Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Fleming, A Review Duff Brenna Guest Column

view_column Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Fleming, A Review

by Duff Brenna

Published in Issue No. 153 ~ February, 2010

If you’ve ever wondered what the women associated with America’s Founding Fathers were doing while their sons and husbands and lovers and fathers and friends were creating a nation, Thomas Fleming’s study of the intimate lives of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison will enlighten you. Fleming fills his book with powerful portraits of the Fathers not only trying their best to create a nation, but always having to battle forces arrayed against them, the British, of course, but also the media, the gossips, scandal-mongers, liars of every stripe, the sly purveyors of half-truths, the rabid ideologues, political hacks and cronies who wished to defeat any agenda that did not concur with their own. In The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers (HarperCollins Smithsonian Books, 2009), Fleming reveals the multifarious and fascinating sides of the founding fathers and the women supporting them or, in some cases, trying to destroy them as they struggled with the public and private forces surrounding them.

Before she met and married George Washington, Martha Dandridge had little to recommend her. She was not beautiful or rich and her family was rather low on the social ladder. But she had, as Fleming tells us, a “warm, relaxed manner.” And enough personality and charm in any case to win the heart of Daniel Parke Custis, “one of the richest men in the colony.” The match was opposed by Daniel’s irascible father. He forbade the marriage. No way was his son going to marry a Dandridge. Unheard of. Unthinkable. The son never crossed the father, so it looked like the marriage was off. Well, not exactly. Martha wasn’t about to give up that easily. She showed up at the Custis home and confronted the old tyrant face to face and soon had him purring like a pussycat. By the force of her own personality, her sweetness and charm, courage and intelligence, she completely won over her future father-in-law.

Some years later when Daniel died, Martha and her two children inherited his estate. As luck would have it, the rich widow was courted by George Washington. She married him and moved with him to Mount Vernon. Their marriage weathered many trials and tribulations, including the death of a daughter and, of course, the years of what proved to be a “long and bloody war,” followed by exhausting political intrigue that soured Washington’s thorny eight years as our country’s first president.

Fleming tells us that contrary to what we might think, Washington’s presidency was no “love feast.” In fact, it was much the opposite. There were many Anti-Federalists who did not like Washington, fearing he was setting himself up to be a king. Rabble-rousers and ideological fanatics abounded then as they do now, making as much trouble for Washington as possible. He and Martha kept quiet and kept their dignity amid the myriad troubles that fate inflicted upon them. As Abigail Adams declared when remarking upon Martha’s demeanor: “A most becoming pleasantness sits upon her countenance.” No one seems to have seen her otherwise. Martha herself said that she had learned from experience that “the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not upon our circumstances.”

The women in Benjamin Franklin’s life were numerous. While still a young man barely out of his teens he impregnated a woman out of wedlock. She presented him with a son and promptly disappeared from his life. Franklin desperately needed a wife. He took up with a woman he had known before she got married. Her name was Deborah Read. Deborah’s husband had left her without divorcing her. So she and Franklin moved in together in a common-law arrangement and she took on the raising of his son William. They couldn’t get married. If Deborah had married Franklin and then her husband returned, Deborah could have been charged with bigamy and given a life sentence in prison.

She wasn’t at all happy with her unexpected promotion to motherhood and took it out on William, once saying to a visitor as William left the room, “…there goes the greatest villain on earth.”

When the Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin to England as the colony’s representative, he left Deborah behind and took William with him. In London Franklin was charmed by a well-off widow named Margaret Stevenson. He moved in with her and her teenage daughter, Polly. When Franklin fell ill, it was Margaret who nursed him tenderly, forming a bond with Franklin that lasted for the rest of her life. Daughter Polly all but worshipped Franklin. He became a semi-father to her, a teacher, “a soul mate on occasion.” Franklin and Margaret were hoping Polly and William would fall in love and get married, but that didn’t happen. Instead, William, following in his father’s footsteps, had an illegitimate son, William Temple Franklin (called Temple), whose mother also disappeared just as William’s mother had after he was born. Later, William proposed to Elizabeth Downes, the daughter of a wealthy West Indies sugar planter. Though disappointed in the match, Franklin played the good father by blessing the couple and getting his son appointed governor of New Jersey. Illegitimate Temple Franklin was put in a foster home for the time being.
After a brief trip to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Franklin was sent back to England, where he moved in with Margaret again. The liaison lasted ten years, until Franklin was once again summoned to America, where he took up the cause of the colonies in their quarrel with George III and Parliament. By this time, 1774, Deborah had died of a stroke.

