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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.