Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Jefferson’

Book cover for Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers 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 which 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 are 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.

Once again I’d like to thank Ted Sturtz at the New York Journal of Books for his help in securing a copy of Intimate Lives for me to review, and to Harper Collins for providing the copy. The book was provided solely in exchange for the purposes of reviewing.

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He’d been sent as ambassador to Holland for the yet-to-be and very much struggling United States of America. The Continental Army, under the beseiged leadership of General George Washington, was trying desperately to find its collective ass with both hands—Congress had long since stopped paying the soldiers, supplies were either scarce or not to be had at all, and between defeats and abandonment the rank-and-file were becoming thinner by the day.

John Adams was hustled off to Amsterdam to convince the Dutch king that the American fight for independence was worth Danish backing. He’d been told it would be a tough argument, but his newborn country desperately needed a healthy infusion of money and arms, if both could be had. Benjamin Franklin was already firmly entrenched in France with the objective of trying to woo the French Court to our side as well. At least he had the built-in advantage of the French and British hating each other. The Dutch were really too self-absorbed to get involved in any international conflicts. Adams basically got the short straw. It had been Adams’ passionate arguments in the courtroom and on the floor of Congress that earned him passage overseas.

But of passions he had no more profound than for his wife, Abigail. John Adams fiercely loved America. He’d spent a great deal of time and energy supporting the cause for independence. But the person he was most devoted to over anyone else was his wife. When he wrote to her he referred to her as “Dearest Friend,” his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world”—while to her, he was “the tenderest of husbands,” her “good man.” John considered Abigail his equal. She was very well read, and equally passionate about her values and beliefs; both shared a steadfast commonality in pursuing independence from the British crown.

During one bleak point, amongst news of the “Boston Massacre” and royal needling with things like the Stamp Act, there were calls for attempts at reconciliation with Britain. Abigail set pen to paper when a petition was circulated in Braintree in support of reconciliation:

I could not join today in the petitions . . . for a reconciliation between our no longer parent state, by a tyrant state and these colonies. Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our brethren.

While traveling through New York en route back to Boston, John purchased two copies of a small, anonymous pamphlet that had recently been published and had been causing quite a stir. He kept one copy and sent the second to Abigail.

It was titled Common Sense.

John and Abigail spent four years apart while he was in Europe. They never became accustomed to the distance. In their letters to each other they repeatedly and fervently stated how very much one longed for and needed the other. To be away from somebody so elegantly but firmly woven into your soul is hardship enough, but can we today truly begin to imagine how incredibly difficult it must have been in the late 1700’s? We have cell phones, airplanes, and e-mail today. In their time correspondence took months to cross such distances, and many times never made it at all.

Abigail, and their daughter Nabby, eventually sailed for Europe to join their husband and father, but only after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Abigail was deathly horrified of travel by sea and many times had pleaded with John to return home. He desperately wanted to, but he had finally secured Dutch recognition of America as a sovereign, independent country and also procured loans which were still sorely needed. This sudden success resulted in his presence being needed in Paris, alongside Thomas Jefferson and an ailing Benjamin Franklin. They were to work together on what became the Treaty of Paris. As an interesting aside, Congress sent specific instructions stating they were to follow the wishes of the French during deliberations. As it turned out, all three were absolutely outraged that so much blood would be shed and such hardships faced only to become puppets to another throne. So they did as they saw fit, which history later shows us worked greatly to our advantage.

Throughout their separation both Abigail and John suffered physically as a result of the distance. But both believed so strongly in the cause of freedom they placed themselves secondary to its germination and care. Upon once again being rejoined on the outskirts of France, they found great contentment and happiness in one anothers company. While Jefferson and Franklin often fell ill, Adams’s own health was more robust than ever, thought in large part as a result of being with the woman he so dearly cherished. John not only had his daughter and wife with him, but also his oldest son, John Quincy. While Abigail often bemoaned the seemingly interminable passing seasons in Massachusetts without her “good man,” the four of them en famille had paid dividends far beyond what she’d ever dreamt possible. She’d supported her husband from afar and held both he and her beloved America in the same stead. After some time in France, especially during winter when snow was falling upon the Parisian countryside, she would become sadly homesick, having once written to her sister Mary that it “looked so American.” “What a sad misfortune it is,” she added, “to have the body in one place and the soul in another.” Now she missed her country, but was with her best friend and husband.

John Adams’s contribution to the founding fabric of our nation is not nearly as predominant in our education as those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln; indeed, all great leaders and icons in their own right. John Adams had, on many occasions, been accused of great self-puffery and outright vanity, yet he also retained the admiration and respect of men such as Jefferson and John Jay for his sharp mind and unwavering dedication to the cause of freedom. His two most profound loves he clearly served his life for—Abigail and America.

Inarguably, neither can be said to be “light and transient causes.”

Happy Birthday America! A toast to our Republic . . . “if we can keep it.”

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