THE BLOG

Sex Lives of the American Founding Fathers

02/17/2014 08:50 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014

"The Founding Fathers were all virgins!" Yes, the usual attention-grabbing headlines are about sexual dalliances but why not consider this possibility? After all, as anyone who denies the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings will tell you, we have no DNA evidence that the Founding Fathers actually fathered their own children. It's true! Washington we can immediately take out of the discussion. He had no children of his own with his wife, Martha. And who believes the stories that he fathered a child with his own enslaved woman? (Lots of people. Check out this website). John Adams was such a prude. Maybe those kids belong to someone else? He was away a lot. Ben Franklin, everyone is convinced had relationships with many, many women. But has anyone DNA tested all those descendants? Fifteen illegitimate children? Thomas Jefferson, oh wait, Thomas Jefferson is exactly how we got on the issue of DNA testing and Founding Fathers in the first place.

But without DNA testing, all hope is not lost. It actually helps to know other things -- all circumstantial mind you -- none of it would hold up even on Maury -- the *authority* on paternity in contemporary society. But seriously, very smart people have looked at what evidence we have and determined that Jefferson is virtually certain to be the father of Sally Hemings's six children.

So it looks like we know Jefferson wasn't a virgin.

But as for the rest of them. Who knows? There's certainly no shortage of stories about their sex lives. Do we hold all stories to the same standards? Do we enjoy some stories more than others?

In Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, I examine the long history of stories Americans have told about the sex lives of the Founding Fathers and find no shortage of material to examine -- and compelling evidence that none of them were virgins.

George Washington
Was George Washington impotent? Well, okay. We actually don't have real evidence about this. George Washington, father of the nation, never had any of his own children with Martha. That we know. The children that he is often shown with were from her first marriage or her grandchildren. He was certainly a father to his step-children and step grandchildren. Nobody seemed to think he was impotent back when he was leading the charge against the British. They chose instead to skewer him as a cheating husband. Even after the war, stories continued. When he died some claimed that he caught the cold that did him in after climbing out of a married woman's window without any pants on. Today, most talk about the Father of the Country not siring any children tends to explain it as the result of sterility, perhaps the result of tuberculosis.

Ben Franklin
Ben Franklin had mistresses? At 70? Americans have long been interested in Franklin's sexual escapades. He wrote about some of his bad-boy-ness in his Autobiography, explaining that he fled an apprenticeship in Boston by boarding a ship to Philadelphia after lying to the captain that he needed to flee because he got someone pregnant. He also said that he regretted never marrying his common-law wife. Oh, and his son from a non-marital union prior to his marriage eventually became a real source of shame for him - he was a royal governor of New Jersey and backed the British during the American Revolution. In the nineteenth century, famed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that he should not be honored as a great American because his life story was an affront to women. It was only recently that Americans began to see him as a playful flirt. Or was he an old perv with a lot of power that he abused?

John Adams
Was John Adams estranged from his wife? John and Abigail Adams have been called the power couple of the American Revolution. He has been imagined as an ideal husband and a man of great virtue. He called Alexander Hamilton a "bastard brat" and was pretty loud about how sleezy he thought the French were -- but what about his ideal marriage? He spent much of it away from his wife. That's how we know they loved each other. They wrote letters while they were apart. Sometimes he came back to Massachusetts and didn't even go home to see Abigail. In the meanwhile she had an emotional affair (as we might call it now) and they both exchanged barbs about the long distance marriage that went on for years.

Gouverneur Morris
Did Governeur Morris have sex in the Louvre? You may not have heard of Gouverneur Morris but you're probably familiar with some of what he wrote. "We the People, in order to form a more perfect union," is sometimes mis-attributed to the Declaration of Independence but it's the opening to the U.S. Constitution, and Morris wrote it and also edited most of the Constitution as chair of the committee that focused on its style. Morris was a bachelor until 57. He had a lot of sex. He wrote about it in his personal diaries -- not even in code, as some early Americans did. A lot of it took place while he was serving as a diplomat for the new nation--just before and during the French Revolution. His main squeeze was a married woman. She lived in the Louvre, now the museum that houses the Mona Lisa. Back then it housed people close to the King. Morris had a lot of sex there, which he liked to call "celebrating" or any other number of fun things. And they both liked to take risks. In one diary entry he wrote "Go to the Louvre...we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while [Mademoiselle] is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open."

Thomas Jefferson
If we know he was the father of Sally Hemings's children, what do we know about their relationship? Not much. Does he mention Hemings in his diary? No. Do we have letters from her? No. The historians that study sex between masters and slaves almost unanimously write about these relationships as near rape and certainly as abusive exploitation. But for this Founding Father we've ended up somehow with a champion for diversity. We know he bought clothing for her while they were both living in Paris. But was it a special gift or so that she could appear properly attired as his slave? We have no record of secret passage ways at Monticello. We don't know if they ever told each other they loved each other. In some of the only documentation of the relationship, Hemings's son described his mother as Jefferson's "concubine" -- hardly the romantic image some have imagined. In popular movies like Jefferson in Paris and Sally Hemings, they seem to be deeply in love but stuck in a time and place that wouldn't tolerate it. Hmm.

Alexander Hamilton
Clinton wasn't the first major politician to issue an apology for having an affair. Indeed Clinton's handlers at the time pointed to Alexander Hamilton as a way to shore up his pedigree and legitimate the whole mess. Much of what we know about Hamilton's affair with a married woman comes from a published apology from Hamilton himself. And it didn't stop him from being put on the ten dollar bill. Hamilton's version was that she entrapped him -- came to him looking for help. One thing led to another. Her husband started to extort money from him. Then allowed the affair. Finally he came clean to clear his name from related charges of using Federal funds for the payments. When he got shot to death by sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr, in a duel (shot at the same cliffs in New Jersey and using the same gun as his son, who was killed in a duel a few years earlier), he quickly became a martyr. People were already leaning away from viewing him as an adulterer. The woman, Maria Reynolds, was thoroughly trashed as "working class." Remember the people who said that Lewinsky was beneath Clinton?

There's been no shortage of stories traded about the sex lives of the Founding Fathers. Most of it isn't actually sordid. Much more ink has been spilled depicting them as unusually passionate, or uniquely committed to their marriages. Virgins? Unlikely. But it all depends on your standards of evidence.