- A Bedpost (Is/Is Not) Only a Bedpost
When Richard Godbeer reads aloud the effusive love letters that men sent to other men in eighteenth-century America, his students wonder if the men were "queer." In this deeply researched and elegantly written book, Godbeer answers with an unemphatic No.
Only in the last several decades have historians begun to investigate the role of gender and sexuality in early American history; and as they have done so, the extensive evidence of what are termed "romantic friendships" has presented a puzzlement. Could these men in their letters and journals be documenting homosexual relationships? Early on in this discussion many historians came to the conclusion that expressions of sexuality in the period must have been so completely different that one cannot validly apply modern interpretations to these writings. That consensus was bolstered by Michel Foucault when he asserted that homosexuality was in a sense "created" by the medico-legal establishment in the late nineteenth century. Clearly (many concluded), premodern declarations of male-male love must be totally devoid of sexual baggage, and instead must reflect only the conventional rhetoric of sensibility. Recently scholars have begun to challenge those assumptions and to suggest that—at least where sexual desire is concerned—people have not changed all that much since the nation's founding.
Godbeer begins his discussion by digging into a rich vein of documentation that most historians can only dream of discovering: intense personal relationships documented by multiple diaries, supplemented by extensive correspondence. The young men in question are Philadelphians John Mifflin and Isaac Norris, unmarried men in their late twenties whose attachment to one another was so deeply felt that when Norris was absent during a Grand Tour of Europe, Mifflin grew so anxious about his return that he became physically ill. Writing to Norris he pleaded, "I know not how I should bear a disappointment of seeing you in the spring—come, I beseech you—I crave you" (p. 20). [End Page 338]
The stressful situation became further complicated when Mifflin, during Norris's absence, began a friendship with fifteen-year-old James Gibson, whom Mifflin met at a public lecture. "The subject, appropriately enough," Godbeer observes, "was electricity" (p. 24). Gibson was an undergraduate at Princeton, and while his studies meant he was frequently away from Philadelphia, the two young men exchanged visits. Gibson arranged for Mifflin to stay at a nearby boarding house, but on several evenings he left his Princeton dormitory so that he could share Mifflin's bed.
In two places in his book Godbeer asserts that no special significance should be given to the fact that men shared beds, since this was a common practice during the period. Godbeer is correct: it was certainly common for close male relatives (brothers and cousins) to share a bed during a period when homes were small and families were large, and there is ample documentation that, when traveling through more remote regions of the country, men stopping at inns could expect to share a bed with a complete stranger (or two). Yet there is little documentation that unrelated men who felt no emotional intimacy ever shared beds on anything but a temporary basis, and most of what we know about the sleeping arrangements in American inns comes from the writings of European travelers who again and again expressed disgust and outrage at the very idea that they were expected to share a bed with a strange man. Bed-sharing while on the road may have been something to which American men reluctantly accommodated themselves, but it would be incorrect to assert that it was of no significance in the early years of the Republic. Moreover, there is ample evidence that men who were engaged in a romantic friendship at times shared a bed with their beloved, an experience often described in deeply erotic terms. "Often too he shared my pillow—or I his," wrote Yale undergraduate Albert Dodd, "and how sweet to sleep with him...