Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Air Date: June 6, 2015

Author of "Sex and the Founding Fathers," American historian Thomas Foster examines the intimate lives, romantic norms and reputations of the founding patriarchs and their sexual partners.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

An intriguing and certainly tantalizing new book, DePaul University Professor Thomas Foster’s Sex & The Founding Fathers is an elegant exploration of the founders and their intimate lives.

Despite its provocative title and the lipstick-tainted, if otherwise austere, George Washington on its cover, the book is more scholarly than salacious when narrating historians’ renderings of these founding attractions.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who recently joined us on the program, praised Foster’s documentation of the more problematic romantic associations of our founding period.

Sex & the Founding Fathers, an absolute gem of historiography, achieves its goal…to recreate a more relatable past in which our founders experienced sex not so differently from today.

In Gordon-Reed’s review, she rhetorically asks readers, “Does it matter with whom and how often Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson had sex?” The answer to Thomas Foster it seems is most clearly YES. And I want to begin by asking him the seminal question: Why…and why now?

FOSTER: Why and why now? That’s an interesting question. Why it matters?

HEFFNER: Why does it matter?

FOSTER: Is …

HEFFNER: Why does it matter now?

FOSTER: … is the question that actually that motivated me to write the book. So I went to start doing this research … I am interested in pop culture, I’m certainly interested in gender and sexuality depictions in pop culture. And I’m an early American historian and so I find a particular fascination with how early America is depicted in popular culture.

And so I started there. And I was especially interested in how sex and masculinity was figuring in popular depictions of Washington in popular biographies, but also just everywhere, essentially, in the culture.

So I look at things like exhibits at historical societies or quips on the web … in the Introduction I also mention The Dailey Show, interviews with authors … you name it. You see sort of tantalizing or salacious mentions of sex and the founding Fathers cropping up here and there.

And what I hadn’t expected until I started doing the research is that tracing this back through history you see, in fact, people talking about their personal lives, their intimate lives from the very beginning.

So I just kept reading back in time … further and further through the 20th century, the 19th century, right up to their own lifetimes.

HEFFNER: Well, you do an extraordinary job of retracing the historiography from the present to the past, but one of the things you do here is humanize these Founders.

Was it your intention when you set out to do this book, to correct a fundamentally flawed understanding of these Founders, as some how disconnected from some of these sexual questions with which we grapple today?

FOSTER: MmmHmm. Right. No, in fact I wasn’t interested in say “fact checking” or getting to the true story. In fact, one thing that really surprised me and interested me was that repeatedly biographers claim to be getting at the real man by looking at their private life whether it’s family or love or sexual activities.

And this wasn’t a new claim, so you see sort of over and over again people saying they have finally gotten to the true Washington or the true Hamilton and they’re doing this by revealing their private life.

HEFFNER: How often, more than not are those revelations not accurate?

FOSTER: Well, it’s … it’s an interesting question and I actually had to resist “fact checking”. So I’m more interested in the discussions that occur than in testing whether or not these things are true.

But one thing I do point out and I think it’s an important thing for us to think about when we talk about sex and sexuality in history, is this question of standards of evidence.

So what evidence do we need? What documentary evidence do we need to claim a couple was madly in love. Or that an individual was gay or straight? And this is a question I wrestle with with my students in our, in our class on the history of sexuality at DePaul. It’s, you know, it’s the kind of question where I think typically students will say well they want, actually a diary where someone says, “I am madly in love with X. Or I am gay or I’m straight.”

And you know this is not something you typically find in the 18th century in diaries. In fact you won’t find this.

And so, for me it became interesting to see authors really go out on limbs and claim true love for a decades long marriage, when in fact what we know is they didn’t get a divorce, although there wasn’t really divorce, you know, in the 18th century … or we’ve got a couple of mentions in letters … but not, you know, an extensive documentary history, and so it, it became this question of evidence for me.

And I try to sort of lay that out for individuals more than, than fact check. So I sort of lay out the dots and let individuals, I think, connect them.

HEFFNER: Well, how, how have those criteria evolved? For example, in assessing a first American “power” couple …

FOSTER: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: John and Abigail Adams …

FOSTER: Well, I think … you know there have been a lot of changes over the history in, in terms of how that relationship is examined.

