In this Q&A, Sex and the Founding Fathers author Thomas A. Foster discusses our fascination with the intimate lives of historical figures.
Q: What do you think accounts for our interest in the private lives of public and/or historical figures?
TF: I think people are drawn to personal lives of famous people as a way of connecting to them. I have long been interested in the Founding Fathers as cultural icons. As I started reading biographies and doing research, I discovered that Americans have always been writing about the private lives of historical figures—sometimes with more imagination than evidence. It fascinated me to see how the stories change over time—often to suit the norms of the day. Apparently, people have been looking at the real men beneath the polished marble exterior for ages.
Q: Why is sex so critical for understanding the Founding Fathers today?
TF: The history of sexuality can tell us a lot about our culture and society. Sexuality is connected in vitally important ways to family, economy, politics, gender, race, class—you name it. Unless we know the history of sexuality, we will be missing the full picture of who we are and how we developed over time as a society. Studying how sex figures in our nation’s understanding of its Founders, shows that sexuality is part of that broader political and cultural identity that is being worked and reworked by every generation.
Q: So how does the desire to know the “real” Founders influence the stories we tell and remember?
TF: The whole idea of debunking myths of the Founders is an old one—and one that gets recycled over and over again. Americans are perennially hoping to reach the “truth” about the Founders—and sex is one way that they think they can get there. But for the most part it’s just a mirage. We have hardly any documentation for so much of what is spoken of as fact. One of the things that surprised me while writing Sex and the Founding Fathers is the way the stories change. Sexual standards shift over time and those broad changes become quite evident when we look at how the intimate lives of the Founders have been imagined by different generations.
Q: Historical rumors circulate that Washington was impotent, or that Alexander Hamilton was gay. How much faith can we put in these suggestions, innuendos, and accusations?
TF: That the stories about their sex lives change so much over time—and rest on very little actual documentation—is a sign that something else is going on than simply getting at the “true” man behind the public façade. As an historian of sexuality, I would argue that it’s extremely important that we recognize the ways that sex is taken up in discussion of national identity—with the Founding Fathers being one core element of that historical and cultural identity. How we go from Adams as a prickly prude to an amorous puritan, for example. Or how Americans feel compelled to speak about these political greats with the same superlatives—as being the most romantic, or the greatest love stories, etc.
Q: Right, reputations shift over time—for example, Thomas Jefferson has been variously idealized as a chaste widower, condemned as a child molester, and recently celebrated as a multicultural hero. How can we move from commemoration to accusation to celebration?
TF: There are multiple ways to read the Founders’ life stories. That these stories change over time shows that they’re crafted to serve cultural purposes—positioning Jefferson as a chaste widower was important in its day for many nineteenth-century audiences. Today that depiction doesn’t speak to us for a wide variety of reasons.
Q: Do you think Jefferson really “loved” Sally Hemings? How large is the gulf between what we know, what we can prove, and what we want to believe?
TF: The gulf is enormous, and we have so little to go on. The academic scholarship on sexual intimacy between masters and slaves tells us that the relationships were exploitive and abusive. But in popular depictions of Hemings and Jefferson, we often see them as in love and ahead of their time. We have no documentation to help us understand their relationship but we’re invested in imagining it as historically true. We certainly have no evidence that it was an abusive relationship, and we know that the Hemings family was positioned well on the plantation. We also know that Sally received some fine clothing while in Paris. And there is scholarly consensus that Jefferson fathered all of Hemings’s children. But as I point out in Sex and the Founding Fathers, establishing likely paternity is entirely different from trying to understand the interpersonal dynamic of a decades-long relationship. The relationship has been envisioned fairly unhesitatingly—in some popular venues as a romance.
Q: You address scandals in Eighteenth-century society, which contemporary politicians use to justify their own bad behavior. How have things changed—or stayed the same between Washington’s era and today’s digital age?
TF: Almost every scandal in Sex and the Founding Fathers was openly published. Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin all saw scandalous talk about their sex lives in print. However, typically, Americans remember their Founders favorably not negatively. Dirt on Adams? He certainly liked to think of himself as the most virtuous of the Founders. Americans have generally adopted a similar view. I think contemporary politicians find it helps them if they can point to Founders and say that they are similarly flawed (with the implication being that maybe they are similarly great in other areas).
Q: Gouverneur Morris is perhaps the least known Founding Father, and yet his extensive and explicit diaries reveal a treasure trove of unconventional sexuality, as well as details about his intimate life. What can you say about his attitudes toward sexuality that generates attention for him?
TF: Gouverneur Morris left us the most material from which to understand his sexual identity and experiences. His diaries were quite explicit and he lived as a sexually active bachelor until he married at the age of 57. It’s not what he says as much as the fact that he said it that distinguished Morris. His writings capture late eighteenth-century ideas about sex out of wedlock—combining the rhetoric of love and companionship with a free expression and excitement about love and sexual pleasure.