What Studying the Women in the Founders' Lives Reveals


Mr. Fleming, a former president of the Society of American Historians, is the author of more than forty books, both fiction and non-fiction. His latest is: The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

With leaks and wandering emails, talk shows and tell-all aides, the private lives of today's politicians seem to have become public property. Whether this may eventually unravel the Republic is frequently debated in the media. Not a few bloggers, talk show hosts and late night gurus maintain that the best and brightest are now loath to enter politics.

    Still, the number of politicians has not noticeably declined. Nor are we the first  generation to take a more than passing interest in the personal lives of our elected leaders. Convinced that historical perspective might be the best answer to the Gotterdammerung tone that the discussion sometimes takes, I decided to explore the roles of women in the lives of the first group of American politicians to win fame -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and James Madison. Collectively, most historians agree, these are the founding fathers, the men who made the greatest contribution to the birth of the nation.

      I was soon watching a young George Washington riven with desire for the wife of his closest friend.  I stood with Thomas Jefferson at the bedside of his dying wife, Martha Wayles, as he sobbed a fateful promise that he would never marry again.  I saw a youthful Alexander Hamilton imbibe a toxic mix of fear and anger in his psyche when his headstrong mother banished his hapless father from her bed .

   As one Jefferson biographer has remarked, every man carries  on a lifelong dialogue with his mother, sometimes in his conscious mind, more often in his unconscious.  Mothers have an especially strong influence in the shadowy realm of emotions. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson seem to have  inherited their mothers’s temperaments. Some historians think  John Adams's mother, Susanna Boyleston Adams, was a manic depressive, who passed on the illness to her favorite son.

     Although the women in these famous lives spoke a hundred and fifty years before feminism entered the American vocabulary, their independent voices will surprise many people.  The men and women of 1776 were far more candid and realistic about sexual desire  and  marital relationships than the Americans of  the 21st century realize. They gave serious thought to the ancient conflict between the sexes and talked and wrote  about it in ways that still have relevance today.  This was evident from the novels they read and the stories that were printed in the newspapers.

   Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was the most popular novel of the era. This story of a servant girl’s rise to wealth and power proved that virtue was rewarded and simultaneously delivered titillating descriptions of a young woman agonizing over sexual desire. When fifteen year old Betsy Hanford of Virginia married wealthy fifty one year old John Cam, the local newspaper reported, “She is to have a chariot and there is to be no padlock put upon her mind.”  

     The women of 1776 had high expectations from marriage. They wanted  not only affection but respect as persons. For a lucky few, these essentials could blend into near adoration.One Virginian began his letters to his wife, with “My dearest wife” and declared she “blessed the earth” with her presence.  At the same  time, essays and letters about unhappy marriages frequently appeared in the newspapers. One correspondent in the Virginia Gazette blamed these misfortunes on women who spent too much of a man’s money on luxury and on men who for the sake of beauty or wealth, married “a fury” or an “ideot [sic].”

    In my book we see how strongly the founders, especially those primary political rivals, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, stressed the importance of a happy marriage in  a man’s life. Thanks to his five years in France as America’s ambassador, Jefferson was able to compare American and European marriage customs and found America’s far superior. Fidelity was virtually unknown among the French upper classes. Jefferson advised young Americans to abandon dreams of a grand tour, lest they acquire the Old World’s  attitude toward women.

       Recent decades of scholarship in herstory have made us aware of a dark side of women’s lives in the 18th Century. Except for private tutors, they had almost no educational opportunities. Divorce was seldom granted by the courts, and a woman’s property was legally controlled by her husband. On the eve of America’s independence,  we see that proto-feminist, Abigail Adams, protesting these inequalities in a famous letter to her husband John—and his less well known, extremely unsatisfying reply.

      A woman also had no control over how many pregnancies she faced.  Equally troubling was the awful infant mortality rate. The primitive medicine of the era made  childhood almost as perilous. By late middle age, Martha Washington had lost all four of her children to death. Martha Wayles Jefferson lost four out of six children in ten years. Benjamin Franklin’s marriage was poisoned by his wife’s bitterness over the death of their four year old son, Frankie, while his hated  illegitimate half-brother, William, thrived.

      As Franklin’s story makes clear, the founders’ marriages were not without controversy. Did George Washington recklessly pursue other women after he married Martha,  as the British and later  his American political enemies claimed?  Is there convincing proof that Thomas Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with his  mulatto slave, Sally Hemings? Why did the curvacious well-off widow, Dolley Payne Todd, marry pintsized sickly James Madison?  As First Lady,  Dolley had to deal with  vicious rumors about her sex life. She met them with a shrewdness that wives of contemporary politicians might well emulate.

    All the women in the founders’ lives had to confront and cope with fame.  This little understood phenomenon transformed many aspects of their private lives into public dramas.  The fame that  the founders sought and won was not the same as our modern version of it, mere celebrity. The idea of an actor like Tom Cruise or an athlete like Tiger Woods winning fame would have boggled the founders. The fame they pursued was an enormously serious matter, involving a man’s place in history. Fame was reserved for founders or rescuers of nations or givers of laws. It required the approval of men of judgment and intelligence.

      All the founders were aware that the Revolutionary upheaval and the task of creating a nation gave them unique opportunities to win this ultimate accolade.  "You and I," John Adams wrote  to a Virginia friend in 1777, "have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live." In 1778, Alexander Hamilton wrote a pamphlet, attacking certain  congressmen who were using their position to get rich.  Hamilton could not understand how a man could succumb to such a “mean pursuit” when  he had a chance to be the founder of a country.“A man of virtue and ability, dignified with so precious a trust, would rejoice that fortune had given him birth at [such] a time." Washington, debating whether to risk his fame by endorsing the dubious idea of a constitutional convention in 1787,  told a friend: "To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it."

       For some women –Dolley Madison, for example -- this kind of fame could be a stimulant. But it could also be a  beast in the jungle, almost an evil spirit.  This was especially true of Abigail Adams, who had to endure years of agonizing loneliness  while her husband pursued  diplomatic fame in Europe.  Even worse was Elizabeth Hamilton’s ordeal when her husband defended his fame as the creator of the new nation’s financial system by making a public confession of his infidelity with a Philadelphia temptress.  

      When we explore the wives'  influence in these famous lives, we discover evidence  so strong, it can easily be asserted in some cases -- John Adams for instance -- that the great man would never have earned his place on fame’s ladder without the woman at his side. The same conclusion is even more true for James Madison. Martha Washington destroyed all but a handful of the personal letters she exchanged with George but there is ample evidence that she was by no means a mere fellow-traveler on Washington’s journey to fame.

     Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the public dimensions of the founding fathers' political journeys. We do them no dishonor when we explore how often public greatness  emerged in spite of personal pain and secret disappointment. Far from diminishing these men and women, an examination of their personal lives will enlarge them for our time. In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.

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Herbert Barger - 11/19/2009

As a Jefferson family historian who participated in the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study (www.tjheritage.org), I find the Thomas Jefferson chapter very much to the point and there is NO proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered slave children. Mr. Fleming covers this topic well.

Herb Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society