The Intimate Lives
of the Founding Fathers
by Thomas Fleming
480 pp., $27.99
Three months after George Washington became engaged to Martha Dandridge Custis, he penned a love letter to Sally Cary Fairfax, the wife of a neighbor and close friend: “I feel the force of her amiable beauties and the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I could wish to obliterate till I am bid to revive them,” he wrote, using the third person to describe Sally. This letter has puzzled historians for two centuries: What did Washington mean sending such words on the cusp of his wedding to the woman who would be his beloved partner for the rest of his life?
The Founders, like many human beings, were full of such surprises in their love lives. Even they had skeletons in their 18th-century closets—or should we say, wardrobes. So it can hardly astonish us in the age of Tiger Woods/John Edwards that the highly polished veneers of celebrities often clash with the people inside. Strip away the public lives of famous people and you find human beings, and the disappointments and disasters that plague most of us.
Of course, the Founders can hardly be classed with such epic phonies as Edwards and Woods, and Thomas Fleming’s history is not another exercise in tearing down the Founders—an academic sport of recent decades that coincides with tearing down the country they created. Rather, his sharp focus on the private lives of the Big Six—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—only makes them seem more impressive. He brings us closer to those who created and preserved our constitutional republic during tumultuous times by revealing the common sufferings they, and many of us, share: financial struggles, woes with children, the heartrending deaths of those they loved dearly.
In our desire to elevate the great, we sometimes forget that every person must deal with passions and insecurities, as well as troubles in the form of illness and family trauma. And the very nature of fame exposes public people to attack, quite often by jealous, vindictive bullies and cowardly character assassins. As Fleming makes clear, the public obsession with the private lives of politicians is not merely a symptom of our age of “leaks and wandering emails, talk shows and tell-all aides.” Even the mighty Washington—described in his day as “destiny’s child”—did not live a perfectly charmed life, tormented as he was not only with sometimes life-threatening and possibly humiliating public service, but also with family trials, some involving a stepson who was prone to be “rambling about at nights in company with those who do not care how debauched and vicious his conduct may be.” The anguish that teenagers can cause, especially in “mixed” families, is not to be gainsaid.
Fleming’s intense focus on the private reveals more than the Founders’ personalities. It also brings to the fore the remarkable women in their lives. Intimate Lives is largely about them—as it is about the harsh lives they lived. In the 18th century, women had few or no educational opportunities, could not easily divorce a cruel and abusive spouse, and had no control of their property once it was in the hands of a husband. Pregnancy was a dangerous ordeal, and the mortality rate of infants and children was horrifically high.
By late middle age, Martha Washington had lost all four of her children to death. Martha Wayles Jefferson lost four out of six children in ten years. Franklin’s marriage was poisoned by his wife’s bitterness over the death of their four-year-old son, Frankie, while his hated illegitimate half-brother, William, thrived.
Yet these women—in particular, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison—were remarkable in their own right, and their bravery and determination had much to do with the success of their husbands and the republic they created. Inevitably, a book covering this much territory is episodic, but Fleming’s strength—he is a novelist as well as prolific historian—is the depth of his research and eye for colorful detail, which can hardly be hinted at here. We learn here of young Washington’s nature, and his love for one Virginia belle who inspired “some of the worst poetry ever committed by an adolescent”—no small feat. We are treated to such charming moments as Jefferson’s arrival in Paris to take Franklin’s place as ambassador. Jefferson discovers Franklin outside his house on the lawn, surrounded by a half-dozen French women hugging the balding 78-year-old. When Jefferson asks if these privileges will be transferred to the new ambassador, Franklin shakes his head and replies, “You are too young a man.”
Here, also, is the brilliant Hamilton, lured like a naïve schoolboy into an adulterous affair with a scheming woman working in league with her husband, who blackmailed him. Of course, it all came out in the press, blackening Hamilton’s reputation to this day. He wrote in an agony of remorse: “I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love.” (His religious wife Eliza found the strength to forgive him.)
Fleming also marches boldly through an academic minefield to blast away recent scholarship which insists that Jefferson sired children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Many yearn for the story to be true, he suspects, for reasons more to do with the heart than historical truth. Slavery, of course, made such things possible, and critics have found Fleming’s stridency on this point off-putting; but if the book has a flaw, it is Fleming’s near-pathological contempt for John Adams. Our curmudgeonly second president was indisputably hotheaded, and far too free with his words for his own good. Still, he merits a more balanced treatment, as a brave advocate of independence and liberty, a brilliant thinker about the nature of tyranny and the dangers that representative republics face from within, a man who sacrificed his family life for the cause of independence, and a president who made sure that a weak and fledgling United States of America was not sucked into a suicidal war.
Of course, private lives only flesh out what is truly important about the Founders. They displayed immense courage and resourcefulness in creating an extraordinary country, where the individual is remarkably free and the government’s power is constrained. What they unleashed in the realm of human achievement can seem, at times, almost miraculous. But it is under assault by forces the Founders feared: Many Americans seem to have lost the idea that people should grow up and fend for themselves in life, preferring to turn to a Big Daddy/Mommy government that will take care of their wishes and needs, failing to understand the cost of permanent dependency.
Still, those who love liberty can understand what Washington meant when he wrote: “To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.”
Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.