What the Sex Lives of the Founding Fathers Reveal About Us
Long before the modern sex columnist, there was Benjamin Franklin. In a column from 1745 titled “Advice on the Choice of a Mistress,” Franklin advised bachelors to seek out older women: They “hazard no children,” he wrote, and “are so grateful” for a young man’s attention. “Regarding only what is below the girdle,” he added, “it is impossible…to know an old from a young one.”
Franklin wasn’t the only Founding Father whose libido was a frequent topic of conversation. Thomas Jefferson’s political opponents published inflammatory cartoons “outing” his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. Alexander Hamilton publicly apologized for an extramarital affair, two centuries before Bill Clinton.
And George Washington was almost certainly subjected to rumors that he engaged in gay sex. As a Freemason, the historian Thomas Foster writes in his new book, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, newspapers commonly attacked Freemasons by circulating stories that they were “engaging in anal penetration with wooden spikes used in ship building.”
Whether these stories are true is not what interests Foster, however. What fascinates him, and what’s the subject of his book, is how the public has always hungered for stories about the Founders’ sex lives. At root, Foster argues, sex has always been a critical, though underappreciated way that Americans have tried to make the Founders relatable. It’s how we make them seem human, if no less heroic.
“What I wanted to counter was this idea that this interest in the Founders’ sex lives was something new,” Foster said in an interview. “That’s why this book is about the quote-unquote ‘relatable’ nature of the Founders. If these stories don’t resonate with contemporary readers, then the Founders will lose their relevance. And if they’re not relatable, then it doesn’t connect us to the past, and it doesn’t connect us to the nation.”
Not long after Foster, a professor at DePaul University, finished his first book on sexuality in 18th century America, he turned to the Founding Fathers. Reading some of the recent biographies, he was struck that almost all of them discussed the sex lives of the Founders as if no one had ever done it before. In his new book, he quotes the late Christopher Hitchens, author of a 2009 biography of Jefferson, who told Jon Stewart: “It’s a book about our Founding Fathers as if they had penises. Most Founding Father books omit the cock. I put it in.”
Foster himself wasn’t sure if past biographers had discussed the Founders “as if they had penises.” But he was surprised to find that many of them did. Suddenly, he had the idea for a book: How did ideas about proper sexual behavior change over time? And how did those ideas affect the way people wrote about the Founders’ sex lives?
George Washington provides a telling example. For much of the 19th century, his biographers all but ignored the fact that he never had children. To do so might suggest that Washington, the “father of the nation,” was less than fully successful in all aspects of his life. Even paintings of him with his wife, Martha, showed him surrounded by children: They were, in fact, his stepchildren from Martha’s first marriage.
By the early 20th century, Freudian ideas began changing attitudes toward intimacy. Increasingly, sex and its corollary, romantic love, were seen as a healthy part of a relationship. This stood in contrast to the chaste 19th century, when marriage, rather than romance, was the main topic of interest. In consequence, biographers frequently discussed Washington’s actual relationship with Martha, almost always casting it in blissfully romantic terms. “First crushes suddenly become important,” Foster said.
In more recent times, one’s “sex life” has become a popular public topic. And Foster even sees hints of this in the way contemporary biographers write about Washington’s childlessness. Almost no biographer considers it possible that Washington was impotent. The reason, Foster argues, is that impotence implies a lack of virility, a lack of manliness. Thus, despite having no evidence to support it, they cite sterility as the more likely explanation.
Neither has the lack of evidence stopped people from arguing that Alexander Hamilton was gay. Foster highlights the recent interest that some LGBT activists have taken in homoerotic letters Hamilton wrote to John Laurens, a fellow soldier in the patriot army. One of them reads: “I wish, my dear Laurens, it were in my power, by actions, rather than words, to convince you that I love you.”
