The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers

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Release Date: 
November 8, 2010
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by: 

Providence has its signature upon everything of value, tangible and intangible. The founding fathers, especially George Washington, firmly believed its “guiding hand” was akin to a protectorate, ensuring all the proper people were aligned with Time and Events to conceive a new country of unequaled freedoms.

Indeed, Providence brought these men forth, men of stoicism and intellect, of passion and courage. What we are indoctrinated with in school only scratches the surface of the story history has to tell us. Our founding fathers secure our deserved approbations for their words and deeds, yet we are released from our institutions with precious little knowledge about a matter of equal importance to their historical fame—their humanity.

One can scarcely give thought to Adam without including Eve—they may be considered the First Parents. One without the other is inconceivable. He needed her softness and guile; she, his strength and security. One gave ballast to the other. We know how that story ends, of course—through the parable we are implored to consider the dynamics of man and woman; perhaps more pointedly, the mystical enchantment of love.

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers brings to our purview the affections and influences of the wives, mothers, sisters—and yes, lovers—of six American founders. Our historical culture is such that we tend to exalt the men and relegate the influential women of their lives to mere footnotes, if mentioned at all but in passing. Thomas Fleming does eloquent service to these deserving, effectual ladies.

Probably the most sonorous is the yet undecided controversy regarding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. If you’re looking for an ultimate confirmation of yes or no, you won’t find it here. You will encounter plenty of information—claims, counter-claims, denials, and withdrawals—emanating from both camps. Fleming does a brilliant job of providing historical evidence via oral and written accounts.

This reviewer was explicitly taught that Jefferson had absolutely taken his mulatto slave Sally Hemings as a lover and sired children with her. As with much of what is fobbed off as history in our textbooks, much of the true evidence, pro and con, is left unmentioned, leaving no room for genuine discussion and—gasp!—learning. Left to the accelerated pace of teaching, many students are exposed to ivory tower versions of history. Mr. Fleming’s salient prose gives much needed grist for the mill. To any person interested, even intrigued, by early American history, the arguments presented are worth the price of the book alone.

Ample time is given to revealing sentiments regarding Jefferson and his wife, Martha. I’ve known of Jefferson as a towering political figurehead, but never have I known of his painfully romantic nature. The man adored his wife, and considered only the briefest of dalliances well after her death when he encountered Maria Cosway in Paris many years later.

An almost untouchable icon, George Washington is sometimes intimated as having been quite the ladies’ man. Our revered national hero is shown to have been acutely susceptible to Cupid’s touch in regards to Sally Cary Fairfax. But he was also prone to fits of temper, a congenital facet of his character inherited from his mother, Mary Ball Washington. General Washington was oft rumored to have taken other women as lovers, but again Fleming provides a rich well of documentation that only serves to solidify the contrarian idea that he was deeply devoted to Martha Custis Washington, his wife. Martha, in fact, was often with her husband as he traveled during his command of the Continental Army.

But we are invariably drawn to the potentially scandalous nature of men in power. The sheer use of the word Intimate in the title is enough to arouse prurient curiosity. Was Ben Franklin the subtle political and feminine provocateur he’s said to have been? Was Alexander Hamilton, born of a mother with a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, equal to her misgivings? Who was more responsible for bringing America through the War of 1812: James or Dolley Madison? And were Dolley Madison and Martha Wayles Jefferson “pimped out” as their husband’s political detractors would claim? Each of these men is drawn for our posterity by Flemings’ deft style. Their backgrounds and accounts of events which surrounded their ascendancy are intricately woven together with their loves and peccadilloes to flesh out their heretofore almost ignored humanity.

It is no stretch of rationality to pronounce women as equally important in examinations of our history (dare I say history overall). The social standards of the time shut women out of leadership roles, yet we are repeatedly shown—as if we need to be—that without their support and counsel these men may quite possibly have manifested a different kind of history for us. These ladies were removed from the direct harshness of the political limelight, but their involvement on the periphery, and directly upon their husband’s lives and hearts, was as important to the fathers’ emotional well-being as any stroke of the pen they may have used to induce history. In many instances their influence and support had direct impact upon politics, both national and international.

In the interest of personal disclosure, this reviewer is an unabashed fan of Abigail Adams. This section of the book was something I looked very much forward to. Having read David McCullough’s John Adams, I was hoping to come away with some fresh insights. Those are present, if muted by comparison. To be fair Fleming has a much wider net to cast in exploring the amorous sides of our vaunted founders. The casual reader may not know much of what McCullough told, so to that end the section dedicated to the Adamses is easily capable of standing on its own. Much can be gleaned from the intimate correspondence between the couple during their years separated by an ocean in the cause of independence. In case you’re wondering, I still adore Abigail.

Throughout, Fleming’s prose is, most often, beautiful. There are times, however, when he teeters on the cusp of being inaccessible. I consider myself to have a decent vocabulary, and there were a few times I needed to consult a dictionary. I consider this an advantage as it lends itself to expanding my love of the language. But for someone looking for a fundamentally simple read, they may find the book frustrating on occasion. The subject matter deserves—really, requires—respectful handling and meticulous care. Sheer vocabulary aside, his pen does nothing in the least to diminish this highly intelligent, thoroughly enjoyable, and engrossing read.