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Joanne Freeman on
the use of political tools

Joanne Freeman Q: How did honor become a political tool?

A: With honor and reputation so important to politics, and in the absence, on a national level, of party standards and party practices, and there aren't fighting teams and rules to fight by, it makes sense that the rules that politicians were fighting by were largely the rules of the code of honor, the rituals of honor. And so the code of honor really is being manipulated as a political tool among national politicians in this period. To a really extraordinary degree.

Q: What were the tools of politics?

A: There were a number of different political tools. And if your character was attacked, you would select among these different tools: the right audience, the right tone, the right amount of proof that was necessary for you to counteract whatever damage you, you were afraid was being done. So you might write for the newspapers, a certain audience. You might write a pamphlet. A different audience. You might cane someone in the street. Very different audience. You might undertake some sort of a gossip campaign, or the ultimate end of the spectrum, you might end up fighting a duel. But all of these things were ways to defend your reputation. And, different circumstances demanded different weapons.

Gossip ended up being really effective political tool. And a rumor could spread amazingly quickly. And considering that really the only thing linking together national politicians in this period was really personal friendships and private correspondences, a rumor could spread very quickly, and extremely effectively. And once that rumor got into circulation, it was extremely difficult to find some way to counteract it. So rumors, gossip, could really inflict devastating damage.

Q: Were they always on the look out for gossip?

A:Politicians were very alert to what other people were saying about other politicians. And they would collect pieces of gossip. Sometimes storing them away for future use. This might come in useful. Sometimes deliberately going out and searching for things, of, you know, you're about to start a political campaign. How handy it might be to have lots of stories about Alexander Hamilton. Gossip again was a concrete thing. It was a real political weapon in and of itself.

Q: Describe the use of newspapers in the gossip.

A:Newspapers were really coming into their own in this period. More and more of them were becoming founded. More and more people coming forward, becoming editors, starting newspapers. They were circulating in wider and wider circles. So, if you put something in a newspaper, you knew that it could possibly have a very far reaching audience, particularly if it was interesting enough for other newspapers to pick it up from reading your newspaper and print it in theirs. So newspapers are one way for news to get very quickly from one end of the country to another. And, if your character was attacked in a very public way, you knew that if you went to a newspaper, they'd be a wide range of people who would see that your character's being defended and would believe your evidence hopefully, and then your character would be cleared. But what this also means that if your character is attacked in a newspaper, that can be very serious. And often the only way to counteract that is to one up things, and go to a more severe form of honor defense. And many, many duels come about because of things that end up being published in the newspapers.

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