An Intimate Understanding of the Founders - by David Forsmark

A leading historian busts myths about the patriots who built America.

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.