Just sort of parallel to how the other Founding Fathers relationships are examined.

So with John and Abigail Adams, in the 19th century there’s not a whole lot written about Abigail Adams. The interest is primarily just in … that it’s a stable household.

It’s really women’s history in the 1960’s and especially in the 1970’s where you end up with much more being written about Abigail Adams. There’s a real treasure trove of letters that exist between them that have been preserved.

And so we see much more about her interior life, her thoughts and reflections. And the reason those letters exist is because they were separated.

So there’s sort of this interesting juxtaposition there about presenting them as, you know, the First Couple of the Revolution, but in fact they’re an estranged couple in many ways. And, and we know this … the letters exist because of their separation over many years during the Revolution.

HEFFNER: I raise that example because it seems to me that’s one in which the perception has evolved … contemporaneously we look at that marriage and say, “That’s not necessarily ideal.”

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: In terms of the separation … .time apart. But yet in these letters, it was always “My dearest friend ….”

FOSTER: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … so how, how has that example reflected this change in the American mindset toward sexuality and towards relationships?

FOSTER: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think, you know, one of the things I try to do in the book is show the conclusion that I came to and that is that each generation is essentially connecting to the Founding Fathers by talking about the questions and aspects of the relationship that interest them.

And they’re viewing them from their … through their own lens. And you know that’s sort of an obvious point. Of course, people are going to do that.

But it’s striking and that’s also what causes the change in time of the stories. So the interest in the 19th century, as I mentioned is in stable households … right … and there’s less scrutiny say, in specific sexual details.

By the early 20th century you end up with the influence of psychology and Freud and, and psychologists in general and you, you end up with say … more of a discussion with someone like Adams about whether or not he’s a healthy red-blooded American. Right. So there’s more of a critique or an emphasis on early loves and relationships outside of Abigail Adams.

As I mentioned, in the seventies, we have much more that’s documented about their relationship in letters and, you know, today we’re a little more skeptical of idealizing their, their romance and so, perhaps there’s more nuance and acceptance of the fact that they have a separation there.

And so, it’s interesting to me how those stories have changed over time.

HEFFNER: Well, one of the great myths, perhaps is that Jefferson was a romantic. I mean you challenge that idea in the book to an extent.

FOSTER: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: And I only bring up Jefferson because obviously in the 1776 play and film portrait, I mean it’s Jefferson who is boasting of virility …

FOSTER: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … and Adams not so much.

FOSTER: Right.

HEFFNER: So, is there … is that perhaps one of the central takeaways from Sex and the Founding Fathers? Jefferson is a more complicate creature and we should stop viewing him centrally as this sexual animal.

FOSTER: Yeah, I think … you know one take away is that they’re all more complicated … that the 18th century …

HEFFNER: And, and they all seem like sexual animals. (Laugh)

FOSTER: In the hands of some biographers, right. They … that’s … I think sex is one way that authors and biographers are trying to connect an audience to those individuals. So, you know, they come from a place and a time that is lost to us, really. And it’s quite a foreign place and I think individuals familiar with sex and romance and love in their own lives … right … find sex away to connect to them, to understand them.

This is really problematic, thought, right … because sex is not the same today as it was then. And the relationships are not the same. And marriages aren’t the same.

I mean in the 18th century we’re talking … just to state some obvious points … we’re talking about a place where it’s legal and for the most part legitimate to own others. Right. Where the hierarchies within marriage are extraordinary compared to today. Right. Between men and woman there is virtually no discussion of women voting, for example. Right. Or participating in politics. There’s, there’s not really a sense of love before marriage. This is still a new idea … it’s emerging. Right. And so we’re still in a world … the world that the Founders grew up in is a world, really, where love came after you got married.

So, for us to try to connect to them … right … through love and romance … is problematic because we bring so much of our contemporary understanding of what those things mean to that story.

So, in the case of Jefferson … this is just yet another example basically where it’s very hard to understand that relationship. Simply, simply by thinking about how we think about love and sex and romance.

