Reviewed by Erin Carlson Mast
CEO and Executive Director, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington, DC
Exposing your private life to scrutiny is the price you pay for political power in America. And, what we demand from our leaders and what we excuse them for says as much about our national ideals as it does about our personal politics and beliefs.
Such are the lessons in Thomas Fleming’s, “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers,” in which the author assesses academic and popular views of the personal lives of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. Fleming’s goal is to put 21st-century hand-wringing over too much invasion in private lives of public officials in historical context.
In order to do that, Fleming states, “I decided to explore the roles of women in the lives of the first group of American politicians to win fame.”
The word “fame” is important here, as the famous — political, cultural, and otherwise — are always the subject of intense public interest. And in times of intense conflict between rival individuals and rival organizations, the battle for power invites a no-holds-barred style of political muckraking, one fully on display in any contentious election since our nation’s founding.
Fleming promises the reader that this will be a different view of the Founding Fathers, one that makes them more accessible to the reader and demonstrates the impact the women who knew them best had on their lives.
He proceeds to lift the veil with extensive primary sources from the era, offering the reader a more personal and nuanced look at the founders and the women in their lives. He also offers a healthy review of the life-cycle of various debates over scandals, drawing conclusions not only about various purported events and features of relationships, but of the context for public interest in them and the resulting vacillation in our estimation of the Founding Fathers over time.
His attention to each Founding Father is equitable, save Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with Sally Hemings and its treatment gets tremendous attention; an appendix is devoted to it.
Fleming’s exploration about the complexity of love and marriage and how Americans defined it classically, culturally, and personally in the founding era provides crucial context. He shows us how George Washington’s relationship with the calm and graceful Martha may have been that much more precious to him given his fraught relationship with a mother who is described as perennially unstable.
Yet, his feelings toward Sally Fairfax represented a very different kind of love or admiration. He also offers, for example, convincing nuance and cultural significance to Franklin’s different relationships with various women.
And yet some of Fleming’s assessments of relationships can be off-putting; for example, describing a portrait of Deborah Franklin, he insists one can imagine her face “easily bending into a scowl.” Or when he recounts how someone in the Jefferson household suggested Martha “let” an enslaved woman nurse her firstborn child when she was failing to thrive.
Despite his pledge to look at the role of women, Fleming’s book — and its conclusions — are still dominated by the male perspective. This is easily explainable, though not exactly defensible, by the imbalance of available primary sources from men versus women.
As illustrated above, when the primary sources don’t offer verifiable evidence, Fleming attempts to fill in the blanks. His writing suggests a comfort if not an eagerness to occasionally veer into conjecture and imaginings about the private lives of the Founding Fathers, and that’s not a surprise given that his oeuvre contains fiction and nonfiction.
Fleming suggests we will better relate to the Founding Fathers if we appreciate their private lives. He states, “They are more like us than we have dared to imagine.” In fact, many readers might find they’re even less approachable than they imagined. To a large extent, these are stories of the 1%. There are details of tenderness, heartbreak, and mental turmoil that show humanity, yes, but the context is that of the privileged few attaining wealth, power, fame.
Fleming describes men comfortable with having great aspirational views on humanity that they rarely fulfilled personally. This is a central point that has caused the public to question the “greatness” of the Founding Fathers and feel a disconnect with them. Thomas Jefferson is the obvious example, but far from the only one.
For example, much has been made of the intense partnership of John and Abigail Adams, less so on how deeply he disappointed her with his stance on women’s rights. And finally, Fleming’s work as a whole confirms that modern suspicions are true — otherwise qualified individuals retreat from public service when it becomes unbearable.
Despite occasional cringe-worthy language about the women featured in his book, Fleming succeeds in showing us how the Founding Fathers were complex men with an indirect, complicated path to greatness, and whose kinswomen, friends, and lovers impacted their tumultuous public lives in myriad ways.
His research shows that while it’s true that interest in the intimate lives of famous politicians has always been part of American political scandalmongering, it has also influenced individuals’ willingness to participate in public service. In other words: We are right to be concerned that scrutiny of the intimate lives of our public officials impacts who is willing to subject themselves to it.
On the other hand, the right to question and have interest in our public leaders’ private lives is woven into the fabric of the government the founders created. While readers may not agree with all of Fleming’s conclusions, “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers” is nonetheless a valuable synopsis of each man’s backstory, and an enjoyable read.
“The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers”
By Thomas Fleming
480 pp., Harper Perennial
Erin Carlson Mast is CEO/Executive Director, President Lincoln’s Cottage.