Foster argues that it is certainly possible that Hamilton had a sexual relationship with Laurens. But to suggest that Hamilton is our “gay Founding Father” ignores the historical nature of sexual identity. Rarely do these activists consider the fact that “gay” identities did not exist; nor do they explore the nature of 18th century male friendship, which could be intensely romantic, even erotic, without including sex. “We’re not taking the complexities of 18th century love into account,” Foster said. “We’re forcing them into our model, and that’s basically what we’ve done throughout history.”
Yet Foster does not let serious historians, either academic or popular, off the hook either. When it comes to the recent question of Hamilton’s sexual identity, he sympathizes with their reticence to say that Hamilton had sexual intercourse with Laurens. There is simply no evidence to prove it. And yet, he finds it hypocritical that many historians use the same kind of sexually charged letters Hamilton wrote to women as evidence that he was a very straight Lothario. “It just looks like such a double standard. What’s the level of evidence that you need to be certain that this was true love?” Foster said, in regard to his letters to Laurens.
Perhaps no one’s sex life has been the subject of more public scrutiny, in his own time and now, than Jefferson’s. Yet for much of the past two centuries, it was his relationship to the white Parisian socialite Maria Cosway—not Sally Hemings—that biographers tended to write about. When the Cosway relationship was discussed, biographers emphasized that it began after Jefferson’s wife had died. That made it safe from implying infidelity, and the relationship could even be used bolster Jefferson’s image: What better way to convey his charm, his worldliness, than to write about a love affair in Paris?
To be sure, Jefferson’s political opponents and later abolitionists targeted his relationship with Sally Hemings as proof of his hypocrisy. But the general public generally ignored it, which, Foster argues, reflected the nation’s racist attitudes. Only in the past two decades have historians taken the Hemings relationship seriously, concluding with near certainty that it happened.
But Foster emphasizes how even this new consensus has been spun to fit a more uplifting national narrative. The public likes to remember it, if they remember at all, as evidence of Jefferson being a “multicultural hero.” As evidence, Foster points to George W. Bush’s invitation, in 2001, of Hemings’ descendants to the White House. Nothing better conveyed the message that America was a tolerant, multicultural nation.
Even more intriguing was how recent, popular takes on the Hemings relationship focus on the question of love: Could it have been a romantic relationship? Somehow Jefferson gets the benefit of the doubt, even though he was 30 years older, and even though most master-slave relationships entailed coercion, if they were not outright rape. “That fascinated me, that it could be depicted as a love story” despite having “so little to go on,” Foster said.
The other Founders studied are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and the underappreciated Gourveneur Morris. About Adams, we learn that he was once a model for ideal husbandly behavior. But feminism’s rise in the 1970s has led to a ream of books, scholarly and popular, that have highlighted the equitable nature of his marriage: John and Abigail are now sometimes cast a “power couple,” their stupendous relationship requiring a lot of “hard-work.”
Meanwhile, Franklin’s solid marriage is no longer emphasized, and he is instead frequently portrayed as a lady’s man. Based on his amorous letters with several Parisian salon women during the American Revolution, one writer has called him a “foxy grandpa,” while another historian has described him as a “septuagenarian” “with sexual appetites of gargantuan proportions.”
As for Gouverneur Morris—critical in writing the Constitution yet essentially forgotten in popular memory—Foster suggests that his sexual life may have had something to do it. Morris did not marry until he was 57. And his body was disfigured—much of his left side scarred from a childhood accident, and he was missing a leg; none of this made for a comely portrait. Yet recent biographers have managed to depict his sex life favorably: They have found a trove of romantic letters, which has helped cast him as ahead of his time, a modern day libertine.
Foster’s subject should lure more readers than a typical academic book. But they should expect a serious message. We crave stories about the Founders’ sex lives, but cannot handle the unseemly truths, he writes—“so we rewrite and respin and reremember them in various ways to present them in a positive light.” Our “romanticized view,” gets us no closer to knowing who Founders actually were, and ultimately “serves only the present.”