it up on a tree, if necessary. Here’s an example, when Virginia representative
John Randolph refused a challenge from General James Wilkerson declaring that “he would
not reduce himself to Wilkerson’s level”. Wilkerson posted Randolph in the newspapers
with contemptible language. So broadsides are a way of condemning your opponent in public.
The public can see these messages. Pamphlets – Men of honor would issue pamphlets
attacking their political opponents, and again, an attack on an opponent’s political program
was generally acceptable. It’s when the attack goes to personal attacks, then you
can cross the line and find yourself being confronted with the code of honor. Defense pamphlets were a public means of silencing
private conversation, removing gossip from the shadows and exposing it as malicious lies.
Pamphlets could be widely disseminated, cheaply produced. Pamphlets demanded the greatest
risk since the authority of the author’s name and reputation would now be open to question.
Pamphlets should appear passive and detached to be effective, only then might these personal
pleas seem like objective historical fact instead of interested political outcome. One example of how not – Well there’s
2 examples actually. Hamilton’s pamphlet, the title called Letter Concerning the Public
Conduct and Character of John Adams. This was an open attack on the President and it
backfired because Hamilton appeared to be entrenched, his interest was entrenched in
this matter, and by becoming personally interested in the outcome Hamilton diminished his effectiveness.
In other words, he was not cool; he was not detached; he was not neutral in his approach;
he was openly emotional and hostile. Hamilton’s Letter sounded more like a ‘vindictive
personal assault’ than a rational defense, again the lack of disinterest diminished Hamilton’s
effort. And of course, finally we come to a lethal
method, dueling to settle affairs of honor. The language of honor is easily recognizable
to these men when they receive a letter. Here is an example – Alexander Hamilton and James
Monroe in a conflict and the dance of honor begins here and you can see it. “Mr. Hamilton
requests an interview – ” (they never used the word ‘duel’; they always used
the word ‘interview’) –“Mr. Hamilton requests an interview with Mr. Monroe at any
hour tomorrow, which may be convenient to him. Particular reasons will induce him to
bring with him a friend to be present at what may pass.” This friend who should be present is called
a ‘second’. The 2 men who may have to carry this code of honor all the way to the
killing ground, these are the principles, the seconds will do the negotiating, the determining
of where the duel will be fought, if a doctor should be present, what type of weapons are
to be used, and that sort of thing. So let me draw some quick conclusions here
to this culture of honor. This is cultural history. This is the emergence
of a type of history that is not so much concerned with an ongoing political narrative; it’s
more concerned with the meaning of things and requires a little bit more imagination.
Another good conclusion here, the extralegal system of justice, which of course will be
eliminated as we move further into the 19th century. And in our next lecture I want to talk about
a specific duel, the most famous of them, and that’s of course between Alexander Hamilton
and Aaron Burr in 1804. Thank you.

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