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  • Reconsidering Libertines and Early Modern Heterosexuality: Sex and American Founder Gouverneur Morris
  • Thomas Foster (bio)

Scholarship on male sexuality in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world has largely emphasized the existence of two available models: the extramarital and illicit sexual mode of the rake or libertine and the monogamous husband of the companionate ideal. The companionate marital model, infused with sentiment and sensibility, centered on love, intimacy, and the bond of husband and wife, with sexual intimacy as the ultimate expression of that love.1 Libertines were unabashedly antimarriage, boasted loudly about their exploits, focused purely on physical pleasure, and wielded their power over vulnerable women and girls through seduction and abandonment. As Michel Feher explains, the libertine became marked by his approach to women even more so than his liberal approach to sexual expression: “Seducing, publicizing, and finally breaking up with a din: such are the three steps of the libertine master plan.”2 In print culture, the two [End Page 65] were set in opposition to one another, and the figure of the damaging rake or libertine operated to reinforce the companionate marital ideal.

Our understanding of sex in the late eighteenth century, however, particularly with regard to libertinism and heterosexual relations, may be partly skewed by its overreliance on criminal cases for prostitution and rape, divorce cases and failed marriages, and the didactic literature of print culture. The history of sexuality in early America has always been problematically dependent on such sources for depictions of normative experience.3 The sexually explicit diaries of one American founder, Gouverneur Morris, provide a rare source for examining the sexual practices and identities of a trans-Atlantic, elite man. This article examines ten years of Gouverneur Morris’s personal diaries that he kept while in Europe from 1789 to 1799.4 Morris has been characterized as the “rake who wrote the Constitution” and as a libertine [End Page 66] by virtually all of his biographers.5 I argue instead that Morris was not a sexual predator, as rakes and libertines are generally depicted. Rather, he shows us how the discourses of eighteenth-century libertinism could be taken up by individuals and applied in ways not intended by the authors of didactic literature. Although set in opposition to one another in print culture, individuals could, of course, combine libertine principles with the affective sentiment of companionate marriage and sentimental friendship in ways that were unexpected and that do not produce a neat character type.

Methodologically, this article takes up the recent call of Joanne Meyerowitz and Margot Canaday by approaching Morris’s sexual practices and identity through the lens of transnational sexualities. Morris is an obvious candidate for such an approach because he cannot be understood if he is confined within national borders and restricted to national histories of sexuality.6 As an elite man based in the urban settings of Philadelphia and New York, Morris was privy to a world of print and developing sexual subcultures that embraced illicit sexual activity. Morris also traveled extensively in Europe and lived abroad in Paris for almost ten years before returning to the United States. His sexual identity and sexual practices were cultivated in a trans-Atlantic context.

Relatively few early American diaries offer detailed reflections from which we can discern correlations between the sex depicted in print culture and the experience of individuals. For eighteenth-century sexual manhood we have only a handful of diaries with sustained reflection on sexual activity to consult. The diaries of eighteenth-century Virginia planter William Byrd, for example, show a man performing his sexual self in his writing, a self [End Page 67] that was deeply connected to status and masculine authority over women in eighteenth-century Virginia. Likewise, the writings of Thomas Thistlewood, a Jamaican planter, reveal the sexual escapades of a sadistic plantation master in the West Indies. For Thistlewood, sexual relations with enslaved women and with white women reveal much about his status as a slave owner and as a patriarch.7 The Morris diaries reveal to us striking differences. Morris’s writings were not infused with the language of eighteenth-century misogyny that helped men to define themselves in hostile opposition to...


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pp. 65-84
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