Tuesday, August 23, 2005

You think things are wild now?

The Duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

Well, if you dig a little bit into our own American history you can find out that things have changed little in regard to the behavior of our leading men (and women). This is the stuff that isn't taught in school, the personal conflicts and humanness of our Founding Fathers (and Mothers). We tend to think of them as these great, mythical heroes who never told a lie or slept with anyone other than their spouse. Well, the truth is much more interesting than the myths. Here is an excerpt from the PBS program linked above:

NARR: To respond to the frenzy of character assassination, American politicians began turning to the political duel. Many of the great men of the day had their own set of dueling pistols custom made.

These "affairs of honor" had far more to do with playing politics than with actually shooting anyone.

JOANNE FREEMAN: You were not necessarily counting on the fact that you were actually gonna end up with a gun in your hand shooting at someone. You were counting on the fact that you were gonna have a chance to prove that you were willing to die to defend your character! So the code of honor really is being manipulated as a political tool among national politicians in this period, to a really extraordinary degree.

NARR: The more combative a politician, the more likely he was to be involved in duels. And no one was as combative as Alexander Hamilton. He was involved in eleven affairs of honor. One of his early duels was a window into the world of sex, politics and dueling among America’s founding fathers.

The duel was triggered by an adulterous affair of Hamilton’s. Hamilton himself described what happened the first time he went to visit a young woman named Mariah Reynolds.

HAMILTON
I inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shown upstairs. At the head of the stairs she met me and conducted me into the bedroom. After this I had frequent meetings with her.

NARR: When Mrs. Reynolds husband, James, learned that Hamilton was sleeping with his wife, he blackmailed Hamilton. Hamilton paid a huge sum of money to buy his silence -and more visits to his wife.

But then James Reynolds was arrested for using Hamilton’s money in a shady business deal. To prove he wasn’t involved in the shady dealing, Hamilton was forced to publish his own account of the affair.

HAMILTON
The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper monetary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife. This confession is not made without a blush.

JOANNE FREEMAN: He basically argues that, yes he's an adulterer. But that's what he's done as a private man. As a public man in office he's never been dishonest and he's trustworthy. So what he's done should have no bearing on his public career because in public office he's fine. Whatever he does outside of office, well, may be unfortunate, but it has no impact on you, and you can continue trusting me as a public servant.

NARR: But in the 1790’s, that argument was not enough to save Hamilton’s reputation. To restore his honor, Hamilton challenged a man who had attacked his character — Virginia Senator James Monroe — to a duel.

JOANNE FREEMAN: A duel was really a sort of game of dare or counter dare. It really was a case in which one man would step forward and say I'm willing to die to defend my name and the other man would have to step forward and say, I will meet you. And that, as a matter of fact, that was a phrase that they would use. Ritualistic phrase. I will meet you as a gentleman.


What strikes me here is that at least they admitted to their 'amorous connections' unlike our 42nd President, Bill "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" Clinton. When people talk about integrity these days they mean "incorruptibility," but I think that when we are talking about people there is no such thing as incorruptibility. Vulnerability is one of the essences of being human. We should probably think of integrity more in the way that our forebears saw it, as honor and honesty and a willingness to admit one's faults and to take responsibility for them.

I got started on this topic because I was looking for a quote from this program or maybe another I had watched about the Burr/Hamilton Duel. In the show there was a tavern scene where a group of men were discussing a battle and one of them said something to the effect of "it is a soldier's job to die." I had wanted to find that quote in response to Cindy Sheehan. I do feel sympathy for her losing her son. That is a parent's worst fear, to lose a child in any way. But I think that people's expectations have become 'soft.' I asked David last night if he remembered watching this show I was thinking of (he didn't remember, he probably didn't watch it), and I explained to him why I was trying to remember it exactly. He doesn't always 'get' why I think about such things. I was trying to explain about the Cindy Sheehan thing and how these days men are more afraid to die. He said, "Women have always been afraid to die too." I said, "Well, everyone these days is more afraid of death than back then. Women died in childbirth all the time back then. Now days see much less death in our daily lives and have become more fearful of it." (Why did he think I was talking bad about males? I was saying 'men' as in mankind. And Americans in particular because there are many places in the world where death is still very prevalent on a daily basis.)

