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The Other Founding Fathers
In a column for the New York Times published during the presidential primary campaigns of 2008, the conservative William Kristol declared that Senator Barack Obama's efforts to package himself as a man of unique political integrity and character had failed. "The more you learn about him," wrote Kristol, "the more Obarna seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign." Behind the lofty rhetoric about the "audacity of hope," he argued, lurked more mundane interests: "the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit-all covered with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate, are different:' Kristol's comments revealed a deep skepticism about the reliability of words, as well as his belief that political "reality" was constituted not in the realm of language and ideas but in the realm of private interest and personal advancement. According to Kristol, Obama's "character" rather than his rhetoric was the key to understanding his political motives and behavior, and once this character was revealed by stripping away the carefully fashioned "construction of artifice" that concealed it, the spellbinding power of his oratory would be broken.' Kristol's attack on Obama probably persuaded few readers of the liberal
New York Times, but his emphasis on character and his skepticism about the
self-presentation of political leaders extend across the political spectrum. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without a new example of the "hermeneutics of suspicion"? that dominates American public life. In election after election, candidates for office vie with each other to establish their own authenticity and sincerity and to impugn the authenticity and sincerity of their political rivals. Twenty-four-hour news channels like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox have created an entire industry devoted to tracking the slippage between public and private expression, speech and action, persona and self, and to exposing the true character of the men and women who
4 Scandal& Civility compete for our attention and political support. a "construction unworthy of public trust and support. for example. In other words. the broad assumptions underlying Kristol's attack on Obama are widely shared in our political culture." Closely linked to this understanding of character is the belief that character has its origins in private rather than public life. and Kristol's indictment of Obama is not primarily that he is "opportunistic" and "ambitious. ultimately. a cynicism that many believe undermines faith in the media itself and. this relentless cycle of revelation quite naturally generates political scandal and public cynicism." Many commentators believe that this obsession with the politics of character is a recent phenomenon. therefore. The most important measure of character. President Bill Clinton's sexual relationship with his former intern." although his self-interest is certainly troubling. Consequently. Clinton's behavior marked a new low point in the degeneration of American political leadership. Professor Carey Cooper. and to a personalization of political life-all of which I call the "politics of character. a social psychologist. Indeed. provided fodder for a political drama of epic proportions and became a powerful symbol for the corruption and decay of the Clinton presidency. a belief that has its roots in the intellectual developments of the Enlightenment and what one historian has called the "making of the modern self. they have become so commonplace in modern American politics that we scarcely question the validity of what political pundits constantly call the "character issue:' The most basic of these assumptions is the understanding of character itself as a stable and coherent personal identity that shapes and explains private and public behavior. Men of character should appear to be what they truly are." Americans had once believed that it was important to maintain a boundary between private and public life but now regarded the private lives of their political representatives as fair game for media scrutiny. described the scandal as a logical response to changes in social mores since the 1960s. while . is most clearly revealed in Our private behavior. in particular the wide" spread belief that "the personal is political. is a dear and consistent-indeed. Monica Lewinsky. Writing about the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990S. of personal scandal and corruption. in our system of government. transparent-connection between private and public life.' of artifice" and therefore These assumptions about the role of character in public life and the relation" ship between private and public behavior lead naturally to a politics of intrusion and suspicion. but that he is inauthentic and dishonest. According to his critics. and there" fore is most easily exposed by the interrogation of our private affairs and associations rather than by the examination of our public words and acts. Blurring the boundary between news coverage and celebrity entertainment. which Kristol equates with honesty and authenticity.