HEFFNER: But it is your quest to relate the past to the present in these sexual terms. I ask you that because certainly the social norms were different …

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: …up front …but behind the scenes marriage out of … or children out of wedlock … interracial relationships, marriage …

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … these phenomena pre-date present time and they were … I think your book displays … or at least the historians whom you cite and chronicle through this evolving discourse, show that it was … it’s always been pretty sexual. And maybe it was just always behind closed doors.

FOSTER: Sure. Well, this is the tricky point, though … so …the behaviors haven’t really changed. Right? We … people had sex out of wedlock or had children out of marriages. The question is how people felt about those things or thought about those things, how, how the law did … how the culture …

HEFFNER: Was invisible.

FOSTER: … how those individuals did. In some cases it’s not invisible. I mean all of … most of these stories appeared in print in their own lifetimes for the Founders. Right. So another point of the book is, is that sex has been out in public for a long time.

That we’re not the first generation, really to be publicly talking about sex and love. That publicly they did talk about it, but the, the shift that’s really occurring over time is about interior identities, interiority … how people think about these different activities. That’s …

HEFFNER: Think about something like manhood.

FOSTER: Sure. I mean that’s completely changed … right … over the generations. I think people can see that simply by looking at their grandfathers or great-grandfathers and just reflecting on that.

HEFFNER: Of the behaviors that you do chronicle … I have to ask you … what was the most unexpected … I mean through the historiography, through looking at periodicals that sometimes exposed, as you mention the private lives of the founders. What was the most bizarre?

FOSTER: Well there’s sort of these dual narratives that are going on in the book, so I have two answers to the question essentially.

So one is about the Founders and one Founder that was most interesting to me would be Gouverneur Morris … and there we have really detailed diaries that he left. And I was quite struck by his celebration of sexual expression … the way that he talks about being in love … he’s got, you know, lots of different euphemisms for sexual enjoyment with the woman that he is seeing while he lives in Paris. And she’s a married woman.

HEFFNER: And he was a bachelor.

FOSTER: He’s a bachelor. He’s a bachelor until he’s 57 … so he’s over there as a diplomat and engaged in this relationship and in his diary he’s writing about the French Revolution, he’s writing about diplomatic business and then he’s also, in the same breathe essentially, writing about celebrating the mysteries of, of love and of sex with this particular woman.

And that sounded very 18th century to me, but it’s striking just from a contemporary perspective, when we think about the Founding Fathers just being sort of sexless … right.

I mention there’s a dual narrative. So the other narrative is what the culture is saying about these Founding Fathers. And what was most striking to me there probably was the Jefferson story essentially. And what I focus on with Jefferson is the public interest in the nature of the relationship between Hemmings and Jefferson.

So it’s, it’s not a question for me of paternity … which is what I think a lot of people focus on. I was struck by the discussions of what that relationship was like. And there we have virtually nothing to go on other than that we know that this relationship was long-term.

So was it a long term abusive relationship? Was it a long-term affectionate relationship? We, we really don’t have anything to go on in that area … and yet it hasn’t really stopped us from imagining it as … in, in many cases in popular culture imagining it as a romance. And there’s a couple of pretty popular films that I’m sure people will remember that really depicted it as a romance that was caught up in a time that condemned love across the color line and in many ways Jefferson becomes a victim of those circumstances almost as much as Hemmings. Right. That if this relationship too place today, there love could have survived. Right. And, and blossomed instead of it being in this time and place where it was not allowed, really.

HEFFNER: I want to step back to Gouverneur Morris for a moment.

FOSTER: Sure.

HEFFNER: Because you reflect on his intimate life here. He was a New York City native and he represented Pennsylvania in the Convention … Constitutional Convention and you write here: “He expressed a certain degree of pride in his lifestyle, a sense of satisfaction at his ability to combine sexual, romantic, commercial and political concerns.

FOSTER: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: That sounds a lot like Benjamin Franklin.

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And you treat Gouverneur Morris with special attention here because I think you want to identify him as something of an unsung sexual hero in the beginnings of America … expound on that.

FOSTER: Well, I, I think I treat him in a different way than the other Founders because we have so much evidence to work with there. So it becomes …

HEFFNER: He had diaries, whereas others did not …

FOSTER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: The others …

FOSTER: … did not. Right. With, with Franklin we have his autobiography. Which is, you know, published for a public consumption, so it’s not just a diary … right … it’s a, it’s a different type of animal, if you will, for documents.

