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James Monroe and John Adams: An Unlikely "Friendship"

By Scherr, Arthur | The Historian, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

James Monroe and John Adams: An Unlikely "Friendship"


Scherr, Arthur, The Historian


RECENT HISTORICAL SCHOLARSHIP on the political culture of the early United States has turned from analyzing ideologies and issues to examining the personalities and motivations of the first party leaders. Within a framework often termed the "republican paradigm," an incongruous mixture of conservative, deferential, communal, Enlightenment, and individualist elements, historians have begun to stress individual friendships' power to mold partisan loyalties. Political scientist James Sterling Young, whose landmark analysis, The Washington Community, 1801-1828 (1966), discovered the existence of congressional boarding-house "blocs" during Jefferson's presidency, was probably the first student to emphasize the role of "friendship" in shaping political identity. (1) However, with the recent publication of Joanne B. Freeman's Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, the concept, "friendship," has matured as a leitmotif commingling individual, social, and political interaction. In Freeman's analysis, the concept constituted "the central organizing force of national politics" during the 1790s. "Clearly, friend was a charged word with a multitude of meanings, reflecting the bond between the personal and the political that characterized the period's politics," she observes of that formative decade. The number of friends one had measured one's potential political clout. "Indeed," she writes, "politicians often evaluated a politician's skill and power on the basis of his ability to attract and steer friends." Rather than merely a personal bond between those whose affinity stemmed from what we call the "chemistry" between them, or arose from shared likes and dislikes, in the political arena one looked to accrue advantages from one's "friends." (2)

Nonetheless, in ways that Freeman overlooks, eighteenth-century "friendship" was a republican euphemism for the persistence of old-fashioned aristocratic patronage. If a person of higher social or economic status was willing to help one gain occupational or political advancement, or perform numerous small favors, for him he became known as one's "friend." Thus, even in the raucous politics of the 1790s, "friendship" was the accouterment of an "aristocratic" society, tempered and calibrated by linkages of hierarchy and subordination. During the Puritan era, when society was considered an organic whole, the disharmony or selfishness that dissolved friendships was condemned. By the mid-1700s, self-reliant American republicans, impugning relationships of "dependency," preferred to label mutual obligations with a milder surrogate term: "friendship." As Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously put it in the Social Contract, explaining the source of legitimacy of the General Will and democratic government, "The undertakings which bind us to the social body are obligatory only because they are mutual; and their nature is such that in fulfilling them we cannot work for others without working for ourselves." After the American Revolution, individuals received praise for their economic success, especially when they accomplished it through their own talents, without the intervention of influential "friends" or patrons. (3)

Gordon Wood was the first scholar to convincingly link "friendship" to the republican mentalite in its inchoate form within the British monarchy. Even under George III, "friendship" was integral to the republican Weltanshauung: "Although they seldom mentioned the term, good monarchical subjects nonetheless celebrated republicanism for its morality, its freedom, its sense of friendship and civic duty, and its vision of society." (4) By the early 1750s, personal attachments and connections were described as "friendship," even when existing between the socially unequal. Relationships as diverse as kin networks and those between patrons and customers might be considered under the heading of "friendship." (5)

The new historiographical importance of the eighteenth-century concept of "friendship" is enhanced by its curious, even self-contradictory connotations.

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