An Intimate Understanding of the Founders – by David Forsmark


founding fathers

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers
By Thomas Fleming
Harper, $27.99, 496pp.
Review by David Forsmark

Every once in a while, you come across a great book whose premise seems so obvious that you think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?”  People have talked all around this topic, or dealt with it in pieces, but why hasn’t there been a serious book-length treatment of this-or-that much discussed subject?

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism fit that bill.  Now comes historian Thomas Fleming’s The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, which will no doubt have other historians saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

In this relentlessly fascinating book, Thomas Fleming, our most interesting historian of the Revolution, takes a magnifying glass to the personal lives of six of the Founders; and the result is the most compelling history book of the season.  Fleming explains his motive for looking at the Founders’ relationships with wives, mothers, daughters—and lovers:

“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 intimate lives will enlarge them for our time.  In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we dared to imagine.”

And it works spectacularly.  I know of no other volume—or even a collection of biographies- that gives the reader the sense of knowing George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as human beings in the way this relatively short book does.

Standard biographies of great men who accomplished great things, invariably center around the larger events that made us interested in them in the first place.  By all but isolating these great men from those events—they are in the background for each to give context only—and bringing their intimate relationships to the foreground, the Founders emerge as flesh and blood, rather than icons or secular plaster saints.

And, we learn a lot about some remarkable women, too.

It’s the ubiquitous question in American politics:  What about a politician’s private life is relevant?  How much do we really want to know—and what do we have the right to know?  Baby Boomers seem to think they are the first to deal with the question, pointing back to the media’s willingness to overlook JFK’s philandering and buy the Camelot image– and acting as though that was the standard from time immemorial.

Demolishing that conceit, Fleming shows that our increasingly partisan press has still not sunk to the depths of the first generation to write under the First Amendment.  It’s still pretty rare—Sarah Palin being a current obvious exception—for so-called reporters to sink to the level of deliberately false rumor-mongering and completely fabricated political hit jobs in the way that was either done to—or at the behest of– each of the Founders in this book.

Even the revered George Washington was not immune, Fleming reveals in a chapter called The Other George Washington Scandals, in which he details all manner of slanders made up of whole cloth that were directed at Washington by political opponents.

The worst of these hacks was named James Thompson Callender.  Callender was the original “source” of the allegations about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings— a delicious irony, since Jefferson had originally commissioned Callender to make up stories about corruption by Alexander Hamilton.  Callender turned on Jefferson because the new President would not make him Postmaster of Richmond.

On the other hand, it was John Adams himself who exaggerated Benjamin Franklin’s sex life out of all semblance to reality.  Franklin did, in effect, have a wife in both London and Philadelphia before the Revolution.  And while it’s possible that a woman who was close to him in France was his lover, Adams’s portrayal of Franklin as a depraved indiscriminate womanizer in Paris was extremely unlikely, Fleming writes.  Franklin made himself the toast of France by engaging in the banter of the time, but at his advanced age and health, Adams’s reports are difficult to believe.  (And the gratuitous bathtub scene in the HBO miniseries John Adams is purely from the peculiar imagination of the screenwriter).

Fleming arranges the book as mini-bios of the personal lives of the following founders:

George Washington: Fleming does an enormous service by rescuing Martha Washington from the cliché that she was merely the rich matronly widow that George married to secure his future while his heart stayed with Sally Fairfax, his neighbor’s flirtatious wife.  Fleming notes that after their marriage, the Washingtons were THE Virginia couple; Martha had been the colony’s most sought-after widow.  Her winning and witty sociability was remarked upon by everyone including as strong a personality as Abigail Adams who looked on her as a role model.  Every surviving letter (Martha had most of their personal correspondence burned) displays a deep affection.

As for George, while he had to settle for being the Father of his Country, he was a devoted and sensible step-parent and grandparent, whose household often included a large number of grandchildren and relations.

Benjamin Franklin: Fleming sorts through the tangled love life of perhaps the most brilliant of the Founders.  Franklin is often pigeonholed as a libertine, partly because of his youthful autobiography, partly because of John Adams’s puritanical (literally) public disapproval; but the accounts of his supposed debauchery in France are greatly exaggerated.

Franklin rejected his youthful immorality and had a successful marriage for many years, fathering a bright and accomplished daughter.  It was his illegitimate son, William, however who was the light of Benjamin’s life.  Franklin guided the chip-off-the-old-block’s career in the British establishment too well, however, and William stayed a Loyalist, actively opposing the Revolution in ways that forever estranged him from his father.

Alexander Hamilton: If you think South Carolina Mark Sandford is entirely too talkative about his Argentinian “soulmate;” and makes you want to cover your ears and yell “Too much information,” get a load of Alexander Hamilton.  Hamilton published a book-length explanation of a long-over affair to the mortification of both his allies and his wife Elizabeth, the mother of his 7 children.