HEFFNER: Mmmm.

FOSTER: Morris writes these diaries for himself, as far as we know. And so this is really him talking to himself … right … about what his day was like … how he’s feeling about the business that’s going on and then also these personal relationship that he’s in.

So, it’s not surprising to me that you would say you see a lot of Franklin in Morris … I mean they’re of the same time period. Right. So these are elite men … right … and, and they are largely in the same sexual culture for themselves. So there are similarities there and I think Morris really captures I think what a lot of 18th century men were engaged in. And it’s quite different from the dominant ideal of marriage, monogamous marriage. Right.

HEFFNER: And yet is it less flamboyant than Franklin?

FOSTER: Well, it’s hard to say because we don’t have the same documentation for Franklin …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

FOSTER: … right. For Franklin what we have in terms of sort of more intimate reflections are letters between women that he knew in Paris. So there’s quite a lot of talk about the women that he flirted with in Paris. There’s been some really good work done on those letters.

Part of what’s going on in there is language lessons in fact and so it’s impossible to read Franklin’s personal writings, without thinking of him as an author … a published author … and someone who is caught up in the 18th century literary styles of the day.

So this is sort of going back to that question of standards of evidence. Right. It’s like if you read a letter from the 18th century that written from a man to a woman … ah, and it talks about love or intimacy … you know … is this sort of the style of the day. Right. The custom of the day, or is this just sort of a raw outpouring of emotion and I, I would say it’s quite dangerous just to read it as a raw outpouring of emotion.

If I could just continue on this point … I think this becomes especially important when we’re looking at expressions of love between men in the 18th century.

Right. So you have love letters between men that historians debate how to read these in fact. Right. Is this the standard of the day. Is it acceptable for men to talk about love with one another or is this an outpouring of genuine same sex desire. Right. In the way that we think of it today.

What I’m doing though is saying that in fact we want to apply those same standards … right … to letters between men and, and women, so …

HEFFNER: So, when Alexander Hamilton … to use another example, said “I love you, man” affectionately …

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … in some of his correspondence … how do you read that?

FOSTER: Well, that’s a great question. I mean how does one read that? Right. So, this is … again, this question of evidence. I read it as they were in love … period. Right … I mean that I feel comfortable saying. Beyond that … is it a sexual relationship … I have no way of knowing, but it hasn’t stopped others from concluding that it was or that he was gay.

And again, that’s sort of the dual narrative of the book and that’s sort of my second fascination … is in what directions do people go with these sort of straws. Like what houses do they build with these straws of documentation? And, and why do they go there and what does it end up meaning for them ultimately.

So, the stakes are quite high for people to go in certain directions. So to have a Founding Father that could be identified as gay is quite important … right … to a number of gay activists … this emerges in the 1970’s where it’s extremely important for legitimizing an, an unpopular and demonized political population.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s parse this a little bit more in the context of how signatures were delivered. How people signed off on their letters.

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: In … Alexander Hamilton in a letter signing something that connotes love …

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: You talk a lot about the process for examining what criteria we should use to judge whether this was heterosexual, homosexual or perhaps some form of love that, that we haven’t seen among the Founders.

So what standard do you use based on the way that these primary sources, in particular personal, private correspondence … were, were shared?

FOSTER: I mean ideally if you’re going to examine the nature of a relationship you would hopefully have more than one or two letters that are signed “affectionately yours”. Right … I mean that … so …

HEFFNER: But that’s what we have for him.

FOSTER: In many cases it’s … I mean … well, with him we actually have slightly more detailed letters between Laurens and Hamilton … in fact, we …

HEFFNER: Give the overview for the, the audience … of, of these two men …

FOSTER: Sure … I mean the two of them are exchanging letters as they’re separated during the American Revolution, they have a deep bond of affection prior to their separation during the war itself. And there’s at least one letter where they say “I love you” … right … so this is not just sort of a signature that says “affectionately yours” …

HEFFNER: Right.

FOSTER: … which indicates sort of a warm friendship, perhaps. But “I love you” for us today raises a different set of questions in terms of whether or not sex is part of that relationship.

