J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 27, 2018

What Do We Know about Gen. de Steuben’s Sexuality?

Last month The Nib published Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings’s comic about Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben as a gay man.

I found it inaccurate at several spots. Yet the core message—that Steuben was both important to the Continental Army’s success and sexually attracted to other men—is almost certainly correct. It’s just that a lot of the details, especially those supporting that conclusion, are wildly exaggerated.

Most of the evidence about the Baron de Steuben’s sexuality appears in John Macauley Palmer’s 1937 biography, General von Steuben. Palmer admired Steuben greatly and disliked the idea of the baron being gay, so he tried hard to refute the evidence, leaving logical circles in the ground as he spun. But he did publish the relevant sources in English translation.

Many of the original European documents were probably destroyed in World War 2, along with others that might have been helpful. It’s therefore unlikely that we’ll find new evidence from Steuben’s lifetime. But we can do a better job than Palmer of interpreting those documents and spotting the most likely conclusions.

This comic instead overstates the evidence in various ways. It doesn’t cite sources but appears to have been based on articles written for American newspapers, magazines, and websites over the past twenty-five years since Randy Shilts’s Conduct Unbecoming focused attention on Steuben as a gay man.

I’ll go through the statements I think are exaggerated.

“Steuben lived openly as a homosexual before the term was even invented.”

It’s true that the word “homosexual” was coined in 1868. More important (as Trujillo and Hastings later acknowledge), people’s understanding of sexuality and expectations of how gay men behave were different in the Baron de Steuben’s lifetime and in our own. So what does it mean to say he “lived openly as a homosexual”?

Gen. de Steuben was a lifelong bachelor. He didn’t marry a woman while having affairs with men, as it was and is said of his monarch Frederick the Great of Prussia, Frederick’s brother Prince Henry, and Lord George Germain in Britain. The baron’s title was too new, his estate too small, to make a direct heir necessary. In that respect, Steuben was more like Horace Walpole or Charles Paxton.

But neither is there any evidence of Gen. de Steuben claiming a longtime partner or expressing sexual interest in males. When he set up a household with a young man late in life, he presented that man as his secretary.

Some of Gen. de Steuben’s letters express affection for other men more plainly than 20th-century male correspondents did, but there are similar letters between eighteenth-century men who had active heterosexual lives. Even in the baron’s circle, there’s a lot of joshing about young ladies, whether sincere or not.

So the comic’s statement that Steuben “lived openly as a homosexual” is highly questionable at best.

“Steuben was expelled from Germany on charges of sodomy.”

There was of course no political entity called “Germany” in Steuben’s lifetime. He was born in Prussia, but in the late 1760s and early 1770s he was a powerful government minister in the small principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. And then suddenly he wasn’t.

The baron met with American envoys Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin in Paris in the summer of 1777, but they couldn’t promise him a rank and good pay in the Continental Army. He instead sought a position in Baden. An official from that small country wrote to the prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen on 13 Aug 1777:
It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.
That’s the principal contemporaneous evidence for Gen. de Steuben’s homosexuality. We might even say the baron wasn’t accused of “sodomy” but of molesting children (in the original French, “d’avoir pris avec de jeunes garçons des familiaritiés, que les Loix defendent & punissent sévérément”). Again, the period’s understanding of sexual behavior is significant: the Prussian court appears to have revived the classical Greek admiration of adolescent boys as a noble way of expressing homosexual desire.

About five days after this letter was drafted, Steuben was back in Paris, over 300 miles away. Now he was quite interested in the Americans’ offer. By 4 September the baron had signed on to their cause, on 10 September he left Paris for Marseilles, and on 26 September he sailed for America, never to return.

All that said, no one has found evidence that Baron de Steuben faced formal “charges of sodomy” or that he was officially “expelled” from any country. Palmer even argued that the real problem in Hohenzollern-Hechingen was a budget crunch, and that the accusations of sexual misconduct were trumped up by Steuben’s court enemies—though he offered no evidence for such enmity. But the most likely explanation is that Baron de Steuben left his post and then Europe under a cloud because of those accusations of sexual misconduct, thus removing himself in a bid to keep the scandal as quiet as possible.

So again, The Nib’s comic takes the incomplete, somewhat murky evidence from Steuben’s lifetime and offers readers a definite statement reflecting modern expectations.

TOMORROW: What Franklin, Washington, and others knew.

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