But while Hamilton confessed to the affair Callendar wrote about, Fleming says that his deepest attachment was likely with his wife’s glamorous sister, Angelica  Despite her long-suffering, Fleming also rescues Elizabeth from the mere label of wronged wife.  This devoutly Christian woman forgave her husband and after his death collected his papers and helped restore him to his rightful place in American history.  She also became a force in charity work and in raising money for the Washington Monument.

John Adams: While the marriage of the Adamses may be the most examined—and idealized– in American history, Fleming gives us a warts and all look at the relationship.  John Adams’s personality defects have been much discussed, and Fleming gives the requisite credit to Abigail for keeping John on track. However, he also illustrates that Abigail’s political ear had just as much tin as John’s.  She was an avid advocate for the Alien and Sedition Acts, for instance; and egged on some of the needless quarrels that Adams engaged in.  The Adamses were involved and loving parents; but were equally over-demanding and both contributed to the all or nothing outcomes in their children’s lives, the extremes of which were John Quincy’s brilliant career and his brother Charles’s drinking himself to death.

Thomas Jefferson: While nearly every recent examination of Thomas Jefferson’s personal life focuses on the subject of a supposed romance with slave Sally Hemings, Fleming reminds us that Jefferson was a tragic figure who outlived all but one of his children, and lost his beloved wife at a young age.  More than any other Founder, Jefferson put his family considerations above those of his personal ambition, and even the Cause itself, at one time leaving Virginia without representation in the Congress while he saw to his wife’s health.

As to the subject that fascinates so many, Fleming demolishes the notion of a nearly 4-decade affair between Jefferson and Hemings, showing that both the layout and constant activity at Monticello make such a thing nearly impossible.  Fleming disproves much of the timeline of the so-called statistical study which alleges Jefferson was the father of all of Hemings’s children.  He also expresses doubt that Jefferson ever had a dalliance with Hemings, though concludes that is impossible to rule out.

As for the DNA test, Fleming writes, all it proved is that sometime in the last 200 years, a descendant of Sally Hemings has someone related to Thomas Jefferson in his family line.  Fleming provides at least one more likely—but less famous—suspect, Jefferrson’s younger brother, Randolph.

James Madison:  While today, all that is remembered about the Madison marriage is as good as it should be, the Madisons endured perhaps the worst slanders of any of the Founders.  The fact that the shy and sickly Madison could land such a prize as the robust and witty Dolley had some wags alleging it was a marriage of political convenience, and that Dolley improperly used her considerable charms to persuade congressmen and diplomats to her husband’s point of view.

However, Fleming writes, the enduring portrait of the ebullient hostess who invented the office of First Lady, and the heroic couple who courageously faced the British invasion of Washington in 1812 is a wholly accurate one.

It may be an exaggeration to say I’ve even scratched the surface here.  This book is a treasure trove of information and insight that will satisfy both the history buff and captivate the reader with a more casual interest.

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers is addictively readable, informative, fascinating, engaging, revelatory and provocative.  Which, you might say, is just another way of saying– it’s a Thomas Fleming book.

Editor’s Note: Click here to browse inside The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers and learn more about its author.

  • Proxywar

    Sounds interesting especially the thomas jefferson part.

    I don't see why it would matter if jefferson had sex and kids with a black woman?

    Infact, the youth would respect him more today if he had.

  • bushlikesdick12

    There is a black political extremists group that insists that Jefferson raped Sally.

    Apparantly, if she is a slave, she has no choice but to have sex with him upon his demand.

    The only thing we have to go by is the temperment of the relationship based on wittnesses. Even that isn't enough.

    What we do have and can construe on is base on the present — how women in general react and feel towards men of stature and wealth upon their presense.

    I'm not sure how much wealth Jefferson had but he certainly had stature.

    Example given: some say Clinton took advantage of Monica's disturbed mental state but it is clear from wittnesses that she knew what she was doing. Apparently, she bragged to others that she wore the presidential knee pads.

    I don't think Sally was raped — I think she was an opportunist like many if not most.

  • davidforsmark

    I don't know what you're getting at here. At the time, Jefferson had wealth AND power, but he was broke by the time he died because he insisted on keeping Monticello a social hot spot around the clock even as his income dwindled. That's actually part of the argument against the supposed relationship– not much opportunity or privacy. He was basically a grieving widower to one extent or another his whole life.

