- The Overflowing of Friendship
The central argument of Richard Godbeer's path-breaking new book is that intimate friendships between men—strengthened by frequent expressions of love and adoration for each other—were not only personally meaningful for individuals but also socially foundational to the creation of the American republic. Those versed in the literature on founding fathers will be taken aback by the suggestion that emotional intimacy rather than political theory may have been just the tie to bind men together through the tumultuous period of our nation's founding. But Godbeer pulls together a diverse array of convincing evidence demonstrating that from the colonial period through the early republic, men openly showered each other with declarations of desire, admiration, love, longing, despair, and affection. Such statements were not made in secret or with shame but rather appeared openly in the private and public writings of influential and socially respectable men. Godbeer argues that such romantic references did not necessarily signify sexual desire, attraction, or intimacies between the men, since a direct correlation between emotional intimacy and sexual desire did not become fixed in Western society until the early twentieth century.
Godbeer shows that intimacies between men were neither aberrational nor stigmatizing but rather were socially, religiously, and politically embraced and practiced by a wide range of men, including religious leaders, college students, militia members, and others. The strong bond between Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens was challenged when the two joined the Continental Army and found themselves apart. Godbeer writes, "Alexander and John now committed their love to paper as they sought to sustain themselves and each other through the hardship of separation" (126). Hamilton struggled without his friend, writing, "I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you" (127). Evangelical ministers—encouraged by their bishops—formed strong bonds through letters and occasionally in person as they traveled the land saving souls. Itinerant Methodist ministers John Kobler and Stith Mead enjoyed a "close and loving relationship" that would not have appeared "unusual or problematic" to others (85). Kobler wrote to Mead [End Page 345] of "the warm feelings of my heart," who responded, "I feel the same uniting flame glowing towards you, often I think of you in love and sympathizing prayers" (109).
At times, this thesis is advanced rather unproblematically through Godbeer's aversion to dealing with sexuality more explicitly. He implicitly advances a thesis of social respectability rooted in the assumption that evidence of sexual deviancy would undermine the standing of these men. This need not be the case, however, as several scholars of the period (including Godbeer himself ) have shown us that sexual transgressions, including sodomy between men, were tolerated by those who were otherwise upstanding citizens. This begs the question of why Godbeer did not also entertain the idea that the reason friends and family members embraced intimate relationships between men was in part because people chose not to care about the possible sexual intimacies that may have taken place.
While Godbeer appropriately goes to great lengths to avoid anachronistic projections of homosexual identity, some of his sources defy this analytical decision and beg for more expansive consideration of at least the function of sexual desire and intimacy. Take, for example, the story of James Gibson and John Smith, two friends and companions who shared each other's lives in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Godbeer explains the likely perceptions of their relationship in the following way: "Given that eighteenth-century Americans had no difficulty imagining a physically affectionate and yet nonsexual love between friends, it is perhaps hardly surprising that John and James made little effort to conceal their devotion to one another, whether expressed through verbal declarations or physical affections" (38). Godbeer points to an unusual incident when they appeared not to want to be seen together alone, and he encourages the reader to accept their own stated reason for this at face value. As a student at Princeton, James wrote of this incident concerning John's visit and their attempts to secure privacy while...