Fame and Reputation

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Early national concepts of fame and reputation differ greatly from their late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century equivalents. While today fame connotes little more than notoriety, in the early national period it encompassed an entire ethic. Similarly, reputation meant more than one's public image; an almost tangible possession, it encompassed a person's entire identity and sense of self.

The concept of fame had particular power among the early national political elite, though its roots reached back to the beginnings of western civilization; Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, by Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 a.d.) was a literal guide to gathering fame, describing and ranking a spectrum of heroes who had achieved immortal fame—the highest of goals. In the early American Republic, young gentlemen schooled to find models of personal behavior in Plutarch and other classical texts imbibed this idea from a young age. As Alexander Hamilton put it in The Federalist No. 72 (1788), "the love of fame" was the "ruling passion of the noblest minds."

As suggested by Plutarch's panoply of great men, a man earned fame by doing great deeds for the state—an assumption that evokes fame's aristocratic cast. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) mapped out a hierarchy of such acts in his widely read Essayes (1625), assigning fame to "fathers of their country" who reigned justly; "champions of the empire" who defended or expanded territories; "saviors of empire" who surmounted national crises; lawgivers who governed posterity through their laws; and—highest of all—"founders of states and commonwealths." For early national leaders engaged in the creation of a new nation, this sensibility infused their political efforts with a sense of lofty purpose as well as deep personal meaning. Seekers of fame wanted to make history and leave their mark on the world. America's founding generation assumed that they were doing just that. "We live in an important era and in a new-country," Benjamin Rush observed in 1788. "Much good may be done by individuals and that too in a short time."

Fame was considered a noble passion because it transformed ambition and self-interest into a desire to achieve great goals that served the public good. Even as fame fueled and inspired a man's ambitions, it reined them in; one could only achieve everlasting fame through public service. In essence, fame was a selfish virtue, enabling leaders to be simultaneously self-serving and public-minded; in a sense, it humanized the seemingly lofty and unreachable ideal of community-minded republican virtue.

Reputation was equally important, but to a broader range of people. Men and women of all ranks had a reputation, though its precise meaning differed from group to group. For artisans, farmers, or merchants—people of business or productivity—it connoted reliability and honesty. For women, it was tied to concepts of personal virtue. For political leaders, it represented their political currency, gaining them office and influence; particularly before political parties were acceptable, it was reputation that won a man power and office.

There were many dimensions to the concept of reputation. Fame, rank, credit, character, name, and honor all played a role. Rank was a somewhat impersonal way of referring to a person's place within the social order. Credit was more personalized, encompassing a person's social and financial worth; people with good credit were trustworthy enough to merit financial risks. Character was personality with a moral dimension, referring to the mixture of traits, vices, and virtues that determined a person's social worth. Taken together, these qualities formed a name or reputation—an identity as determined by others. Reputation was not unlike honor, and indeed, early Americans often used those words interchangeably. Honor was reputation with a moral dimension. A person of good reputation was respected and esteemed; an honorable person was notably virtuous.

Although concepts of fame and reputation had a long-standing historical past, different cultures shaded and altered their meanings. In early national America, the gradual democratization of politics subtly altered their significance. Traditionally, European leaders worried about their honor and reputation among their peers. Increasingly concerned with gaining popular political approval, American leaders looked to a broader audience. A prime example of this was the American practice of advertising political duels in newspapers. By publishing detailed accounts of their encounters—signed by name, despite dueling's illegality—leaders attempted to prove their qualities of leadership to the public and gain political support. "Europeans must read such publications with astonishment," gasped a writer in an 1803 issue of The Balance (Hudson, N.Y.).

Eventually, the increasingly shifting and changeable nature of American society had its impact. Urbanization and the rise of manufacturing made cities and towns ever larger, more complex, and anonymous. It is no accident that the early nineteenth century marks the rise of the "confidence man" or "con man," a person who relied on his very lack of reputation for personal gain. Winning confidence through his genteel appearance and manners, he could cheat people in one town or city, then remake himself in another. In such a constantly changing world, even simple notoriety was a noteworthy accomplishment. Over time, this more democratic notion of fame grew to replace its more aristocratic forebear.

See alsoClassical Heritage and American Politics .


Adair, Douglass. "Fame and the Founding Fathers." In Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays. Edited by Trevor Col-bourn. New York: Norton, 1974. Reprint, Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998.

Braudy, Leo. The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

McNamara, Peter, ed. The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor, and the American Founding. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Little-field, 1999.

Joanne Freeman