Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thomas A. Foster's "Sex and the Founding Fathers"

Thomas A. Foster is an Associate Professor in the History Department at DePaul University. He is the author of Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America and the editor of three books, including Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America.

Foster applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, and reported the following:
We’re all familiar with stories about the personal lives of the Founding Fathers – the idealized marriage of George and Martha Washington, the flirtations of Benjamin Franklin, the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But for how long have those stories been common knowledge and why do they matter at all? Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past looks at how popular knowledge of the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers has changed over the course of the nation’s history and argues that those changes reflect each generations’ interest in personally connecting to that group of eighteenth-century elite white men. Given that understandings of sexuality change over time, contemporary ideals about the body, love, romance, sexual identity, etc. influence how Americans think about the personal lives of men and women and change the stories we tell. Each chapter focuses on an individual Founder. (The book features George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Gouverneur Morris.)
Page 99 of the book is very near the beginning of the chapter that focuses on printer, inventor, philosopher, statesman Benjamin Franklin. The page 99 test works in so far as this page captures some of the analysis of Franklin that is also representative of arguments throughout the book. Two example paragraphs from the page:
As this chapter shows, Franklin’s general eighteenth-century openness about the body and sexuality for centuries has divided many Americans, making them either uncomfortable with his views or thrilled by his apparent modernity. For some, Franklin’s sexually explicit writings have served to bolster the image of Franklin as modern, forward-thinking, and uniquely American. Yet for others, the ambiguity of his personal writings, the depiction of him as aged and not youthful, and the nature of his transgressions have allowed for a willful disengagement with the sordid specifics of his personal life.

It has never been a secret that Franklin transgressed norms of masculine sexuality in a host of ways, including fathering a child out of wedlock, writing ribald prose, and, according to many, in his widowhood having sexual relationships with women. And as we have seen in previous chapters, such details of intimate life have long figured in the public assessment of political figures. His public demonstration of his ease with amorousness made him the topic of talk in his lifetime and controversial in memory.
Each chapter begins with an examination of the stories that surrounded the Founders while they still lived. Page 99 does broach the subject of some of Franklin’s racier writing – including his “Advice on the Choice of a Mistress” which humorously argued that young men should choose older women as lovers. Franklin outlined eight reasons why, including they are more “knowledgeable” about sex, can’t get pregnant, and “they are so grateful!” What’s missing from page 99 that makes this a test with mixed results, is the sex – the intimate lives that get imagined by later generations.
Learn more about Sex and the Founding Fathers at the Temple University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue