The Magazine

The Founders' Honor

There's more to American politics than self-interest or principle.

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Editor's Note: Harvey Mansfield, one of America's leading political scientists and a widely published author, will deliver the 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 8, 2007. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. We have reposted these Mansfield classics from THE WEEKLY STANDARD archive in honor of that event.

THE WORD "HONOR" is not one we hear much these days. It sounds quaint when we read it of the past and pretentious if applied to the present. We prefer to speak more realistically, more candidly, of self-interest.

Yet the biggest recent events in American politics make sense only when seen as motivated by a sense of honor. When President Clinton was impeached, he refused to resign, one could say, for reasons of both honor and self-interest. But the Democrats in public office who supported him could have done so only for honor. They did not want to give in to those prissy, self-righteous Republicans, who would have crowed in triumph at his fall. In refusing to sacrifice their tainted champion as self-interest would have dictated, the Democrats paid a price. Their candidate Al Gore, chief among Clinton loyalists, suffered from "Clinton fatigue" (or Clinton disgust) in the electorate, and he lost a close election he probably would have won if Clinton had resigned and had taken his bad odor with him, leaving Gore to run as a relatively unembarrassed incumbent.

The Republicans for their part might have been well advised by self-interest to leave well enough alone, and not insist on impeachment in the House or a trial in the Senate. But they were overcome by their outrage. They felt it necessary to uphold law and propriety against a liar who had, at long last, been caught in his lie. So the Republicans refused to "move on" and diminished their advantage from Clinton fatigue because they seemed too eager for his removal.

Honor always has a sticking point: something you refuse to accept even though it might be in your own best interest. President Clinton, the one who spoke of "moving on," stayed where he was and brought his party to defeat. His sense of honor was no doubt perverse, but even in better cases, there is always something perverse about honor.

Honor is a feature of human nature that does not disappear with the arrival of democracy, though it takes new forms. We did not see President Clinton subjected to a public caning by Monica Lewinsky's father--to the mixed approval and consternation of the Secret Service--which he so richly deserved under the old code of honor. Mr. Lewinsky was more concerned for his president's honor than for his daughter's or for his own.

Affairs of Honor, a new book by Yale historian Joanne Freeman on the early American republic, has much to teach political theorists and American historians, as well as other souls with a merely personal interest in how to live. Freeman treats two of the most dramatic events in American political history. If you want to know about honor, look for drama; if you prefer life to be dull, if you want to be an economist, stay with self-interest--if you can. Freeman gives a careful analysis of the presidential election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson won out over Aaron Burr in the House of Representatives, and the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. She intends to use the later--and lesser--event of the duel to explain the earlier and greater event of the election. But because honor has its own priorities, she makes it appear that the central event of the period was the duel, despite its peculiar irrationalities--and not the coming of democracy to America, in what Jefferson called the "revolution" of 1800.

The duel in which Hamilton was killed by his unprincipled foe was the last major one in American political history, as public opinion was outraged at the result. The American people turned against the politics of personal destruction. Hamilton fought the duel reluctantly, and he left a carefully composed note in explanation of his decision to appear but not to fire his gun. As a Christian and a law-abiding citizen, he would not shoot, but to maintain his reputation with the public he could not "decline the call" to appear on the field of honor. When Hamilton was fatally wounded, the calamity put an effective end to dueling in American politics--but, in truth, that was only because Hamilton actually had been willing to risk his life for the sake of his honor. It is a pretty irony that affairs of honor were ended by a display of honor. Hamilton's action made it possible for politicians today to retain their political viability by remaining alive, adopting the bourgeois principle that fear for one's life has first priority.

It remains an advantage, of course--and a matter of honor--to have risked one's life for one's country. Freeman takes on the task of "reconstructing the logic" of honor to insensitive historians in the grip of the bourgeois principle. She explains the code and the language of honor that ruled democratic politics in its early phases, before partisan honor came in great part (but not altogether) to replace personal honor, and the spectacle of Mr. Lewinsky's inaction became possible. She also mentions the obvious fact that dueling was for men, but does not make much of it.

Freeman is surely right that the disputes among the candidates and their supporters in the election of 1800 were dominated by considerations of honor. The code of honor dictated the etiquette of political gossip, threatening letters, and press attacks. But she concludes from this that America backed its way into democratic partisan politics through personal conflicts of honor, taken up without reference to principle.

