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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Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Only Read This Book for the Relatable Past

You might think that Thomas A. Foster’s Sex and the Founding Fathers is about the sexual behavior of the men who led the American Revolution and the creation of the federal government. But take a look at the subtitle: The American Quest for a Relatable Past.

That signals how this study isn’t about those men’s sexual thoughts or behaviors, about which we have very little information, anyway. Rather, it’s about how American authors have described the sexual side of those men’s lives, in many cases selecting and massaging the known facts to fit what they wanted the readers of their times to believe, or what readers wanted to read.

For instance, what has it meant to Americans that George Washington, the “Father of His Country,” evidently couldn’t father children? Was it a somewhat embarrassing reflection on his masculinity, or a natural frustration that humanizes him, or even a handy refutation of the occasional suggestions that he had children out of wedlock? (Of course, he could have had extramarital affairs without leaving the evidence of a fertile man.)

Foster notes Washington biographers stating strenuously that his infertility problem could not have been due to a sexual transmitted disease—that was simply beyond reason. But they were mum about the possibility of erectile dysfunction, a much more common problem for men but one with symbolic implications of impotence in other areas. (Foster doesn’t discuss a theory I recall seeing bandied about in recent decades, that Washington might have had Klinefelter syndrome, due to XXY chromosomes. Talk about raising gender issues!)

Foster also discusses how historians have treated John Adams, who was known for his long, close, and faithful marriage, and Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Gouverneur Morris, who weren’t. Originally the book also discussed Aaron Burr, but Foster converted that material into this article at Common-Place; in contrast to the others, American authors could gleefully discuss Burr as a libertine because he became a villain in the national saga.

Sex and the Founding Fathers also shows how the Founders serve as a barometer of the culture’s attitude toward sexual behavior. For instance, late in the Victorian period the Massachusetts Senator George F. Hoar decided that Franklin, of all people, didn’t belong in a National Hall of Fame:
Dr. Franklin’s conduct of life was that of a man on a low plane…one side of his character gross and immoral. . . . [His letter] on the question of keeping a mistress, which, making allowance for the manners of the time, and all allowance for the fact that he might have been partly in jest, is an abominable and wicked letter; and all his relation to women, and to the family life were of that character.
Come on, Senator, tell us how you really feel!

For me the star of this book was Gouverneur Morris, the least known of its subjects. He was frankly interested in sex throughout his long bachelorhood. Foster argues that Morris doesn’t deserve to be called a rake, however, because he (at least sometimes) passed up sex if he and his lover weren’t really in love, because he cared about whether those women had a good time, and because some of his affairs lasted for years. He just had a lot of them, and his (married) male friends liked to gossip about him.

Foster notes that only four full-length biographies of Morris were published in the 1800s and 1900s. Since 2003, however, there have been “three academic works and two popular biographies.” Those discuss the sexual side of Morris’s life more frankly—far more frankly—than books of previous eras did. Perhaps Gouverneur Morris is the Founder for our time.

In case you wonder, Sex and the Founding Fathers does come with illustrations. Illustrations like “A Philosophic Cock,” a political cartoon attacking Jefferson for his relationship with Sally Hemings.

1 comment:

EJWitek said...

Gouvernor Morris - my favorite Columbia graduate. A man with a pegleg, who, in his mid-fifties, married Thomas Jefferson's son-in-law's sister and a man whose cause of death was as bizarre as they come. Yet, Theodore Roosevelt saw to honor him with a biography.