Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past by Thomas A. Foster (review)
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U.S. Founding Fathers, Masculinity, Sexuality

Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past. By Thomas A. Foster. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014. Pp. 232. Cloth, $28.50.)

The ‘‘fathers’’ matter to us because of their generation (so to speak) of the nation—which is very public and political work. Our continuing interest in their private lives, however curious, follows, because, like Parson Weems, we tend to consider what men do in secret as revealing their true character, and we do indeed care about the character of the Founders. One difficulty, Thomas A. Foster notes, is that we want our Founders to be virtuous, but we also want them to be ‘‘normal,’’ which has long meant virile, masculine, and intensely heterosexual. But because what it means to be simultaneously ‘‘masculine’’ and moral in relation to sexuality has changed—sometimes dramatically—over the two hundred years or so since the Founders lived, our interpretations of the private [End Page 172] behavior of the ‘‘fathers’’ have likewise undergone transformations to match the values ‘‘of contemporary society’’ (2).

But Foster adds another layer of complexity to this historical commonplace: We cannot really know and understand the Founders if we simply romanticize their private lives in ways that continue to make them palatable to our own sensibilities. This is particularly true of books that ‘‘speak definitively about the loves and inner lives of the Founders, despite a lack of documentation’’ (166). What, after all, can we really know about George Washington’s relationship with Martha? Enough to claim, as some have, that she was the only one he could open up to? Or about his true feelings for Sally Fairfax? About Jefferson’s for Sally Hemings, Betsey Walker, Maria Cosway, Martha Wayles Skelton? About Hamilton’s for his wife, for his sister-in-law, for John Laurens? Alas, not as much as we might like—which leaves lots of room for conjecture. Historians, it seems, ought to be somewhat circumspect, willing to live with whatever amount of silence the record leaves. But ‘‘definitive answers,’’ Foster notes, ‘‘alleviate uncertainty,’’ and uncertainty is precisely what the national memory cannot endure. Foster notes that academic historians are generally less comfortable speculating where the record is silent, but that ‘‘the popular biographies that are lately in vogue’’ are less reticent (166). So in this book, the tension between history and collective public memory—and the effort to reconcile them—is perhaps the central theme.

Foster usefully describes an evolution in our collective consciousness about sexuality that has shaped our memory of the private lives of the Founders over time. The early republic—when the Founders were alive—was a ‘‘sexually charged scandalmongering political culture’’ from which the founders themselves were not immune (6). But as the Founders passed into memory, early biographers (from the ‘‘Victorian’’ nineteenth century) sought to stamp them with a ‘‘permanent respectability’’ that could make them role models for boys and men. This meant that the details of their private lives had to be handled with some care—in many cases, the most scandalous details (diary entries elaborating Gouv-erneur Morris’s numerous assignations with Adèle de Flahaut, for one example) were excised from published texts. But the new prominence of Freudian psychology, along with the ‘‘sexual revolutions’’ of the 1920s and the 1960s, ‘‘breathed new life into the sexual and romantic details of the Founders’ lives’’ (6). Our own day witnesses a new propensity— [End Page 173] frantic at times?—to emphasize and use their sexuality to connect them to our contemporary concerns.

Although the scheme is not as seamlessly linear as implied here (school districts in Georgia quite recently hand-painted over an allegedly inappropriately placed watch-fob on thousands of fifth-grade textbook reproductions of a contemporary painting of George Washington), Foster uses it to very good effect to trace and richly describe changing readings of Washington, Jefferson, Morris, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton over the past two centuries. To take only one prominent example, Foster traces the way efforts to transform Jefferson from a cold cerebral rationalist and ‘‘chaste widower’’ into a passionate romantic consistent with later conceptions...