All sides of the political spectrum. scandal and incivility have always been a part of American politics and at no time was this more true than during the founding period. provoking verbal and physical assaults. criticizing (and sometimes seeking to restrain by legal and illegal means) those they held . public demonstrations. as now. and riots. returned home to the United States from France in 1802. calling for a restoration of political "civility" and the election of "men of character" to restore public respect for the integrity of the political system." But the politics of character has a long history. Thomas Paine."? Then. duels. and when journalists deferred to their political betters and dutifully observed a sharp distinction between private and public life. a history that links the contentious democratic republic of our own day with the even more conflictridden republican democracy of the founding fathers. rapine. bloodshed. devastation. many Americans deplored this partisan passion. When George Washington retired from the presidency in 1796. however." Far from being an age of classical virtue and republican self-restraint. revealing a fascination with the character of the founders and a powerful sense of nostalgia for a lost eighteenth-century world of political civility and civic virtue. not even the founding fathers themselves. teemed with denunciations of bloodthirsty Republican "Iacobins" and power-hungry Federalist "Aristocrats:' and the violence of the printed word often flowed off the page and into the streets. political life in the postrevolutionary United States was tempestuous. drunken. deplored the personalization and sensationalism of American politics. the media's exploitation of the affair marked a new low point in the degeneration of American political discourse. when public debate was conducted within well-understood and widely accepted limits of civility. a nostalgia that tells us more about our disillusionment with our own politics than about the politics of the founding era. Political emotions ran extraordinarily high in what was less an "age of reason" than what one historian has called an "age of passion.Introduction 5 according to his supporters. he was vilified in the Federalist press as a "lying. denounced him publicly as a "cold hermaphrodite." Throughout the 1790S. fiercely partisan." and many of the leading Republican writers and editors of the day echoed Paine's words. And when Paine himself. his former revolutionary comrade-in-arms. and highly personal. which followed the political upheavals in revolutionary Europe extraordinarily closely. For there was no golden age of American politics when public-spirited men debated issues of great moment with a rationality as sharply honed as their classical rhetoric. And nobody was exempt. American newspapers. brutal infidel" who rejoiced in "confusion. and murder. author of Common Sense and The Crisis Papers.' A great deal of historical writing about the early Republic acknowledges this link. On the contrary.
and they all possessed a strong sense of their own ideological independence. It is organized around six biographical studies. and some even celebrated. they have received almost universally hostile treatment from scholars of the early Republic who. Noah Webster. Three are Federalists: John Fenno. Benjamin Franklin Bache. dismiss them as mercenary hacks or as ciphers for more important political figures. they yearned for a more civil politics.6 Scandal & Civility responsible for fomenting these passions. and William Cobbett. and William Duane-although each of these men defined partisan identity in their own unique and fluid fashion. which they guarded . Frank Luther Mott. each of which deals with an editor whom I consider to be among the most interesting and influential of the period. Like many of us. But as many of them recognized. All were fierce partisans and some were talented party organizers. when they bother to notice them at all. projecting a lost moral unity and political consensus back into the revolutionary past and attacking the organized. new men with a new sense of vocation as political authors and activists. and by helping to fashion a vibrant and iconoclastic culture of political dissent. famously dismissed the political journalism of the 1790Sand early 1800s as the "dark ages of partisan journalism:' a less than heroic interlude between the nationalist triumphs of the revolutionary press and the rise of an independent. objective press in the nineteenth century. scandal and incivility were closely linked to the creation of a more democratic and participatory political culture. Inspired by their own revolution and by the revolutionary upheavals of the broader Atlantic world. the doyen of American journalism history. American journalists contributed to the emergence of a more democratic social and political order. helped to create a new public for politics and to impart to it new ideas about national and partisan identity. these editors and journalists. three are Republicans: Philip Freneau. like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. In doing so. During the 1790S. self-interested agents of party politics. Most of them eventually quarreled with the professional politicians and party managers of their day." This book seeks to rescue these journalists from the condescension of both their own time and posterity and to restore them to their rightful place in the politics of the early Republic: center stage. and their relationships to party organization and political discipline were often haphazard. they played a critical role in the creation and expansion of an American public sphere and in what the historian Gordon Wood calls the "democratization of the American mind:' Yet until fairly recently. but none of these journalists were simply party men. the 1790Swere a remarkably creative period in American political life. for example." At the center of this volatile and turbulent postrevolutionary world were the partisan newspaper editors who are the principal subjects of this book.
