Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: the American Quest for a Relatable Past

(2014-03-09 023)Title: Sex Lives and the Founding Fathers: the American Quest for a Relatable Past [NETGALLERY DOWNLOAD]

Author: Thomas A. Foster

Series: Sexuality Studies

Publication Information: Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014

ISBN: 1439911029 (978-1439911020)

Library of Congress Classification: E302.5

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Founding Fathers of the United States—Sexual behavior—United States—History
Presidents—Sexual behavior—United States—History
United States—History, 1783-1815—Biography

This is an interesting book.

Anything that has sex in the title usually sells, and Foster goes through the sex lives of the Founding Fathers: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, the least remembered. Foster traces how the sex lives (what we know about them, which in most cases is not much) have changed in biographies over time from right after the Revolutionary War to now. It is a fascinating look at how society has perceived the Founders, and the importance of their sex lives is to the public.

Most of the Founders left very little about their personal lives, with the exception of Franklin and Morris. With George’s death, Martha Washington burned most of their correspondence so little of it remains. Adams was fearful of putting anything private in letters because a popular past-time was the reading of letters to friends and relatives. Private parts of letters were marked but Adams took no chances. What is known about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave who is now believed was his lover, is circumstantial. Such stories circulated about Jefferson while he lived, but such stories were put out by political opponents to smear their rivals. There is no doubt that Hemings’ descendants are related to the third president, but was he or another Jefferson  her lover?

Hamilton’s affair with another woman was made public by his enemies because he was being blackmailed by the woman and her husband; he enemies wanted to cast Hamilton as an embezzler of public funds to pay off the blackmailers. This proved to be untrue and Hamilton, who was illegitimate, went public with what happened to him. Washington stood by him.

Franklin wrote is autobiography, which allowed him to shape his legacy, the only Founder to do so. His oldest son was born out of wedlock, and Franklin and his wife raised the boy. Franklin has always been seen as a ladies man, and he was sexually active before he married. He also had plenty of opportunities when he was in France. Franklin made the rounds of the salons that were run by women, but these groups were more than just social get-togethers. Politics, dealing and spying were rolled into the gatherings presided over by the French aristocratic women. Did Franklin cheat on his wife, or was it all just show? He is not considered a good husband; even after receiving a letter from his wife imploring him to return home to see her before she died, he did not come back until after her death.

Was Adams a good husband? Like the relationship between George and Martha Washington, the marriage of John and Abigail Adams has been portrayed as loving and warm. Adams was not at home much, traveling around the colonies and eventually going to France with Franklin to represent the United States at the French court during the Revolution. Again, there is not much evidence to base a judgment. Hamilton is seen by many as the “gay” Founder because of an intense relationship he had with another soldier in the Revolutionary Army. There are letters where their affection for one another is evident, but Foster points out that letters of the time were written in a certain style. Was Hamilton close friends with this young man, who died in the Revolution, or were they lovers? Again, the evidence is circumstantial.

Morris’ legacy was mixed right after he died; he was a known libertine, at least before he got married (in his 50s); he liked sex, and he liked women. Unlike the rest, including Franklin, Morris kept extensive diaries that not only discussed what he was doing but with whom he was having affairs. It was not unusual for Morris to record his activities in the salon, doing some political dealing, then slipping off to have a tryst with his favorite aristocrat, whose cuckold husband was clueless and, at least in one case, was in the next room. What is most shocking is that many of Morris’ entries have been vandalized; lines and pieces of entries have been scratched out, making much of it unreadable. An earlier biography by a relative cited some of these now-destroyed entries, so who vandalized the diaries?

A very interesting book.

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