This is the only place at which one might wish to contest her excellent book--though not to the point of dueling with its author. The bourgeois principle puts fear ahead of honor, but does not honor also ally with a principle? When human beings dispute over honor, it is never merely a fight over turf as with other animals, for some issue of principle is always involved. Honor was omnipresent in the election of 1800, but there was also the principle of Jefferson's party justifying the formation of itself as a party to save the republic. As Freeman says, a politics without sharply defined permanent parties was "like a war without uniforms." But Affairs of Honor shows very well that disagreement, if not war, was perfectly possible without permanent parties, and that republics could democratize honor without abandoning it. I would draw the opposite conclusion: The coming of parties required a new principle, one that opposed and overthrew the old principle prevailing before Jefferson formed his party--the principle that parties are the bane of republics.

The honor of a thinking man like Hamilton is constituted not only, and not mainly, by his conformity to an honorable code, vital as that may be to his reputation and self-respect. His honor and his integrity are also the consequence of the power and coherence of his thought. If honor is not to be fought out over arbitrary distinctions, it must be connected to the cause it represents, and the cause must be worthy. Another excellent and innovative book, James H. Read's Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson, treats the political thought of four of the Founders with a view to their consistency. Read does not mention honor, but in fact he upholds the honor of Hamilton, Jefferson, James Madison, and James Wilson by proving that they did not sway with the breeze and save their careers at the expense of their principles. Like Freeman, Read does this by sympathetically reconstructing the logic of their actions and their differences with one another. Whether historian or political theorist, you have to find out what the subjects of your study had in their minds.

The title of Read's book, Power versus Liberty, is actually the target at which he takes aim, and he is a liberal to whom conservatives should pay attention. He mainly objects to the notion that so much power added to government is that much liberty subtracted from the people--the idea Jefferson expressed when he said, "I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive." Jefferson, away in France at the time, was not a framer of the Constitution, which for the sake of liberty does provide an energetic government. Though surely a Founder, and later reconciled to the Constitution, he cannot be considered a friend to its basic intent. Read joins with historian Jack Rakove's book Original Meanings in questioning the notion made current today by conservatives that there is a single "original intent" that can be said to inspire the Founders and the Constitution.

In particular, Read attempts to pry apart the convergence of Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, the classic source of any original intent, and to show that their agreement was limited and temporary. He addresses the difficult problem of Madison's consistency, for in the Federalist Papers Madison was together with Hamilton in promoting energetic government, yet four years later he was an outraged opponent of Hamilton's national bank proposal, an instance of energetic government. Historians have speculated over accidental reasons why Madison might have been drawn to the side of his friend and fellow Virginian Jefferson to found a party against Hamilton, the man with whom he apparently agreed more. Madison, however, insisted in later life on his own consistency, and Read, by carefully following Madison's arguments, saves his honor as statesman and thinker. He finds Madison to be free of the arbitrary and petty loyalties and enmities that make up the politics of honor discussed by Freeman. Perhaps there are two levels of honor, a higher one of reason that directs and redeems the lower one of personal or party loyalty.

In opposing Hamilton, Madison did not put as the critical point his belief in a weak national government or in states' rights or in strict construction of the Constitution's text; it was that the people had to have agreed beforehand when ratifying the Constitution to powers claimed under it. This the people had refused to do in the case of the federal government's power to charter corporations like the national bank. Liberty is endangered by too little as well as by too much power--
that is the message of the Federalist Papers in which Madison concurred.
But in addition, and on his own, Madison believed that powers publicly exercised should be publicly granted beforehand.

Hamilton, according to Read, was concerned that there be enough power in total quantity, and so he worried less about the permitted boundaries of power. The right amount of power is what the people need, not the amount they have conferred. Liberty is not prior to power but balanced with power. Hamilton feared not the people but the states, which he thought were too jealous of power. He was neither a monarchist nor an aristocrat but a republican who believed that effective sovereignty must reside in the government, not the people. When well administered, government will, over time, attract and deserve the consent of the people, from whom Hamilton asked for "faith but not blind faith."

The reasoning of Madison and Hamilton was more intricate and more impressive than the simplifications of Jefferson and Wilson, but Read gives the latter two their due as well. With calm and persistence he follows the motion of principle as far as it will go, or as far as he can. At some point, however, we encounter the angry passions and factions that Freeman wrote about. It's not possible to remove principle from politics, but it's also not possible to enjoy a politics of pure principle.

Beyond principle lie both self-interest and honor, not merely self-interest as we Americans tend to believe. We need to reflect on honor, and on the relationship between honor and principle. Joanne Freeman's Affairs of Honor and James Read's Power versus Liberty are a help--and a little reading in Plato, too, would not hurt.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University. His new edition of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, translated with Delba Winthrop, has recently been issued by the University of Chicago Press.