    Also, the evidence clearly suggests that Sally Hemings had here 6 children by several different men. As for the Hemings family “oral history,” it is, of course a much better story to claim to be the descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

    One of the best suspects for the DNA– though the families have been in contact and proximity for 200 years and it could have happened anytime in that period– is Jefferson's brother Randolph, who was a hanger on at Monticello and was known for partying with the slaves and playing music for their dances and such.

  • Dennis X

    Jefferson was a sick man. As a slaveowner he had to have one position to justify owning slaves, that is they were like cattle something less than human. So he had sex with someone he considered less than human= sick puppy. Or , even worst if he did realize they were human beings and he still maintained them bondage That makes him less than human. All part of white christian nation building.

  • davidforsmark

    In the running for most ignorant post of the day. Congrats.

  • reat

    Great response from someone who has obviously had relationships with farm aniamals. Try a response with facts. Jefferson had sex with his slave=fact.

  • davidforsmark

    Sorry Dennis, you fall to second place.

  • Carterthewriter

    I have no idea why some people search for something controversial to dwell on while missing the gist of the materila presented in the book. It points out what is wrong in America today. Quite sad, too.

  • davidhorowitz

    All of these posts are quickly degenerating into the usual emotional diatribes that usual accompany such suggestive claims. The fact is, Jefferson had a long-running affair with Sally Hemings. On the other hand, Sally was not the usual run-of-the-mill slave. On the contrary, she was a light-skinned mulatto, and the half sister of Thomas's deceased wife. The relationship was well known during his lifetime – simply an 'open secret'. Whether or not ALL of her children are related paternally to Thomas is open to question, however. The Jefferson Foundation acknowledges the Jefferson paternity claims. In regards to Randolph, he was never a 'suspect' until recent DNA tests proved the links to the Jefferson line. He's only been introduced to deflect attention away from Thomas. On the other hand, charges by self-styled black militants, who correctly decry the fairly widespread travesty of the rape of black female slaves by slaveowners, unfairly categorize the Hemings case as such to gain political traction. The affair was more nuanced, long-lasting, and probably mutually beneficial. They even traveled together. In the end, the affair is probably even more politically charged for those engaged in the 21st Century Kulture Wars than it was even for those intimately involved.

  • kevinlewis

    Thanks so much for the post! It is such interesting information.

    Muscle Might

    Muscle Force Max

  • trodaball

    From the founder's comtemporary writings, there was serious inner turmoil among many of the founders over slavery which led them to entertain the hope, even amongst the surrounding pressure from landowners, that slavery would cease. They were born into a worldwide culture of slavery where they knew it was wrong and wanted it rectified, but wanted to phase it out by appealing to the Christian conscience of society, hoping that would quell another revolution. The ” white Christian ” accusation is only fractionally correct because the clergy, which held substantial influence, pushed the Protestant Christian majority to take opposition to slavery, which ultimately led to it's end. We became the first country to abolish it. It's sad today's Left chooses to flat out lie about our history, to conveniently take cheap shots at America. Their secular Marxist utopia has so much more of a rich wonderful past to hang out hopes on.

  • bushlikesdick12

    Dennis X,

    Blacks were not the only people held in bondage those days Dennis. How about he fact that an indentured Journeyman can have an apprentice for 10 years of his life?

    He can not break his contract due to the fact that the journeyman is giving the apprentice his skill in return for his labor. The journeyman is entitled to 10 years.

    In many cases, the apprentice was his comforter during the night: meaning the apprentice was subjected to giving the journeyman sexual pleasure.

    In Short, that was the mentality of the times and there were signs of these times all the way through the 1960's.

    Animals, on the contrary are human. slaves are human but were considered less that human intellectually.

    Also, if you want to make a far comparison, what about women in general? They didn''t have a right to vote, they would often get beaten by their husbands without any sort of intervention from the authorities.

    So how much does that separate your wife from farm animals and slaves based on your understanding?

    So a sick pup today may be pretty casual sex then.

    I know if I was a slave owner I would be lusting over some of that black booty and if you say different then you are probably a prude fag or something, Probably just a liar.

  • davidforsmark

    wow, three good comments in a row. Thanks for reassuring me that not only the nutty fringe is reading this column!

  • davidforsmark

    Sorry, the “open secret” is a myth. The ONLY contemporary writing on this is from Callender, or related partisan attacks. It would have prevented Jefferson from becoming President were it well known. The long term relationship is almost impossible to be true. Randolph only became a suspect recently because people only started taking this crap seriously recently. And it would have been MORE politically charged back then, not less. Are you kidding me?

  • davidforsmark

    In 2003, American Heritage, after examining the evidence, said “Whatever one's views, it is hard to deny that honorable people can and do disagree about Jefferson and Hemings…It's important for the public to realize that the purported Jefferson-Hemings liaison remains a disputed possibility, not an established fact.”