While looking for that particular quote, which might have been entirely fictional, I found some other very good ones. Many of them seem particularly relevant to the Iraqi pursuit for a Constitution.

"If it be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of our security in a Republic? The answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws — the first growing out of the last.... A sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government."

Alexander Hamilton, Essay in the American Daily Advertiser, Aug 28, 1794

"If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government, until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy, and the world a desert."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 65, March 7, 1788

"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1, October 27, 1787

"It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 62, 1788

"The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms and false reasonings is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these, you could never entertain a thought, that all men are not, by nature, entitled to a parity of privileges. You would be convinced, that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race, and that civil liberty is founded in that; and cannot be wrested from any people, without the most manifest violation of justice."

Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, February 23, 1775

"There are certain social principles in human nature, from which we may draw the most solid conclusions with respect to the conduct of individuals and of communities. We love our families more than our neighbors; we love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general. The human affections, like solar heat, lose their intensity as they depart from the centre... On these principles, the attachment of the individual will be first and for ever secured by the State governments. They will be a mutual protection and support."

Alexander Hamilton, speech at the New York Ratifying Convention, June, 1788

"There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism."

Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, February 23, 1775

"This balance between the National and State governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance. It forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other. Indeed, they will both be prevented from overpassing their constitutional limits by a certain rivalship, which will ever subsist between them."

Alexander Hamilton, speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, June 17, 1788

"To grant that there is a supreme intelligence who rules the world and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and still to assert that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appears to a common understanding altogether irreconcilable. Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature....Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind."

Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, February 23, 1775

"To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace; and that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility would be to calculate on the weaker springs of human character."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 34, January 4, 1788

"[The Judicial Branch] may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 78, 1788

"[T]he present Constitution is the standard to which we are to cling. Under its banners, bona fide must we combat our political foes — rejecting all changes but through the channel itself provides for amendments."

Alexander Hamilton, letter to James Bayard, April, 1802


(Sorry that was kind of long and disjointed. This post, as well as many others, could be considered a quickly composed first draft which probably and sometimes unfortunately won't ever be further revised.)

11 comments:

DHammett said...

Wow, that post sure covered a lot of ground. You are spot on about Clinton, and politicians in general these days. Politicians with integrity are few and far between. I think my favorite (relatively) recent quote comes from former Oklahoma Congressman J C Watts, who defined integrity as doing the right thing when you know nobody is looking (my emphasis). The truth is, somebody is always watching and, at the end of days, we will each be called to account. How easy that is to forget.

One of your quotes from Hamilton:

"To grant that there is a supreme intelligence who rules the world and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and still to assert that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appears to a common understanding altogether irreconcilable. Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature....Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind."

Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, February 23, 1775


*Rushing in where angels fear to tread* Two hundred years ago it was commonly accepted that there is a deity, a benevolent creator. In essence, Hamilton says the immutable laws given us by the creator form the foundation for our laws and society. Sadly, I don't think that belief in a creator is so universal in western thought these days. What, then, does that bode for us as a society that is gradually rejecting the idea of a creator? Will those immutable laws also be rejected? And in Iraq, they are debating the extent to which their religion will have an impact on their government. Does their deity, which I absolutely believe is different than mine, also endow each individual with certain, inalienable rights? Or just the men? It really will be interesting to watch how that shakes out.

Rae Ann said...

dammit hammett, I think that the current emphasis on the Christian diety as defined by the Religious Right has damaged the presence of the Deity in our government. Our founding fathers seemed much more careful to be more nebulous in their definition of that Deity (even though they considered themselves Christian). That's one of the remarkable things I love about our Constitution, it is vague enough but still speaks truth. I hope that makes sense. This issue is also expressing itself in the current debates about Intelligent Design in schools . But as for Iraq, I just don't know. As I've commented before, there are so many deeply ingrained cultural aspects there that are different from ours. I'm afraid it's too complex for my puny, little blog brain. But one of the other quotes:

"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

seems to be very applicable.

And integrity isn't always so hard as people make it out to be. But as humans we all have our moments of lapse. Some people seem to think that if they make one mistake then they might as well cover it up with another. To me, integrity is more about 'owning' yourself and accepting the consequences of your actions. Kind of like the duels, when they would say "I will meet you (on the field) as a gentleman." I'm not sure I'm making my point, sorry.