In October of 1776, Franklin was sent to France to try to persuade them to join the American cause. He summoned his grandson Temple from the foster home and took him along. As the war progressed Governor William Franklin in New Jersey was arrested as a traitor and taken away, leaving his high-strung wife to fend for herself. She couldn’t cope. A year later she had a nervous collapse and died. After her death and William’s incarceration, Franklin turned against his son who stayed a British loyalist throughout the war and after.

Into his seventies, Franklin continued his dalliance with women. His enemies in the States spread rumors about his “gross sexual misconduct” in France. One article asked “How long should the interests of the United States be sacrificed to the bad passions of that old man under the idea of his being a philosopher?” Fleming meticulously lays out the evidence for Franklin’s promiscuity and in doing so refutes any idea that Franklin was indiscriminately bedding the women who adored him and flocked around him asking for “kisses.” Franklin’s gallantry towards the ladies and his calm, respectful manner towards the aristocracy won him the esteem and affection of most who knew him, which had a lot to do with France becoming America’s ally against Great Britain.

The numerous amours of Franklin find their opposite in John Adams whose devotion to Abigail, and she to him, remind one of the mutual regard of George and Martha Washington. When Abigail Smith became the wife of John Adams a partnership was formed that sustained both of them through many trials that afflicted their long and productive lives. One could even make the case that without Abigail at his side John Adams would never have become America’s second President. He was an irascible man, not easy to like, but had it not been for his forceful presence and leadership in Congress it’s hard to imagine how the colonies would ever have broken away from England and declared their independence.

Abigail and John supported each other through more than their share of trials inflicted on them by politics, the vagaries of life and what at times must have seemed a cruel and ruthless Nature. They lost one son, Charles, to a degrading alcoholism. They lost a daughter, Nabby, to metastases of breast cancer. To no avail, Nabby had endured the excruciating surgical amputation of her right breast–without the benefit of anesthetic. After the operation was over John said he felt as if he were living the Book of Job. Abigail said she felt as if she had survived a session in the biblical fiery furnace. Nabby lived for a few months, but ultimately died in her father’s arms. Afterwards Abigail wrote to Thomas Jefferson a fragment of a poem: Grief has changed me since you saw me last/ And careful hours, with time’s deformed hand/ Hath written strange defections o’er my face.

It is well-known how much vituperation and slander was poured on John Adams before and after he became President. He would fly into impotent rages about what his detractors were writing about him. Invariably, Abigail would take up her pen and come to his defense writing stinging letters to his enemies, men like Alexander Hamilton, and even Thomas Jefferson, whom she accused of undermining her husband’s presidency. She was also something of an overbearing mother, expecting–no, insisting–that her children live up to their illustrious name.

All in all, one comes away from Fleming’s portrayal of Abigail (and Nabby as well) with a great deal of respect and understanding –and wonder at the hard lives they lived and how they endured what might seem impossible to those of us living in a high-tech world and taking for granted all the amenities it offers. These were some tough, courageous people, not always smart about their choices in life (who is?), but full of integrity, loyalty and devotion to each other and the cause of America’s fight for home-rule.

From integrity and fidelity in the Abigail and John Adams world, Fleming moves us to the licentiousness and adultery-prone “Bastard Son and Wary Lover” Alexander Hamilton. Born a poor boy in the West Indies, Hamilton through sheer guts, grit, intelligence and luck worked his way to New York, where he attended King’s College and then later participated in the Revolutionary War principally as an aid to George Washington. A career in politics followed and eventually Hamilton found himself as Secretary of the Treasury and author of The Federalist Papers, a work that Fleming calls “the brilliant commentary that persuaded thousands of voters to support the new constitution.”

By this time Hamilton was married to Elizabeth Schuyler, a pretty but weak-willed woman who gave him four children, while he apparently was making love to her sister Angelica and then later committing adultery with a woman named Maria Reynolds, whose husband eventually started blackmailing Hamilton, ultimately causing a great scandal that ruined Hamilton’s reputation and broke his wife’s heart.

