Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Blurred Lines: When Fiction Tells the Truth

Olaudah Equiano was most certainly a key figure in the abolition movement of the eighteenth century.  His narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789), is one of the best known of the ere and represents the story of thousands of Africans captured and forced to live a life of misery and captivity in foreign lands.  However, in a 1999 issue of Slavery & Abolition, Vincent Carretta argues that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina and therefore falsified the parts of his narrative that described his journey across the Atlantic.  I argue that the information, if true, does not detract from the value of the narrative.  In fact, I suggest that Equiano’s representation of the truth is merely a reflection of how difficult it is to make a distinction between fact and fiction.  What Equiano testified to is the traumatic experience many of his friends and family had to experience; he was simply the most proactive and vocal in sharing the truth.  Writing his story while including small embellishments based on the honest and painful truths of others around him does not make him a liar.  They make him an author of historical fiction.  Authors of historical fiction desire to tell the truth, and in order to do so, they must exist slightly outside the realm of known fact.  In his novel Someone Knows My Name, originally published as The Book of Negroes (2007), Lawrence Hill reveals heart-wrenching details of the slave trade and ends up portraying history authentically.

Set in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, Someone Knows My Name begins with an aged Aminata Diallo (an African who was captured and sold into slavery at age 11) looking back on her life.  She has found herself in London working with the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  They have asked her to write a memoir in the fashion of historical author Olaudah Equiano.  This frame for narration allows Aminata to recall painful events in her past with accuracy and with the wisdom of age.  We learn that as a young child she watched both of her parents brutally murdered by her captors.  She travels months on foot to a port on the coast of Africa, where she then experiences the horrors aboard a slave ship.  Once she arrives in America, she is sold to a South Carolinian indigo plantation owner.  Her memories include both beautiful and painful recollections as well as her impression of the world as a child.  For authors of historical fiction, including Hill, the overall goal is to create an authentic representation of life in the past.  Much of the authenticity in a novel comes from a recreation based on fact, artifacts, and firsthand accounts.  Difficulty arises when the author includes too much historical description and overwhelms the reader or not enough knowledge and the novel thus loses some of its desired impact.  In order to include authentic details of the slave trade, Hill must address controversial issues like imperialism, religion, and rape.

Lawrence Hill does not hesitate to address the tough and often gruesome aspects of slavery.  The authentic portrayal of life as a slave, from capture to eventual freedom, creates a dynamic backdrop for the character-driven novel; however, his attention to detail does not derail the effect of the novel.  On the contrary, the authenticity enhances the novel’s aim.  Fortunately for historians, the slave trade industry kept detailed and extensive records.  Upon investigating many of the specific details about slavery in the novel, Hill’s research becomes evident.  The description of the slave ship Aminata travels on is a perfect example of the type of authenticity Andrew Beahrs describes [1]:

Everywhere I turned, men were lying naked, chained to each other and to their sleeping boards, groaning and crying. Waste and blood streamed along the floorboards, covering my toes…Piled like fish in a bucket, the men were stacked on three levels—one just above my feet, another by my waist and a third level by my neck…The men couldn’t stand unless they stooped—chained in pairs—in the narrow corridor where I walked. On their rough planks, they had no room to sit. Some were lying on their backs, others on their stomachs. They were manacled at the ankles, in pairs, the left ankle of one to the right ankle of the other. And through loops in these irons ran chains long enough for a man—with the consent of his partner—to move only a few feet, toward the occasional cone-shaped bucket meant for collecting waste. (63-64)

The passage above is an example of Hill’s authenticity in the novel.  Details like the exact location of the chains on the men’s ankles and the horrific conditions match descriptions found in history books.

Very few firsthand accounts exist describing life as a captured African aboard the slave ships, but Equiano shares the collective experience of many Africans in his memoir:  “The closeness of the place, and the heat and the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable.”  As Carretta concludes in Equiano, the African: Biography of A Self-Made Man, the memoir is enhanced by the apparent fabrication because Equiano becomes the voice of the voiceless.  While he might not have experienced firsthand a slave ship, the power of his written voice moved people into action.  His purpose was to tell the truth of slavery, and whether or not he experienced every single gruesome detail is irrelevant in the end.  In order to tell the truth, Equiano needed to move outside the lines of personal history for an authentic representation of the entire slave journey.

In the same way, Hill romances history in order to tell the overall truth of the slave trade; the detailed and fictional accounts of Aminata’s thoughts and feelings humanize an often number-based representation of history.  Someone Knows My Name fleshes out the skeleton  that history books give us; Aminata’s journey resonates because she is human.  We can picture the young girl raped and forced to carry on working as if nothing happened (Hill 161) in a way not permitted through the statistics presented in textbooks.  Using Aminata’s life as a framework, Hill demonstrates the devastating effects of each part of the slave trade industry.  The novel exists successfully in the realm of historical fiction because Hill balances authenticity with accessibility and creates an accurate portrayal of life as a slave and, subsequently, the freed slave.  The familiar human emotions of fear, love, and hope enhance the experience and are not outweighed by the strange elements, like slavery or life in the 1700s.  Delicately interwoven with fact, the romance of history in Someone Knows My Name brings to life a difficult and often obscure part of history.  Hill’s novel is a work of historical fiction that reveals more about historical events than any textbook ever could.

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Note:

[1] Beahrs, Andrew.  “Making History:  Establishing Authority in Period Fiction.” The Writer’s Chronicle 38, no. 1 (September, 2005):  34-40.

