Weeden Lecture Addresses “Dirty Nasty Politics” – Circa 1800
And you thought today’s Congress has been behaving badly. This year’s Weeden Lecture, held November 7 in Kirby Arts Center, revealed a political landscape punctuated by duels between members of opposing parties and heated debates over whether Congress should rise when President Washington entered the room. In the early republic, Federalists and Republicans couldn’t even agree on what to call the national leader, or whether he should be greeted with a handshake or a deferential bow.
Delivered by Professor Joanne B. Freeman, University Professor of History at Yale University, this was the 13th presentation in the Charles F. Weeden ’65 Great Historians Lecture Series, which annually brings noted American historians to campus to speak with students, faculty and members of the Lawrenceville community. Established by Walter W. Buckley, Jr. ’56 P ’96 ’99, the program honors the memory of beloved History Master and coach Charles F. “Chuck” Weeden, III H’65 P’77 ’79 ’87.
Professor Freeman’s topic, “Dirty Nasty Politics in the American Republic,” explored the decade leading up to the election of 1800 and the invective – and occasional violence – between the two prevailing political parties. Her audience relished tales of politicians obsessively caught up in the minutiae of form and structure, and they responded with glee when she described how a group of Federalist newspapermen reported Thomas Jefferson’s death – falsely – in an attempt to prevent his election. Character attacks were a popular political ploy, and at one point Alexander Hamilton urged John Jay to change the rules for choosing electors in mid-election.
But, according to Professor Freeman, behind it all were serious concerns. “We were a republic in a world of monarchies,” she pointed out, “untried, untested, an experiment in government. No one knew if the experiment would work, and in a crisis mentality like the 1790s, politics becomes a no-holds-barred proposition.” With both Federalists and Republicans assuming the other’s actions would bring down the new nation, “both felt justified in doing all they could to destroy the opposition. They believed the future of the nation hung in the balance.” She added, “Politics were extreme (for a reason). The stakes were high and the consequences were dire.”
The election of 1800, as we all know, went to Jefferson and the Republicans, tendering an important lesson about politicking in the new republic: “Ultimately the American people would make the decision about who would win and who would lose.” The Federalists, who believed in a strong, dictatorial central government, learned the hard way the power of public opinion.
Known as a vibrant lecturer with a sharp sense of humor, Professor Freeman teaches Revolutionary and early American history. Her graduate offerings include reading and research seminars on early national politics and culture, and she is currently working on a study of the culture of Congress in antebellum America, or as she puts it, “physical violence in the U.S. Congress.”
Professor Freeman expanded on this topic and on the election of 1800 the next morning in several history classes. She told students in an Honors U.S. History class, “When I started reading letters of congressmen from the 1830s, there was always a reference to a fight.” She stressed that, as a researcher, she never relied on a single source but always sought triangulation between sources and forms of evidence to corroborate her findings. The more she read about political confrontations in first-person accounts of the period, the more intrigued she became.
Acknowledging that politics tends to be cyclical, History Master Lawrence“Rusty” Hlavacek H’95 P’06 ’08 asked her to compare the 1790s to recent times. “We’re at one of those moments when people see the other side as being fundamentally against everything they believe to be good forAmerica,” Professor Freeman responded. “It’s been worse.”
Pressed to make a prediction for 20 years out, she added, “Because of the crises we face, candidates will matter greatly. This is a moment when certain decisions can push things in one direction or the other.”
Professor Freeman has appeared in television documentaries for the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and PBS. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1998, authored Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2001), and is the editor of Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001). In addition, she has contributed chapters to other scholarly works of historical fact and has published numerous articles on politics, political culture and honor culture.