BOOK REVIEW: A concise study of how biographers have portrayed and even invented the private lives of the founding fathers.
Americans and the biographers of America’s founding fathers have always wanted it both ways: to read and write about the nation’s great men as though they lived above personal desire, and yet were people just like everyone else. And yet, sexual scandal always dogged the framers of the Constitution, even before the struggle for independence.
During the Revolutionary War, the British tried to tear away at George Washington’s reputation by showing pictures of him as a cross dresser. Thomas Jefferson’s opponents sought to destroy the story of his faithfulness to a wife who died young by broadcasting lurid details about a liaison with his family slave, Sally Hemings.
In “Sex and the Founding Fathers” (Temple University Press, 232 pages, $28.50), Thomas A. Foster also reports (don’t miss reading his footnotes) that Washington himself is said — via oral tradition — to have fathered children with his slaves. Alexander Hamilton published a confession of his adulterous affair in hopes that he could forestall the campaign against him by his political opponents. Benjamin Franklin’s flirtations with French court ladies outraged the puritanical John Adams, and Gouverneur Morris, who wrote part of the Constitution, went Franklin one better by keeping a scorecard in his diaries of the women he bedded.
Only Adams escapes rumors of sexual scandal — even the hint of it — although Foster debunks much of the sentimental twaddle that has been written about the Adams marriage, which contemporary historians have been guilty of perpetuating. There were fissures aplenty in the affections of this couple over the many years Adams saw fit to stay away from his Abigail. Indeed, what is striking about Foster’s astringent narrative is his exposure of both scholarly and popular biographers who tend to invent amity in the love lives of the founders, when in fact the evidence of such uxoriousness is scanty, if not missing altogether. Very little of the George and Martha Washington correspondence survives, and yet biographers confidently pronounce the marriage to have been happy.
Foster has a wonderful eye for exposing how much fiction there is in biographies of founding fathers — and he names names. You will never again read such heralded biographers as Joseph Ellis, Thomas Fleming and others without carefully looking for “stretchers,” as Huck Finn used to call them.
Here is a scrupulous scholarly book that edifies and entertains — and has as much to say about the genre of biography as it does about the sex lives of the founding fathers.
Carl Rollyson is the author of “American Biography,” “Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography” and “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.”