Sex and the Founding Fathers

Fireworks and Washington Monument
Fireworks, Washington Monument.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution on Flickr Commons.

Patriotic celebrations like Independence Day have a tendency to call forth inflated rhetoric about the Founding Fathers, and the recycling of old myths centered on wholesome and virtuous leaders who went on to lead a momentous insurrection (see: Washington and the cherry tree). It’s refreshing, then, to read the grounded historical work of Thomas Foster, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at DePaul, whose current project not only avoids nationalistic chest-thumping but thoughtfully explores the sensitive topics of gender and sexuality in the early days of the United States and its relevance to Americans today.

Questions about Thomas Jefferson’s sexual history are longstanding and many people have heard Ben Franklin’s salacious proverb, “All cats are grey in the dark.” However, popular scholarship has seldom probed the sexual and gender identities of prominent early American figures. Foster’s current project does just that. His first book, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America, along with three edited volumes and a number of essays, primarily explore early American gender and sexual identities. Drawing from primary sources ranging from court documents to personal papers, Foster looks beyond the business and political lives of men in 18th Century America to challenge Foucault’s idea that pre-modern conceptions of sex focused on actions rather than identities.

Shifting basic assumptions about how we read history can revolutionize our understanding of people and events. In his introduction to the interdisciplinary work Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, Foster points to scholarship that discovers “a history of same-sex sexuality by reading old sources in original ways.” By discarding the inherent assumption that all figures in American history were heterosexual unless documentary evidence can prove otherwise, scholars might engage in nuanced explorations into romantic friendships and the cultural history of sexual identity. For example, in his introduction, Foster notes that some scholars argue that re-reading Lewis & Clark’s expedition diaries with an open mind (link opens a text document) might explain Meriwether Lewis’ life-long bachelorhood, which has long puzzled scholars.

In addition to entertaining new ways to read old sources, Foster challenges scholars to move beyond official viewpoints espoused in court records and legislation and consider social attitudes around sexuality to illuminate early American society and the long roots of the development of modern sexuality and gender identity. For example, while legal and religious texts may emphasize the deviance of specific acts, a careful examination of personal diaries (like Foster’s examination of Gouverneur Morris’ personal papers) can sensitize readers to individuals’ concerns with identity.

It’s fascinating to reflect on a time when social structures and norms were in such turmoil that new rules about gender and sexuality could take root. Too often we limit our contemplation of the American Revolution to fireworks displays, a prank pulled on a ship full of tea in the Boston Harbor, and some impossibly wise and distant father-figures in funny pants proscribing a new form of government. Reading less ordinary accounts of the time helps us see that tumultuous era more vividly and its actors as actual human beings, struggling with their identities and trying to find a place for themselves in a changing social order. It reminds us that tempting as it is to think of history—especially the founding of our government—as a fixed point in time (perhaps even a “simpler” time), it’s actually just one tributary of the roiling river in which we find ourselves today.

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Author: Jessica Speer

As the Research Specialist at SSRC, Jessica edits re/search, consults with faculty, and conducts SSRC research projects. She is interested in questions of information management, preservation, communication, and dissemination.

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