As American history tells us, Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr, after, he, Hamilton made disparaging remarks about Burr during the presidential campaign of 1804, which caused Burr to issue a challenge. What is not known as well is that Hamilton’s oldest son Philip died in a duel in 1801. “The young man died in agony twenty-four hours [after being wounded]. Beside him on the deathbed lay his weeping father and mother, frantically clutching him in their arms.”

After Alexander Hamilton died, it is notable that Elizabeth devoted herself “to protecting and even enlarging Alexander Hamilton’s reputation as one of the founders of the American republic.” As the years passed, Elizabeth grew stronger and more confident. She helped run The New York Orphan Asylum Society, joined various charity boards, and founded the Hamilton Free School. She died at age ninety-seven a highly esteemed woman.

One couldn’t quite say the same for Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha, a high-strung, dependent and physically fragile woman who clung to her man tenaciously, so much so that she almost made him quit politics altogether in order to stay at home with her and their children. She suffered inordinately through six births, each one nearly killing her. Of those six, only three children would survive her. Only one child, a girl also named Martha, would survive Jefferson himself. Daughter Martha wrote of her father’s grief over the death of her mother: “The violence of his emotion, of his grief… to this day I do not trust myself to describe.” It took months before his friends could lure him away from Monticello and back to the Continental Congress.

Fleming doesn’t dive deeply into the controversies surrounding the disputes between Vice-President Jefferson and President Adams. Their differences in political philosophy caused the Federalists to split into factions and then into separate parties, giving birth to the Republicans. Fleming is evenhanded in handling the disagreements between the two men. After his death, Jefferson’s reputation soared. As Jefferson was being raised to the pantheon of the “greatest” presidents, Adams’ reputation declined. Recently, however, with the help of historians like David McCullough giving readers a more sympathetic view of Adams, Jefferson doesn’t appear as noble and wise and incomparably great as he once did.

The verdict on Jefferson is still (and may always be) in the debating stages, much of it fueled by his alleged 38-year affair with his slave Sally Hemings. One of the engrossing delights of Fleming’s study is the chapter in which he presents the evidence pro and con for the Jefferson-Hemings connection. Fleming is detailed and equitable in his presentation of the data which convicts or exonerates Jefferson. Only one thing is certain: there is much more to the Jefferson-Hemings’ story than historians and lay readers might have considered or thought possible.

The last founding father Fleming deals with is James Madison, who in a large sense takes a back seat to his irrepressible wife Dolly. Though she was one of the most admirable women in American history, she, too, had to endure scurrilous gossip and damming newspaper articles. Some of what was said about her is as vicious as anything ever written about a politician or his wife in our own no-holds-barred century.

Madison’s health was always fragile. He was thin and short in stature (5’3″) and shy. A good-looking man, but not at all “robust.” The scandal-mongers accused him of being so weak that he was impotent, which was why Dolly never conceived a child. The same gossips accused him of using Dolly to influence the votes of congressmen and senators by sexually seducing them.

But Dolly ignored her and her husband’s detractors and created an atmosphere in The White House that charmed all that dined and danced and conversed with her. It was under James and Dolly Madison that the president’s house became “The White House” and, for the first time, the social center of Washington, D.C. She was indisputably the most beloved and popular woman of her time. It was Dolly who was first called “The First Lady,” a title handed down to all Presidents’ wives ever since. She was such a powerful First Lady that when her husband won a second term in a landslide victory, the loser, Charles Pinckney, said that he had lost to “Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance if I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

One comes away from Fleming’s book with appreciation and high regard for those men and women who were able to fight the good fight and create a country called The United States of America. One comes away also with a sense of wonder that the fledgling nation ever survived at all. The struggles, the dangers, the terrors of the times come fully alive under Fleming’s guidance. When one closes the last page of The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers it is easy to understand why Fleming was awarded the Book of the Month Club’s Main Selection of the History Book Club. This is history written by a master in a straightforward style that is graceful and easy to read. Simple without being simplistic. It is also one of those infrequent encounters for most readers: an action-packed history book, a gripping page-turner.

account_box More About

Duff Brenna is the author of six novels, including The Book Of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1989) which won the Associated Writing Programs Award, and his most recent novel, The Law of Falling Bodies (Hopewell Publications, 2007). A Minnesota native who once tried his hand at running and owning a Wisconsin dairy farm, Brenna is currently a freelance writer living in Sun City, CA.