20 questions: Historian Thomas Fleming
In his book The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, historian Thomas Fleming examines the personal lives of six familiar names in history: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Fleming examines how their relationships with their wives and families affected their roles in founding the country. Fleming, an author of numerous books, spoke to The Hill about his latest tome:
How did you pick these six men to profile?
They’re the six generally agreed on as the six major Founding Fathers. … You had to draw the line somewhere. Six seemed to be a very good [number]. And they really did the most important things.
Did they have any common characteristics?
They really don’t have any truly common characteristics. The striking thing is how different they all are one from another.
So what were the striking differences?
The startling difference is they are different ages, for one thing. Franklin was by far the oldest. He was almost 30 years older than Washington. Madison was much younger than Washington, and Hamilton was almost a boy. He was 22 when he became Washington’s aide in 1777.
These are men who have had volumes of books written about them. How did you decide what to include and what to exclude?
As a novelist I was very interested in insights into the personal lives of people. … I was doing research into how people thought and felt in these distant eras. … I hadn’t really looked at what was going on behind them in their personal lives. And this book is a perfect example, if I may say so, of my ability to blend … those two sides … to look at these men’s personal lives through the eyes of the historian.
I like how you included equal information about their wives and mothers.
It gives a depth to the portrait we have of them.
Since you’ve written so much about this time period, was there anything you learned that surprised you?
It’s full of surprises for both the writer and the reader. The perfect example is the opening. … I knew that Washington had written this letter to Sally Fairfax but I had no idea when it had gotten into the historical arena, so I started doing research and I found out it appeared in the 1870s. … It was in the New York Herald, the biggest newspaper of the time, this letter, this Washington love letter. And then you followed this sensation it caused that George Washington wrote this love letter — not to his wife — but to the wife of his close friend. He wrote it four months after he got engaged to Martha.
Was it really a love letter?
Not all historians agree what this letter means. … I think it’s very convincing that this was a love letter written by a man on the verge of going into battle.
I noticed you quoted a lot of letters in your book.
That’s the great thing about picking these six Founding Fathers: All of their collections are in the process of being published. … But one of the surprising things is that the letters of some of these women have been collected. … There are sources that make you feel like you’re in touch with historical reality.
Not all these men were born to wealthy or prominent families?
Some were, but Hamilton — you couldn’t get much more poorer than Hamilton down there in the West Indies.
He had a tough childhood.
He was orphaned at 14 or 15 and had no money at all. He was supported by a relative who felt sorry for him and his brother. His father was just a colossal failure in business. And, as I say in the book, his mother was quite a dame … she kicked [Hamilton’s father] out of bed and he just left. It just gave you a depth and more much insight into … what Hamilton had to deal with in his life.
Out of these six men, did you have a favorite?
I always like to say you respect Washington immensely and admire him. … But Franklin was my favorite. You’ll love him. You’ll love Ben Franklin.
He’s so funny, so witty, so charming. He had the ability to say the right thing. He was especially good at saying the right thing to women and teasing them and so forth. … He had a wife in London who he didn’t marry and a wife in Philadelphia that he outgrew.
I was surprised to read Franklin was quite the ladies’ man.
His reputation as a ladies’ man has gotten out of control, I’m afraid — mostly because of John Adams and all the vicious things he wrote about Franklin in France. ... [I]n France, these French women adored him. They loved his banter.
What was Adams’s reaction?
Adams couldn’t deal with this. He just went nuts. He wrote these scandalous letters about Franklin.
Were there any other feuds between the men you wrote about?
Washington and Jefferson just went at each other. They became deadly enemies before it was over.
How did their feud get started?
Jefferson was so infuriated at the way Hamilton had persuaded Washington to do things his way. So he goes to see the president and he sits down, talks for one solid hour, damning Hamilton any way he can think of … and Washington listens without saying a word and then at the end he says: “Mr. Jefferson, I have listened very carefully to everything you have said and I’m sorry to tell you I don’t agree with a word of it.” … Jefferson couldn’t deal with it. He resigned after that rebuff. Jefferson did not like the kind of the president Washington was. Jefferson saw him as kinglike. Jefferson was absolutely paranoid about federal power.
So sex scandals haven’t changed much in 200 years?
The really big scandal was Hamilton. He had a lack of confidence in himself as far as being a faithful husband was concerned because [of] what he had seen growing up. I think there’s another side to Hamilton’s affair with this woman.
I think it has a lot to do with the fact he met Maria Reynolds, the woman he had the affair with, at the peak of his political victory. ... He had restored America’s finances, the stock market was going out of sight. He was a miracle worker. He was having political ecstasies.
Modern politicians seem to have those too.
I think there is a connection between politicians’ affairs and the kind of emotions they generate when they’re out there campaigning, giving speeches and so forth. … [Hamilton] wanted the kind of sexual experience he wasn’t getting from his wife that would match the political thrill.
Is the Revolutionary War your favorite time period?
... I grew up in this Irish ghetto in Jersey City. I was very proud of being Irish … but I didn’t know much about my American history. … I wanted to become as American as I was Irish and I really devoted the main portion of my life to it.
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