All of the Founding Fathers were married, and most of them had children. What do the stories of the wives and families of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison tell us about the personality and character of these great Americans?
In his latest book, Thomas Fleming superbly answers this question. Fleming has written many books about American history, including excellent histories of the problems in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson administrations. But he has long been interested in the Founders and in the origins of our country. Even though the era and the people Fleming writes about are well known, he nonetheless tells a fresh and interesting story.
Fleming is also a political conservative. His goal here is to write history that, while accurate, is patriotic and life affirming. The important news in this book is that George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and James and Dolley Madison were virtuous people whose marriages were admirable.
Of course, Fleming points out the faults of the subjects of his book where faults exist. For example, he spends a great deal of space analyzing whether Jefferson had an affair with slave Sally Hemings and fathered children with her. In 1998, pathologist Dr. Eugene Foster declared that DNA from a descendant of Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston, and a descendant of Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson, matched. The press declared that the tests proved that Jefferson fathered Hemings’s children, even though Dr. Foster himself denied that the tests provided proof. Shortly after his report, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and administers Monticello, changed its name to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, apparently because they could no longer see Monticello as a memorial to Jefferson.
Fleming carefully analyzes the evidence and concludes that it’s likely that one (or more) of Jefferson’s relatives, most notably his brother Randolph or his nephew Peter Carr, could have fathered Hemings’s children.
That doesn’t mean the Founders were perfect. Hamilton, while a colonel on Washington’s staff, was such a ladies’ man that Martha Washington named an obnoxious tomcat who loitered around army headquarters after him. His 1791 affair with Maria Reynolds (including a substantial bribe to her husband to keep quiet) probably, in Fleming’s view, prevented a Hamilton presidency.
Franklin also had a spotty history. He agreed to marry Deborah Read only if she would help raise Franklin’s illegitimate son William (whose mother remains unknown). In the 1760s, Franklin decamped for London, first to serve as a representative for the Pennsylvania assembly and then as a diplomat for the colonies. Deborah, terrified of the sea, stayed home. Franklin did not see his wife for the last ten years of her life and refused to return home even after Deborah suffered a series of crippling strokes.
But Fleming reports that a great many “scandals” about the Founders aren’t true. For example, during the Revolution, British propagandists spread false rumors that Washington was an adulterer. The propagandists were so skilled that they are still quoted today, but George and Martha were faithful partners. Every day they would wear lockets next to their hearts with a small portrait of their spouse.
John and Abigail Adams also had a strong marriage. Abigail had to put up with quite a lot; John spent most of the Revolutionary War in Europe on useless diplomatic missions he undertook in an effort to increase his fame. For nearly ten years, their only contact was through letters, which they wrote to each other nearly every day. John and Abigail remained close until Abigail’s death in 1818 — the 54th year of their marriage.
Dolley Madison played a significant role in her husband’s administration. Jefferson, as president, held “pell mells,” where anyone from ambassadors to slobs wanting free food and drink could come to the White House. These parties angered foreign diplomats accustomed to hierarchy. Dolley instituted a more formal set of salons that proved wildly popular, as well as a good place for networking. She also showed her courage when the British invaded Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, delaying her departure from the city as long as she could to save priceless artifacts, such as a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, shortly before the British burned the White House.
Fleming concludes that Dolley Madison’s life demonstrates “what women can often bring to the acrimonious world of American politics — good humor and tolerance of opposing points of view.”
The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers is an enjoyable book that deepens our understanding of the Founders’ lives and character.
The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers
416 pages, $15.99