For me it’s pretty good evidence that they had a bond that was romantic perhaps, was certainly intense and beyond just sort of a regular friendship … if you would.

I think one thing that’s important to keep in mind is that it also provides cover, if you will, for the type of relationship that could have existed at the time, that might have been quite intimate … physically intimate. Given that it’s acceptable at the time for men to express love to one another … it doesn’t raise eyebrows to their friends or contemporaries.

Right. And so, in a way it’s quite easy for same sex relationships to exist under the radar in this time period and to go undocumented.

HEFFNER: Was there such a thing though as non-sexual, non-romantic brotherly love?

FOSTER: Sure. I mean there, there’s a classic tradition of it, really. So, there’s also a classic tradition of sexual intimacy that’s not related to love between men (laugh) in the classic tradition. Right. So, both of those things exist also in the 18th century and this is what historians have to wrestle with.

So, for me, another point of the book really is that we need to take these things, perhaps a little more seriously than we might. And so it’s quite problematic to run away with conclusions from a few tantalizing words. And, again, what I became really interested in is why people are going in those directions and what’s the, what’s the payoff?

HEFFNER: Is that just the nature of our contemporary media? To exaggerate such attributes of people?

FOSTER: Partly, I mean it certainly is louder today than, than it was in the past … the media … the discussions of sex. But again I think that’s surprising about the book is that people have been doing this in the 19th century and were doing it even in their own lifetimes. And so these discussions about the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers is a long running one.

HEFFNER: Well, this is an example of being entertaining, but also serious. One of the things … that I read this book and wonder is do we set too high an ethical bar when we judge the, the Founders.

I mean they have been memorialized and mythologized for ages.

FOSTER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Is this an attempt to discredit people who would unabashedly view the Founders with a degree of morality that we don’t possess, sitting here at this table.

FOSTER: Yeah, I think it’s one conclusion you can draw from the book. It’s not what motivated me to, to write the book in, in any way. But I think it is …

HEFFNER: I’m not taking anything away from the Founders …

FOSTER: No … I … but it is kind of striking that there is, you know, a political discussion that, that holds up the Founders as more moral than the rest of us today. Right. That this is a more moral generation, in fact they are demigods, right.

Not just politically, right, not just sort of creating this unique nation in, in that discourse, right, but, but personally, right and, and in their own private lives. And that is sort of set up in contrast to today, right, as sort of a … today as a society that’s out of control, right … that, that we have lost our way morally.

But when you read these stories, right, and when you see, in fact, that almost all of them had relationships that were outside of marriage. Many of them had children outside of wedlock. You know there’s a real contradiction there in those discourses.

HEFFNER: And as you move forward with future works in, in exploring this time period and these motifs that you’re intrigued by … what are you looking to do next in terms of parsing through any of the records … every day there seems to be something new … is there a particular focus that you’ll take into the next chapter of Sex and the Founding Fathers?

FOSTER: I haven’t thought about a next chapter for Sex and the Founding Fathers. I mean I am working on a different research project now, so I’ve sort of moved away from the Founders. It’s, it’s … it’s hard to get away from them, though, in this book I mean because they are so regularly referenced. Not just in terms of their politics again, but their, their private lives. I mean it’s almost daily that I am now seeing some kind of reference that comes to mind about their private lives, intimate lives. Often it’s about juxtaposing sex and the Founding Fathers.

Right. So you mentioned the cover with the lipstick on Washington, right, that it’s sort of jarring to see that I think. For some people it’s unsettling, for others it’s sort of welcome, right, to see this. For me it really speaks to this idea that we think of Washington as sexless, we think of the 18th century as a period where people were really buttoned down and so it’s sort of throwing sort of sex into that mix and saying “look at these two things that don’t go together”. I think for some people there’s an immediate recognition that of course we didn’t invent sex, right, and so those things belong together. But it’s still, I think, for most people, a jarring image because we do think of the 18th century as a place where it just didn’t happen.

HEFFNER: Well, we didn’t sensationalize it today here on The Open Mind. But this is a terrific book and I hope folks will read it. Thomas Foster, I want to thank you so much for joining us here today.

FOSTER: Thanks very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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