Biographers, journalists, and satirists have long used the subject of sex to define the masculine character and political authority of America's Founding Fathers. Tracing these commentaries on the Revolutionary Era's major political figures in Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster shows how continual attempts to reveal the true character of these men instead exposes much more about Americans and American culture than about the Founders themselves.
Sex and the Founding Fathers examines the remarkable and varied assessments of the intimate lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris from their own time to ours. Interpretations can change radically; consider how Jefferson has been variously idealized as a chaste widower, condemned as a child molester, and recently celebrated as a multicultural hero.
Foster considers the public and private images of these generally romanticized leaders to show how each generation uses them to reshape and reinforce American civic and national identity.
About the Author
Thomas A. Foster is Associate Professor in the History Department at DePaul University. He is the author of Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America and the editor of three books, the most recent being Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America.
"In this concise, engaging book, Foster (Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man) explores the intimate lives of six Founding Fathers, and, more importantly, the way their sex lives have been presented and analyzed over the years. Focusing on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and the oft-forgotten Gouverneur Morris, Foster deftly demonstrates the ways these men’s private lives have been essentially rewritten to present the normative, virtuous, and manly Founders Americans choose to believe in. Drawing primarily from popular biographies, from the colonial era through present day, the book explores the ways biographers present their subjects in response to the times: strict Victorian morals, Freudian psychoanalysis, and contemporary attempts to embrace, rather than hide, all aspects of their lives. Foster addresses the glossing over of Washington’s lack of children (perhaps he was sterile, but god forbid he was impotent), the refashioning of Franklin’s Parisian affairs as the “harmless” pleasures of a “foxy grandpa,” and the romanticized marriage of John and Abigail Adams—the “Romeo and Juliet of the American Revolution”. Proving that you can’t trust biographers, Foster ably reveals that sex has always factored into national identity and that the Founders were flesh-and-blood men, unable to support idealistic American standards of morality."--Publishers Weekly
"Sex and the Founding Fathers is a must read for all who are interested in the founding era and the historiography of the period."
—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
"Foster tells us that each new generation has inquired into the intimate lives of great men and found reflections of its own habits and desires and anxieties....Using the methods of intellectual and cultural history, Foster examines contemporary and scholarly interpretations of the sex lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouvernor Morris. Foster holds that we read and write about our Founding Fathers’ intimate habits because we want these icons of masculinity to be relatable. Foster is right; we do seek ourselves in our histories."—Journal of American History
"[Foster's] book is not directly about sex and the founding fathers but is instead a meta-commentary on the long history of popular and scholarly fascination with the founders’ sexual lives.... This is a book about our desired erotic relations to the erotic lives of the founders. But it seems to be forever impossible for us to have a stable relation to the sex of the founding fathers: our relation to their sex always and inevitably fails because it’s really about us and what kind of objects we want them to be for us... Wisely, Foster does not try to say what a true or authentic relation to the sex of the founders would be."—Christopher Looby, American Literary History
"Sex and the Founding Fathers has value as a source of data.... [which] raises important questions about gender, sexuality, and masculinity as normative and actual behaviors shift that over time as they structure personal and national identities." —American Studies
"Foster reveals how each generation has sought to understand the founders as human beings.... it is through exploring these men as people that we understand and relate to them. As times and social mores about masculinity and sexuality have changed, so have interpretations of these men and their personal lives. VERDICT: Foster is looking at the how and why of his subjects. Readers looking for...a better understanding of how and why biographers explore these topics, and why we care, should look to this fascinating and well-written work."—Library Journal
"What fascinates [Foster], and what’s the subject of his book, is how the public has always hungered for stories about the Founders’ sex lives. At root, Foster argues, sex has always been a critical, though underappreciated way that Americans have tried to make the Founders relatable. It’s how we make them seem human, if no less heroic.... Foster’s subject should lure more readers than a typical academic book. But they should expect a serious message. We crave stories about the Founders’ sex lives, but cannot handle the unseemly truths, he writes—'so we rewrite and respin and reremember them in various ways to present them in a positive light.' Our 'romanticized view,' gets us no closer to knowing who [the] Founders actually were, and ultimately 'serves only the present.'”—Daily Beast
"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." —StarTribune