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Book Review, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers

February 19, 2014

Thomas A. Foster’s Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (published on February 17th), is an important book, particularly in light of the spate of biographies and documentaries of the Founding Fathers that have been produced over the last decade or so. Foster, an Associate Professor at DePaul University who has written on early American sexuality, examines the various biographies written over the past two hundred years for six of the Founders: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris. Foster situates these within the American quest for a “relatable past,” with each author/producer examining the Founders with the intent (if not the psychological need) to make them relevant to their own time. In this sense, the biographies themselves become focal points for how Americans consistently reinvent both their understanding of gender and sexuality and national identity.

Foster rightly points out existing gaps in historical knowledge, and how many popular biographies are reluctant to let these pass by, especially for figures like Jefferson and Washington, whose private lives are largely lost to the historical record. Each era needs the Founders to either be bastions of masculinity or of fatherhood, beacons of moral virtue, or, more recently, modern and fully sexual, “just like us.” The biographies of the Founders then, become microcosms of the history of American sexuality, as each era has interpreted and reinterpreted the Founders to suit their own mores. He explores how George Washington became highly masculinized and the Father of the Country despite never fathering any children, how Thomas Jefferson went from chaste widow to passionate lover to “multicultural icon,” and how John Adams went from Puritanical prude to the Best Husband Ever. Benjamin Franklin is treated as the nation’s mischievous grandfather while the political ramifications of the French salon culture he participated in are ignored, and Alexander Hamilton is remembered for the duel with Aaron Burr rather than for his very public, and presumably humiliating, confession of adultery. Foster ends with a discussion of Gouverneur Morris, whose sexual exploits were obscured by biographers until relatively recently (presumably because a Founding Father shouldn’t be having sex in public with his mistress).

Foster’s point, and it is a cogent one, is that Americans tend to treat sexuality as something “transhistorical” that doesn’t change. Consequently, the biographies that Americans produce act as if sex can be used as a way to relate to the Founders, ignoring the fact that the Founders were men with an eighteenth-century understanding of sexuality. The fact that sexuality plays a political role here is overlooked, as is the phenomenon that the Founders’ private lives have been used to define the very meaning of the nation itself. For Americans uncomfortable with alternate renderings of sexuality, this is disturbing stuff indeed.

As a graduate student in American History, I enjoyed Foster’s book thoroughly, and highly recommend his footnotes to anyone interested in either the history of sexuality or the history of public memory. I found myself wondering about his use of the concept “relatable past,” and wonder if the disjuncture between “public” and “professional” history can actually be found here—the public wants “relatable,” while professionals want “usable”? Something to ponder, anyway.

My only real issue with the book has nothing to do with Foster’s writing and scholarship, but with the cover that Temple University Press chose to give it—a portrait of George Washington with a lipstick kiss emblazoned on his cheek. The cover does this book a huge disservice, and devalues its content. Judging from the reviews already posted to Goodreads, this book is being picked up and read with the hope that it is a fun look at the Founders’ sex lives, and there were several complaints about this being an “academic” book. While I know there is little one can do about the cover at this point, I mention this because the cover appears to be trying to make the book look like one of the “Founders Chic” biographies that Foster is critiquing. His strong analysis and excellent scholarship, frankly, deserve better than this.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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