The Eighteenth-Century Settings of Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 – 1832.  National Galleries Scotland

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Waverley, Walter Scott’s novel about a naïve English soldier’s involvement in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745.  Scott’s first novel and the nearly 30 works that constitute the Waverley Novels had a dramatic effect on the course of not only fiction, but history writing as well.  Scott’s synthesis of historical subject matter, supernatural mystery, and romantic intrigue made his novels both enormously popular and critically acclaimed—no small feat considering the depths to which the genre’s reputation had sunk by the early nineteenth century, as Ina Ferris has shown.

Scott’s influence extended across Europe and into the United States.  His works inspired paintings by (among many others) J.M.W. Turner, John Everett Millais, and Eugène Delacroix, as well as operas by Gaetano Donizetti and Arthur Sullivan.  When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he chose his new name based on a character from Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake.  In the Virginia town where I grew up, there is a street called Waverly [sic] Way, not far from Rokeby Farm Stables; I currently teach about 100 miles away from the town of Ivanhoe, VA.  Along Central Park’s Literary Walk, a statue of Scott accompanies ones of Shakespeare and Robert Burns.  Even his critics acknowledged his enormous influence: Mark Twain blamed the Civil War on Scott, “For it was he that created rank and caste [in the South], and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.” To illustrate his distaste, Twain named the wrecked steamboat in Huckleberry Finn the Walter Scott.

In short, Scott was enormously popular and influential as both a poet and a novelist—but few people today read his work for pleasure. [1] Go to a bookstore, and you’ll find maybe one or two of his novels, while his contemporary Jane Austen has rows and special displays devoted to her work, not to mention sequels and rewrites featuring zombies and vampires.  Scott’s broader cultural presence has declined as well.  Although Season 3 of Downton Abbey included a couple of references to his poetry, to my knowledge the BBC hasn’t adapted a Walter Scott novel since it produced Ivanhoe in 1982. The 1995 film Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, bears no relation to Scott’s novel of the same title.  Perhaps the most recent popular film at all relevant to Scott is the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, in which Andie MacDowell’s character scolds Bill Murray’s with lines from Lay of the Last Minstrel.  (Murray, who plays a weatherman, expresses surprise when she tells him the author of the lines: “I just thought that was Willard Scott.”)  Outraged politicians occasionally recite Scott’s lines from Marmion—“O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!”—but invariably attribute them to Shakespeare.

Why is Scott so forgotten?  The scholar Ian Duncan explains that he “tell[s his] students: everybody loves Jane Austen.  The real challenge is to say you love Walter Scott.” [2] And a challenge it can be, for a handful of reasons, including Scott’s convoluted plots, digressive narratives, and heavy use of dialect.  But perhaps what deters most general readers from picking up a Scott novel is precisely why most readers of this website would be interested in doing so: the novels draw their dramatic intensity from specific historical events—and very often these events are rebellions, riots, invasions, and other crises of the eighteenth century.

It’s only a slight overstatement to say that the Waverley Novels can be understood as a fictional history of the eighteenth century, albeit from a distinctively Scottish perspective rather than the England-centric model to which most readers may be accustomed.  Scott himself explained that his first three novels were meant “to illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods. Waverley embraced the age of our fathers, Guy Mannering that of our own youth, and the Antiquary refers to the last ten years of the eighteenth century.”  Scott’s interest in the eighteenth century continued after this initial trilogy and he would return to Jacobite intrigue.  His fourth novel, The Black Dwarf, involves James III’s failed effort to invade Britain in 1708; the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 lurks in the shadows of Rob Roy; and Redgauntlet concerns a fictional aborted Jacobite conspiracy of the 1760s (and, unlike his other novels, is told in the very eighteenth-century epistolary style).  But Scott wasn’t exclusively a chronicler of various Jacobite failures.  The historical event behind The Heart of Midlothian is the more obscure 1736 Porteous Riots in Edinburgh, and The Bride of Lammermoor depicts the contrasting consequences of the Act of Union for two Scottish families.  (In the original edition of The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819, Scott set the action around the time of the Glorious Revolution.)  “The Highland Widow” and “The Two Drovers,” stories from Chronicles of the Canongate, portray Scottish characters struggling to reconcile their beliefs and customs with their nation’s union with England; the third and longest tale, “The Surgeon’s Daughter,” revolves around characters’ attempts to find fortune in India in the late-1700s.

Scott’s eighteenth-century résumé expands if you follow the lead of many scholars and broaden the timeline to include the Restoration.  Old Mortality concerns the Killing Time of the late 1600s, when Scottish Covenanters clashed with the government of Charles II; The Pirate is set in the Scottish islands of 1689 (and contains countless references to John Dryden and Restoration theater); and the Popish Plot is a major plot device in Peveril of the Peak.  These settings and events afforded Scott opportunities to explore his favorite themes, including the contentious and often violent transition from one set of laws and traditions to another, whether it be the last gasps of Highland feudalism in Waverley or efforts to reform the Northern Isles in The Pirate.

Although I have been emphasizing Scott’s interest in eighteenth-century subject matter, his interest in the period extends beyond that.  He was informed by eighteenth-century thinkers, particularly Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, and devoted much of his career to the study of eighteenth-century poets and novelists.  He published editions of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, for which he also wrote biographies; and he was involved in an early attempt to canonize the British novel, contributing biographies of Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, and others to Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library.

I don’t expect Walter Scott’s novels to be re-imagined to include kilt-wearing vampires any time soon.  But I am confident that readers interested in the eighteenth century would be drawn to Scott’s representations and interpretations of what he recognized as a tumultuous and exuberant age.

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Notes

[1]   My point about Scott’s lack of an audience pertains to general readers; among scholars, he has been enjoying a revival for some time.  Edinburgh University Press recently completed its new scholarly editions of the novels and has begun work on editions of the poems.  This is in addition to the many scholarly books and articles about Scott’s work that have been published in the last two decades.

[2]  Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels, 19.