The Founding Fathers too often appear to us across the sea of time as rigid, stern, and unemotional men, prone to piety in thought and deed. They gaze at us from cold marble statues and aging portraits, upright and correct in manners and morals. Time and legend has dehumanized them. In fact they were, for the most part, passionate men of fiery temper, as befits a rebel against legitimate and long-standing authority. Their passions were not limited to venting their anger against King George, and taxes, or debating the issue of slavery in a new and novel form of government.
For many, their barely contained passions led to extramarital affairs, illegitimate children, scandals whispered about in the nation’s parlors and paraded in the nation’s newspapers. For some they led to appointments on the so-called field of honor, facing an offended or offending party with pistols in a gray dawn. Sex was influential in the formation of government, evidenced by the many letters written by Abigail Adams to her husband John, as well as to many of his colleagues. And for some of the Founders, the pursuit of sexual pleasure led to their being objects of derision among their peers. Here are 10 examples of the sex lives of America’s Founders, some of which have remained the subject of scandal through the centuries.
10. Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway
Thomas Jefferson was in his early forties and a recent widower when he was introduced to Maria Cosway, 27, at the Hay Market in Paris in 1786. On her deathbed Jefferson’s wife had extracted from her husband a promise to never remarry, but the diplomat and polymath was instantly smitten with Maria, cancelling his dinner plans for that day and spending the rest of it with her. Their mutual interests in architecture and art led them to tour the sights of Paris and its suburbs in constant company over the course of the next several weeks, until Maria’s husband, a painter of miniatures named Richard Cosway, insisted that his wife return with him to London. Jefferson remained for a time in Paris.
Whether their relationship was sexual or platonic has been debated ever since. Jefferson however wrote among many letters to Maria after her departure one he entitled The Dialogue of the Head vs. The Heart. The 4,000 word letter is a discussion between the two organs, one arguing for a continued relationship and the other pointing out its impracticalities. The letter remains one of the most passionate love letters ever written. Both Jefferson and Cosway kept portraits of each other for the rest of their lives, and though their correspondence was temporarily halted, it soon resumed and continued until his death in 1826. Ironically, the portrait of Maria Jefferson kept at Monticello was based on a drawing of her which had been completed by her husband.
9. Benjamin Franklin’s advice to a young man
Benjamin Franklin developed over the course of his long life the reputation of being what later came to be called a ladies man. He did nothing to discourage the belief. As Poor Richard, writing in his almanac, he gave often pithy advice in his aphorisms, such as, “She that paints her face thinks of her tail,” and, “Neither a fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.” Franklin was part of a common-law marriage to which he brought a son born out of a previous relationship, for most of his life. In his long absences from his home in Philadelphia he was constantly in attendance of women, especially in pre-revolutionary France where he was the talk of Paris, swarmed by the ladies of the French nobility, though he was by then a septuagenarian.
Long before then, in 1745, Franklin wrote a letter to a young man, the son of a friend. The subject was the proper manner of handling sexual urges. Franklin first counseled marriage, but after acknowledging that such state may be impractical, wrote of the desirability of taking an older woman as a mistress. He listed his reasons frankly, and they included, “…regarding only what is below the girdle, it is impossible of two women to know an old from a young one,” particularly in the dark. Franklin also cited the experience of an older woman favorably when compared to a younger, and gave as his final reason the fact that they were “so grateful.” The letter was censored in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries before obscenity laws preventing its publication were overturned.
8. Alexander Hamilton’s affairs were numerous and scandalous at the time
In 1791 Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was visited at his Philadelphia residence by a 23-year-old woman who claimed that her abusive husband had abandoned her, leaving her penniless. He called on her at her residence that evening, bringing both money and amorous inclinations, and opening an affair which lasted throughout that summer. In the autumn her husband returned, and immediately took the opportunity to blackmail Hamilton, under threat of writing to the married Hamilton’s wife. The husband and wife, James and Maria Reynolds, extracted large sums from Hamilton in order to keep the affair secret. Unbelievably, and with James Reynolds’ knowledge, the affair continued even as Hamilton paid for silence. It was also documented with letters written by Maria to Hamilton.
