Monday, December 7, 2015

"Making It Up As They Went Along"

Yale professor Joanne Freeman (top), guest lecturer at the Jay Heritage Center, Dec. 3,amused her audience with stories of politicians in the 1790's resorting to "dirty, rotten" methods to secure their reputations, as the new nation figured out how to make the grand experiment work. (Clary, YWAA photos)
The U.S. in the earliest days of its history was, as Yale Professor Joanne Freeman described in her lively history lecture in Rye, Dec. 3, "a fragile, pipsqueak of a nation."

Freeman didn't intend to insult the Founding Fathers and their valiant efforts to create a new republic from scratch. She described the challenges they faced in ironing out the kinks in a new experiment in democracy.

Freeman, the guest speaker at the Jay Heritage Center in a lecture entitled "Dirty, Rotten Politics," explained how and why politics among the nation's leaders got dirty sometimes. This was "dirtiness" by the standards of the 1790's, without benefit of video screens, cell phones, and hourly soundbites. By 1790's and early 1800's standards, that often meant mud-slinging, vitriolic essay-writing and tearing down the placards of opponents or those whose political dogma didn't agree with your dogma.

It may also have meant, Freeman said, taking advantage of the fact that it took weeks and sometimes months for information from the central government to get out to the masses.  Along the way, the message could be seized, distorted or refashioned in any way.

The lecture was sponsored by the Jay Heritage Center and YWAA, as part of YWAA's program of inviting Yale professors to Westchester.  Last December in Scarsdale, YWAA invited Yale physics-department head Prof. Meg Urry, who presented a lecture on gravity, galaxies, and black holes.

After the Constitution had been drafted and once the nation settled into establishing principles of government and governance, Freeman said, the nation was sometimes "making it up as it went along." Sometimes leaders resorted to "dirty, rotten" methods" as they figured it all out.

This was a time, she said, when the new government in Washington knew that it might be standing on "shaky ground."  Without the benefit of precedent and with no track record in the experiment, politicians were as effective, Freeman assessed, as their reputations.  "And maintaining good reputations often meant character attacks."

Her work is based on primary sources. In Rye, she offered a slate of examples from letters and essays, many of which brought chuckles in her audience and many of which reminded audience members of similar slapstick and diatribe in the 2000's.

Freeman wrote the book on the topic,  Affairs of Honor:  National Politics in the New Republic, from which her Rye speech was partly based.  At publication, one reviewer said Freeman's "prose is lively, and she balances entertaining narrative with sharp analysis." Her presentation in Rye, true to form, included inside anecdotes to amuse the Jay Heritage Center gathering--as if the audience had an ear piece to listen to Congressmen of 1800 gossiping about Jefferson or Washington.

At Yale, Freeman teaches courses in early American history and the American Revolution. She received her Ph.D. from Virginia and has worked on a project related to physical violence in Congress from 1830 to the Civil War.

In Rye, she explained that while the founding fathers were emboldened by their roles and the cause, the Washingtons, Madisons, Hamiltons and Jeffersons of the time knew they were being watched by other nations and knew, too, the bold experiment could collapse into failure. (Were the other nations abroad cheering the U.S. or hoping to gloat?)

Freeman said diaries, essays and letters of the era indicate U.S. leaders felt they needed a "contingency, because anything could happen." They wondered all the time whether the new nation would drift toward monarchy or anarchy.

She explained how the leaders' writings often addressed worst-case scenarios. Essays and letters analyzed social relationships among government figures, because they were all trying to figure out their standing among themselves or knew they were being watched not only by the populace, but by generations ahead.

She told a story of how one politician agonized over how to honor a request by President George Washington to be seated near him at a state event, because he wasn't sure of the message or signal it would send about how members of Congress should treat a Chief Executive.

The Jay Heritage Center in Rye, where Freeman spoke, pays tribute to John Jay, Founding Father, American diplomat and New York governor of the early 1800's.  (Jay's sons Peter Augustus Jay (1798 MA Hon) and William Jay (1807 BA) and many descendants including Pierre Jay (1892 BA) received degrees from Yale.) Suzanne Clary '83, president of its board of trustees, hosted the event.

Fast-forward to 2015.  "And so our crop of presidential contenders continues to spout stupidities with a swagger," Freeman wrote in an op-ed essay this past August in the New York Times.  "Given the pack of candidates vying for attention and basic name recognition, stupidity seems smart.  It gets attention, but not without a price. In reaching for new heights of  'bunkum' (or dirty, rotten insults), these (2015-16) candidates are stoking the flames of extremism at a time when dialogue is desperately needed."

Sounds like 1790 all over again?

Suzanne Clary '83, Jay Heritage Center president (top, L), hosted the event.  Prof. Freeman teaches courses in American Revolution and early American history at Yale.  YWAA president Tim Mattison '73 and board-member Tracy Williams '79 join Freeman at the podium (bottom, L). Mattison, former YWAA president David King '82 and Rich Clary convene during the reception. (Clary, YWAA photos)

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