TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS
Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman
6: Joanne Freeman, 12-12-05
Teaching Position: Professor of History, Director of Graduate Studies, Yale University
Area of Research: The political history and culture of revolutionary and early national America.
Education: Ph.D., University of Virginia, 1998
Major Publications: Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2001); the editor of Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001). Freeman is currently working on a book about political violence and the culture of Congress in antebellum America.
Awards: Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. (2001), won the best book award from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
Additional Info: After a brief career in advertising, Freeman worked as a public historian for seven years, during which she curated museum exhibits, coordinated educational programs, and gave public lectures for institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the United States Department of Treasury, South Street Seaport Museum, and the Museum of American Financial History.
Freeman has lectured at such venues as Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the United States Capitol Historical Society, Monticello, and the Hamilton Grange National Park Site.
Freeman has also advised and appeared on numerous television documentaries and educational programs, including ‘The Duel’ (The American Experience, PBS), ‘Founding Brothers’ (History Channel), ‘Dueling in the New World’ (Discovery Channel); and ‘This Week in History’ (History Channel).
Freeman also is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.
I’ve always thought of myself as an “archive rat.” I love exploring manuscript collections, pouring over letters and random bits of paper, and – occasionally – discovering something new, revealing or exciting. Granted, sometimes one simply finds something odd, like the wad of New York Republican George Clinton’s hair that I found carefully wrapped up in a paper packet, or the small folded bit of eighteenth-century paper labeled “Grass” and containing, logically enough, little bits of eighteenth-century grass. Other times, one gets the feeling that a particular manuscript collection has been moldering in the dust of centuries until saved from oblivion by your call slip; one such occasion produced a collection of papers from an eighteenth-century Virginian that (honestly) reeked of leather and dirt – perhaps a whiff of eighteenth-century Virginia, though its main impact was to inspire a desperate desire to wash my hands.
In the course of my research, I’ve discovered a related historical passion which I’ve dubbed “Indiana Jones history” – historical research that calls for a real spirit of adventure. For example, when researching Alexander Hamilton (many years ago, long before graduate school), I decided to go to the island of Nevis where he was supposedly born, and live there for a few weeks. Admittedly, my arm didn’t need twisting at the idea of spending a month in the Caribbean. But at the time, Nevis was not exactly tourist (or research) friendly, leading to a continuing series of adventures. For example, to get to the island’s legal record, I had to pay a stamp tax – which required finding the stamp man – who worked only certain hours of certain days, known only to him. My sotto voce complaints about the cursed stamps – Why do I need a stamp anyway? And who does this stamp man think he is? – eventually led to the realization that I was experiencing my own little echo of the American Revolution.
Along similar lines, while revising the dueling chapter in Affairs of Honor, I asked a friend who knew about such things – Len Travers – to arrange for me to shoot a black powder dueling pistol. Len kindly obliged by contacting a friend from a local police department, Officer Victor Duphily, who took us to a police firing range and taught me how to shoot a pistol. I have to confess that it was oddly satisfying. Not much of a kick, but a nice full pop and a dramatic puff of smoke soon after. Of course, when Officer Duphily allowed me to shoot his regulation police sidearm, I had an entirely different experience. Shooting this gun really felt like holding death in your hand, and after one shot I handed it back, very happy not to shoot another such pistol again.
Obviously, I’ve enjoyed such experiences, but not just because they’ve been fun. Shooting a dueling pistol, paying a stamp tax, or simply rummaging among eighteenth-century documents all offer a little whiff of a past reality, a smell or a sound or a sensation that at least whispers back to the past. Sensory research can’t quite be footnoted, but it can be an intensely powerful source of scholarly inspiration.
By Joanne Freeman
- “In early national America, honor, democracy, and republicanism joined to form a distinctive political culture, governed by a grammar of political combat: a shared understanding of the weapons at one’s disposal – their power, use, and impact. This grammar was no defined rule book, no concrete tactical guide. It was a body of assumptions too familiar to record and thus almost invisible to modern eyes. National politicians had a remarkably precise understanding of this code, sifting through a defined spectrum of weapons in response to a corresponding spectrum of attacks. Publicly insulted by John Adams in 1798, James Monroe methodically considered these weapons when planning his response. Ignoring the offense was impossible, for ‘not to notice it may with many leave an unfavorable impressions agnst me.’ Responding to Adams “personally” with a challenge to a duel was also impossible: ‘I cannot I presume, as he is an old man & the Presidt.’ A pamphlet might serve, but Monroe had tried that, and Adams continued to insult him. Here is the application of an honor-bound grammar of combat.” — Joanne Freeman in Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic
About Joanne Freeman
- “The book’s virtues are mighty ones. Looking at Hamilton, Burr, and Jefferson through the lens of honor brings a logic to their actions that most histories have heretofore lacked.” — New York Times
- “A slew of popular historians have gone on tour in recent years with their speculative psychodramas about the American founders. Joanne B. Freeman puts them all to shame. In her probing book, there are no heroes, no villains–only politicians. . . . This hard-hitting, fast-paced, comprehensively researched book is one of the most intelligent and innovative studies in early American political culture to have appeared in recent years. . . . Affairs of Honor is a welcome antidote to Hollywood history.” — Andrew Burstein, American Scholar
- “Affairs of Honor is a landmark work in the history of our national origins. With considerable style and grace, Freeman shows that the central story line must include such old-fashioned notions as honor and character, and that, in her capable hands, political history is once again alive and well.” — Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
- “Very clear, accessible, and engaging.” — Anonymous Student
Posted on Saturday, December 10, 2005 at 11:36 PM