Between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800. editors who had once been regarded (and usually regarded themselves) as "meer mechanics." he wrote." The expansion of the press in the last quarter of the eighteenth century gave editors a central role in the politics of the 1790S. creating for the first time a genuinely national public sphere. began to redefine themselves as editor-authors whose duty was to shape rather than to reflect or represent public opinion. All were men of political ideas as well as political activists. combined with the legal freedom of ." This quantitative revolution was accompanied by a qualitative revolution. Conscious of their new importance." printer-artisans who published what others wrote and appealed to a reading public defined by proximity not politics. newspapers had become critical forums for the discussion of public life and a crucial influence on the formation of public opinion.Introduction 7 jealously. a change in what Miller called the "form and character" of the press." This transformation was part of a broader transformation in American print culture. did this engine operate upon so large a scale as in the eighteenth century. like women and African Americans) became steadily more conscious of their place in a broader but often distant national political debate. the number of newspapers published each week in the United States increased from about 25 to approximately 230. Poised between the disintegration of a republican culture of print in the eighteenth century and the formation of a print culture in the nineteenth century characterized by the "rise of objectivity" and the growth of a mass circulation popular press. and it was through the medium of the press that Americans (including many of those excluded from formal rights of citizenship. the Reverend Samuel Miller expressed astonishment at the rapid growth of partisan newspapers in the United States. The expansion of the literary marketplace and the low cost of producing newspapers. assuredly. Once regarded as vehicles for the conveyance of political "intelligence." Their distinctive ideas and experiences shed light on different aspects and moments of American politics in the 17905. newspapers formed a critical link between the new federal government and its citizens. As the nation expanded and developed. but taken together I hope their stories also illuminate in new ways the broader story of American politics in the postrevolutionary period. "and never. taking their ideas seriously and giving them a degree of prominence not usually associated with the ephemeral character of newspapers and the generally low esteem in which the public (and many historians) hold their creators." by the 179 os. H In A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century. and that is how I've approached them in this book. the 1790S presented unique opportunities to partisan editors and writers. "Never was there given to man a political engine of greater power.
when used by a newsmonger. Authors were to be heard but not seen. By asserting their own subjectivity and emphasizing the importance of character in their own writings and in the content of their newspapers. They are always useless. and are besides perfect nonsense. partisan editors during this period operated from a position of precarious but genuine economic and ideological independence. ad hominem style of journalism dedicated to unmasking the characters and motives of public men. for example. Cobbett placed his own distinctive persona at the center of his political writing. writing to persuade rather than to inform their readers and using their writings to fashion powerful representations of their own authorial personalities. these editors not only represented themselves to the public in new ways. Porcupine's Gazette." he declared in the very first issue of his daily newspaper. reconfiguring the idea of authorial independence not to affirm his own political impartiality but to justify his right to self-expression. Although this "republican ideology of print" came under considerable strain during the American Revolution. Newspapers were expected to function as passive and neutral media (literally. but it was also shaped by much . they helped to unleash a fierce public debate about the politics of character in the early Republic." Rejecting the conventional pieties of American journalism. when editors and political authors revised their ideas about impartiality and anonymity to permit the expression of their own revolutionary (or anti-revolutionary) commitments. With differing degrees of modesty. The English emigre journalist William Cobbett." Partisan journalists in the early Republic broke sharply with the ideals of republican print culture. readers had expected responsible editors to keep their personal politics out of their newspapers and responsible political writers to pay homage to an ideal of authorial impartiality and anonymity. In the past.8 Scandal & Civility the American press. other partisan editors of the 1790S did the same. Far from being party hacks. And editors were to be neither heard nor seen. in the middle) through which independent writers communicated with equally independent readers. developing an intrusive. "Professions of impartiality." Moreover. "I shall make none. made no effort to hide his authorial personality or to pretend he was the neutral arbiter of a rational and disinterested public debate. they also focused public attention on the public representations of others.r' Their newspapers reflected this independence and were characterized by emphatic and powerful authorial voices. gave editors in this period unprecedented and unrivaled personal influence. 17 This shift toward a more abrasive and personal style of political journalism was closely linked to developments in the 1790S. it dominated the literary and political culture of colonial America and resurfaced vigorously in the postrevolutionary period.
