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A Republic of Scoundrels: America’s original white men behaving badly

<span>Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive</span>
Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

On 15 February 1798, a fight erupted on the floor of Congress. The previous month, Matthew Lyon of Vermont spat in the face of a fellow congressman, Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Now they came to blows. Griswold wielded a hickory walking stick. Lyon used fireplace tongs. The melee devolved into a wrestling match. Griswold won, but it was just the start of Lyon’s downfall. Defending his seat that fall, he fell foul of a law against sedition by campaigning against an undeclared war with France and was sentenced to four months in jail.

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Improbably, Lyon had the last laugh. While incarcerated, he won re-election. When an electoral college tie sent the 1800 presidential election into the House, Lyon was among those who voted for the winner, Thomas Jefferson.

“The Spitting Lyon” is one of 14 controversial members of the founding generation profiled in a new book, A Republic of Scoundrels: the Schemers, Intriguers & Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation, edited by David Head of the University of Central Florida and Timothy C Hemmis of Texas A&M.

“One of the things the whole project does is cast a look at the founding generation – not just the founding fathers,” Hemmis says. “The founding fathers were American saints, so to speak. This is kind of a more complicated picture of that founding generation. These men did not hold up the ideals … we’ve been taught about or told about.”

Two names are infamous: Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton dramatized Burr’s killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Head and Hemmis explore a less familiar development.

“What the musical does not do,” Hemmis says, “is talk about Burr’s activities after he shot Hamilton. He goes out west and is starting to recruit these frontiersmen as audiences for entirely different plans and schemes, like carving out an empire in the west on a separate basis from the US, or going to invade Spanish Mexico.”

Captured in Alabama in 1807, brought to trial for treason, Burr won acquittal and survived subsequent hearings. Arnold actually committed treason, defecting to the British in the revolutionary war. Yet the chapter on Arnold adds nuance, James Kirby Martin of the University of Houston noting how Arnold felt under-appreciated as a patriot and plagued by rivals despite his considerable achievements on the battlefield.

Other subjects may be less familiar, including James Wilkinson, a high-ranking general who spied for Spain.

“[Wilkinson] was just an amazing general in the US army – and a paid agent of a foreign power,” Head says. “No one discovered this definitively until after he died. There were rumors and suspicions, but he managed to hide it.”

Each protagonist receives a chapter by a separate author. Shira Lurie of Saint Mary’s University notes in her chapter on Lyon that he really was called a scoundrel by Griswold before the Connecticut congressman assaulted him. Some subjects appear in other chapters: Wilkinson gets star treatment in the chapter by Samuel Watson, of the United States Military Academy at West Point, then plays a supporting role in Hemmis’s chapter on Burr. Improbably, the spy for Spain did the US government a favor by alerting it to Burr’s alleged plot. As to why Wilkinson did so, the explanations are predictably murky.

“Was he blowing the whistle on treason or telling on Burr to save himself?” Head asks. “Who was doing what to whom? One of the options was to say one guy was less good than the other, but the reality is, they were both bad.”

Defining the term “scoundrel”, the book cites Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definition, including a “low petty villain”.

“It’s not exactly helpful,” Head says, “but it gives you an idea of someone known for deceit, known for cunning, preying on people’s vulnerabilities … It’s the kind of thing people duel over, impugning their reputation for honor.”

Hemmis says: “It’s also the idea that there’s a lot of unethical commercial interests and schemes going on that don’t fit nicely into the American narrative.”

If we are to fully understand the founding generation and the early American republic, the authors argue, we need to understand such scoundrels and their impact. As they explain, the new nation was no longer under a monarchy and the Articles of Confederation weakened the central government at the expense of the states. Powerful rivals controlled the borders: England, Spain and Indigenous American peoples. In such an atmosphere, Americans could pursue self-interest.

Consider William Blount, who swindled revolutionary war veterans out of land earned through service. Blount enlisted his brother in the scheme and wound up with millions of acres on the western frontier. He became one of the first senators from Tennessee – and the first senator to be impeached.

As Head and Hemmis illustrate, self-interest could lead men to ally with another country, encourage secession from the US, or both. There was Burr’s bid for a breakaway section in the west and there was Wilkinson’s work with the Spanish, during which he criticized superiors such as the only general who outranked him, Anthony Wayne, and George Washington himself. Wilkinson’s chapter does note that the intelligence he passed on was essentially open-source material and that when it counted, he supported American interests over those of Spain.

The editors remind readers of the many differences between that era and ours. Spain loomed uncomfortably close, sharing a boundary for 40 years. The biggest sectional rivalry was not north v south but east v west, with the frontier in Kentucky. Foreign agents interfered in American politics. William Bowles, a would-be British agent, became a trusted voice among some Indigenous peoples in Florida and tried to set up an independent state, Muskogee. Don Diego de Gardoqui, a Spanish diplomat, supported the patriot cause with arms from Spain but later worked for his government in an unsuccessful attempt to weaken American power.

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Do these scoundrels offer lessons to learn today, amid the rise of Donald Trump and deepening social divides? Discussing Lyon, the congressman who brawled on the House floor then was re-elected from prison, Head recalls an exchange with a friend.

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“He texted me back: ‘Are we still a republic of scoundrels?’ I said, ‘Yes, but remember, it’s a republic.’ It’s an important point. Whatever it is, the country is still a republic. It’s an important thing to think about in modern times … It’s still unusual, precious, [something] to be proud of.

“Our constitution works. The political system works. We’ve been through a civil war, slavery, violence … In the 1790s, we didn’t know whether it could work.”

Lurie, author of the chapter on Lyon, has her own reflections for today, focused on his rivals’ inability to oust him.

“The attempt to weaken one’s distasteful political opponents through ridicule, mockery and expressions of outrage did not work then, and it does not work now,” she writes. “Too often, such tactics just enhance these individuals’ popularity. Instead of looking down on them and their supporters, we might do better to seriously and humbly contemplate the nature of their appeal. And so, confront the real America, scoundrels and all.”