“Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic“
By Dr. Cassandra A. Good
304 pp., Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Thomas Fleming
Author, “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers”
This is an eye-opening book about the early years of the American republic. It explores in vigorous prose a subject that has seldom been discussed: friendships between men and women. The subject remains highly relevant in modern times, as is evident by the success of the 1989 film, “When Harry Met Sally.” In the film, when Harry and Sally share a drive from Chicago to New York, Harry remarks that friendship between a man and a woman is impossible, because “the sex part always gets in the way.”
With amazing success, Cassandra Good reveals numerous friendships in the first decades of the American republic that flourished remarkably. Among her foremost examples are the letters exchanged between widower Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams, wife of Jefferson’s friend and rival, John Adams. Their friendship survived some bruising political differences.
Abigail was by no means the only woman Jefferson befriended. After he left the presidency in 1809, Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of the editor of the administration’s semi-official newspaper, The National Intelligencer, described her feelings in a letter to her sister: “My heart is oppressed with a weight of sadness, and my eyes are so blinded with tears that I can scarcely trace these lines.”
At least as powerful were the emotional ties that bound Eloise Richard Payne and William Ellery Channing. Both professional educators, they met while single but their friendship remained potent even when both married. Channing called her “a sincere and effective friend on whose attachment I may rely in all the vicissitudes of life. “ Eloise found in William a mentor and adviser who “supported & cheered me in scenes of the darkest sorrow … & spoken peace to me when all was anarchy.” In her letters, Eloise “confided every action and every thought,” and William in turn “rebuk’d and counsel’d and encourag’d me.”
These friendships were in keeping with the basic ideas of the new nation — virtue, freedom, and equality. For a woman, the choice of a spouse was usually subject to paternal approval. After marriage, her personal wealth and much of her freedom to act came under her husband’s control. But men and women could befriend each other without anyone’s approval. Nor were the roles in these friendships in any way scripted.
At the same time, there were worries about propriety and appearances that these relationships had to overcome. Another issue was power. Some men found it difficult to concede equal significance to a woman’s opinions. The author helps us understand these problems with a brilliant chapter on how friendship was depicted in popular novels of the time. Here we see numerous examples of how “the sex part” could be dangerous and lead to tragedy for the woman.
In the middle chapters, we see the various ways friends dealt with this danger. Some of the examples Dr. Good has discovered are fascinating. George Washington, a man who at first glance seemed too formidable and reserved for such friendships, is revealed as a shrewd and witty practitioner of the art. Annis Boudinot Stockton, widow of a New Jersey congressman, sent Washington numerous poems about the way he stirred her devotion. When she apologized for bothering him, Washington urged her to have dinner with him and “go thro the proper course of penitence that shall be prescribed.” By the late 1780s Stockton was telling him his friendship “stole on my soul exquisitely sweet.”
The author also explores other ways that friends expressed their feelings for each other. One of the favorites was albums to which friends contributed poems and aphorisms. Also popular were intimate personal gifts, such as locks of hair, often in lockets or encased in rings. Finally there is a fascinating chapter on how such friendships often played a role in state and national politics. A woman who was the friend of a politician did not hesitate to offer him advice or ask him to favor another friend for an appointment.
This is a book so rich in ideas and emotions that readers will keep it in their libraries to read more than once. It reveals a side of America’s past that will make them pleased and proud of the spiritual pioneers among our founders.
Thomas Fleming is the author of “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.” He has written more than 40 books about America’s past.