DHammett said...

No doubt, the founding fathers were nebulous in their concept of deity. And, it can certainly be argued that some of them were not Christians as we have come to understand the term in this day and age. But it is still clear that they believed in some form of deity, rather than that we evolved from the muck as a result of billions of years of random chemical reactions.

In light of the intelligent design debate, there is no end of the controversy this has caused in my adopted home state of Kansas. Every election cycle, the composition of the state school board changes enough that what had become policy after the previous election is completely reversed. If our schools are truly open to enlightened debate, then let's teach all options on the subject, age appropriately, to the students and let them make their own decisions.

Are you suggesting that the US is trying to proselytize by the sword in Iraq? Maybe I didn't understand your point on that.

It's human nature that we don't want our weaknesses, our mistakes, our bad actions, our lapses in judgement exposed. I thnk it's more than "some people" who try to cover one mistake with another. I think it's most people. From the time we are little children and we first learn that there are consequences for bad actions, we start to lie to cover it up. It takes a great deal of work as parents to "teach out" the natural inclination to cover up wrongdoing...it doesn't come naturally.

I think integrity is a lot bigger than taking responsibility for our actions. Taking responsibility is one aspect of integrity, but integrity goes to making right decisions first, then accepting responsibility for the times we don't.

I don't know that you can solve all the problems of the world in one post, but my hat goes off to you for trying. :-)

Rae Ann said...

"Are you suggesting that the US is trying to proselytize by the sword in Iraq?"

No, no, I'm not saying that. That is more directed at the Suni(?) insurgents in Iraq. Not that they would listen anyway.

And you are right about integrity being bigger than just taking responsibility. I was trying to show how that aspect of integrity is often overlooked. Maybe I'm too transparent and honest about most things because I'm not a good liar. I expect that same transparency in my friends, and to be a little hokey, I can usually see through lies anyway. My kids are learning that they can't pull anything over on me. Not yet anyway. lol

mr_g said...

I won't start the whole war debate all over...been there, done that, tired from it...Although I believe it was Washington who cautioned us against getting involved in the affairs beyond our borders.

My definition of integrity is "being your word". If you say, "I'm honest and trustworthy," and then cheat on your wife with the wife of another man, in my opinion you are neither and you have no integrity. If, on the other hand, you say, "I'm honest in business only, but in my personal affairs I am not," then I'll give you some leeway in that area. Bottom line for me, integrity is being who you say you are and behaving unhippocritically (is that a word?) in your dealings with others and yourself.

Rae Ann said...

Well, I think we'd all do well to remember that many a great man (and woman) have made mistakes of various kinds. I think just about all of our Founding Fathers engaged in extra-marital affairs. I'll stick to my belief that their integrity or lack of can be seen in how they responded when 'caught.'

DHammett said...

Rae Ann -

I understand your point about the Sunni Arabs, now. Thanks for the clarification. Hopefully, in the spirit of compromise, the Iraqis will come up with a constitution that they all can live with.

We all made/make mistakes. The fact that some (or all?) of the founding fathers were players does not diminish the great work they did establishing this country. What they may have done in their personal lives, however, is reprehensible. For those of them who honestly dealt with it with the affected parties, well then, that's what forgiveness is all about.

Mr. G -

I would agree that integrity is being your word. However, I don't think I can agree that one can have integrity with one's business life and not with one's personal life, even if one is up front about it. It's kind of like robbing a bank without a mask. You're up front about committing a crime, but you're still committing a crime...you may not be a hypocrite, but you've done something which, by definition, smacks of lack of integrity.

Rae Ann said...

Well, I guess I lack integrity in at least one aspect of my life. ;-) But I still try to be a good mother and wife and friend.

mr_g said...

Hammett - I agree with you completely...notice I said "give some leeway", not agree that the person is integrous--He simply has more integrity than the man in the first example, perhaps a bit less hypocritical, but a hypocrite with integrity issues nonetheless.

OK, is anybody else's head spinning now. Time to leave the office!

DHammett said...

Why, Rae Ann? Have you been robbing banks using a mask?

Rae Ann said...

LMAO! Oh, you are a funny one! Thanks for a big laugh first thing in the morning.

I think if I ever tried to rob a bank I'd do it naked.