and other voluntary organizations) created new forms of secular association and sociability. As Gordon Wood points out. which was common to both English and American political culture and which made the detection of true motives and character central to political discourse. ideas that placed human volition rather than divine providence at the center of the historical process. fueling public concern about the identities of those who competed for public office." Anxiety about political identity acquired even greater potency because of the transformation and democratization of public life in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. These social institutions (coffeehouses. exchange information. issues of personal identity and public representation were a "source of continuing fascination in eighteenth-century Anglo-American culture. a belief that deepened public skepticism about the motives and intentions of political leaders. often based on a shared interest in commerce or politics. most important the newspaper press. connecting private readers and citizens through the impersonal medium of print." published in the 1740S. But even more important was the erosion of popular belief in the hereditary basis for social and political hierarchy. the art of reading and interpreting character was the key to that "excellent Art. This transformation undermined the insular.Introduction 9 broader changes in eighteenth-century American society." The expansion of the newspaper press (fueled by the growing appetite for commercial and political information) reinforced this development but also reconstituted it at a more abstract level. aristocratic world of court politics. As the English novelist and author of Tom Jones. In this increasingly impersonal public world of politics and marketplace activity. Henry Fielding." But there were other intellectual currents at work as well. where citizens could meet to read the news (and other literary forms. wrote in "An Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men." the task of identifying political leaders became increasingly difficult. As ideas about social and political hierarchy were democratized (and relegitimized) in the eighteenth century by the idea of a "natural aristocracy." a fascination that reflected the spread of new ideas about the importance of human agency in the Enlightenment. and discuss public affairs. called the Art of Politics. public houses. like novels and poetry). One was the increasingly widespread belief that the world and its affairs were governed by "interest" rather than civic virtue (a development that was central to the new science of political economy). displacing it with what the German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas calls a bourgeois "public sphere. and the growth of a new framework for public life outside the institutional boundaries of the political state." These ideas about human agency manifested themselves in a fondness for conspiracy theories. literary societies. ." The creation of a public sphere in Britain and the British colonies of North America during the eighteenth century involved two central developments: the expansion of new forms of publicity.
and Samuel Richardson linked the private. Not surprisingly. particularly satirical poetry and prose. explanations for political behavior became increasingly personal and conspiratorial." an under- standing of the self as a unique. domestic world of the eighteenth century to the increasingly anonymous and impersonal public sphere. which always generates its own fictions. in the relationship between private and public life. Although no colonial writers matched the satirical skill of Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope." The transformation of public life in the eighteenth century also encouraged new forms of consciousness about and new ideas about the self. what Habermas describes as the "domestic novel. While the novel publicized private life. Patriot editors like William Goddard and Eleazar Oswald. Political satire was an ideal form for publicizing political life and connecting the hitherto insulated world of elite politics to the world of the common reader and the common man.10 Scandal & Civility personal identity was no longer always determined by direct acquaintance-the spoken word and the physical body-and the difficulty of determining identity became ever greater. and few tried to match the rebarbative nastiness of their less celebrated "Grub Street" or "Hackney" counterparts. By exploring in a literary form the psychological complexity of the self and the social complexity of private life.P Literary and political satire was an important part of American colonial culture and flourished despite the influence of republican ideas about impersonality. During the American Revolution." The authors of more explicitly public and political forms of writing. English novelists like Tobias Smollett." Although the novel had antecedents in earlier forms of fictional. Henry Fielding. American writers nonetheless produced a healthy satirical tradition and helped to popularize writers like Swift and Pope." came of age during the eighteenth century and played a key role in the creation of a new reading public. stable. satirical political writing thus linked private subjects and citizens to the new public sphere. shared the novelists' interest in personal character. the "novel. political satire personalized public life. and was what one historian has called the relationship between public and private eighteenth century was a period of cultural at the heart of this cultural transformation the "making of the modern self. poets like Philip Freneau (who was deeply influenced by . and in presenting the world in narrative terms. and epistolary writing. the psychological description in autobiographical form. autobiographical. This new selfconsciousness or subjectivity found its most creative and important expression in an entirely new literary form. and it was often hard to draw a boundary line between fiction. The as well as political revolution. Highly personal. and identifiable subject. and political writing. which always has a politics of its own.
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