After Reynolds was arrested as a result of his participation in an unrelated scam, he appealed to Hamilton for assistance, threatening to implicate the Secretary in both the scam and the affair publicly. Hamilton sought the assistance of James Monroe, who determined Hamilton to be innocent of the former, but guilty of the latter. After the press got wind of both stories, Hamilton publicly confessed to the affair and apologized in a pamphlet he published, refuting any wrongdoing other than cheating on his wife. His reputation and political standing were all but destroyed. In another example of historical irony, Maria Reynolds eventually sued her husband for divorce. The attorney who represented her in the proceedings was Aaron Burr.
7. Gouverneur Morris enjoyed a potentially exhibitionist affair on France
The person who wrote one of the most famous phrases of all time, “We the People of the United States,” was Gouverneur Morris. Nearly forgotten today, Morris was renowned among his fellows for his sexual proclivities. A bachelor until the age of 57, Morris was involved in affairs with married women in the United States and France, and he had little inclination to practice discretion. In Paris he was known to have enjoyed sexual trysts in the Louvre, then a palace for the King of France. One such meeting occurred in a public room in the palace, with the doors and windows open to servants and visitors, while the lady’s husband was in the room directly below them. Morris gleefully recorded the event in his diary, as he did many of his trysts.
When Morris finally did marry, in 1809, it was to his housekeeper, 22 years younger than he, and with the baggage of having once been tried for adultery and murder. In 1792 she had been accused of adultery with her brother in law, a union which resulted in her pregnancy. After the infant died, she was accused of murdering it, though she convinced the court the child was stillborn. By the time he married, Morris had only one leg, having lost the other when he was hit by a carriage. Morris had been fleeing from an irate husband who had just discovered the Founding Father sleeping with his wife. Morris continued to seduce women throughout his life, leading John Jay to comment to him that he wished Morris had lost something else.
6. George Washington was subject to accusations of affairs throughout his life
In his youth, George Washington was referred to in the Virginia Tidewater as the “young stallion of the Potomac.” Washington throughout his life enjoyed the company of young ladies, with whom he often lost much of his famous reserve. One of his favorite activities was dancing, and he found many partners all too happy to dance with him. It was said of him that he never sat out a dance. During his later youth, before he became famous throughout the United States and Europe, Washington was passionately in love with the wife of neighbor and friend George William Fairfax. The Fairfax’s estate was at Belvoir, near Mount Vernon, and Washington visited Lady Fairfax, whom he addressed as Sally, as well as corresponded with her in letters which professed his love for her.
During the Revolutionary War several attempts were made by Loyalists and British intelligence to discredit Washington by writing of his affairs with servants, slaves, the wives of his officers, and the existence of illegitimate children as a result. During his administration as President, especially in the second term, many of these stories were resurrected by political enemies, and some are still bandied about by revisionists today. Washington had no children of his own with his wife Martha, though he adopted hers from her previous marriage (Martha was a widow when she wed George). Other than a few letters to Sally Custis, which survived, Washington’s papers do not contain references to his sex life, either as a bachelor or married, though his fondness for the company of young ladies was well documented by his contemporaries of both sexes.
5. John Adams despised licentiousness and had six children with his wife Abigail
John Adams was very much the image of the prim and proper New Englander, descended from the Puritan stock of Massachusetts. A lawyer and farmer, Adams married Abigail Smith in 1754, entering into a marriage in which his mother in law treated him with thinly veiled contempt. Mrs. Smith opposed Abigail’s entering into any marriage, and virulently opposed her choice of a Boston lawyer, then unencumbered with any property. Adams did not inherit his small farm until seven years later. Both husband and wife maintained a lengthy correspondence with each other during John’s many long absences, and it is through their correspondence that the impressions and actions of many of the Founders is known to history.
While Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Gouvernor Morris reveled in the licentiousness of Paris of the late 18th and early 19th century, Adams found it shocking and distasteful, as did the often barbed tongued Abigail. Together they had six children, one stillborn and one who died in infancy, His three sons followed their father in the practice of law. Two failed in their careers and died alcoholics. The other, John Quincy, became president of the United States. Most of the correspondence between John and Abigail survives, and it reveals a marriage of mutual respect, adoration, and frank criticism, as well as the trials their marriage was forced to endure. Their marriage lasted 54 years, until Abigail’s death in 1818. John Adams died on the Fourth of July, eight years after the death of his wife, on the same day as Thomas Jefferson.
4. James and Dolley Madison were the talk of Washington after their marriage
James Madison was considered by his contemporaries to be a reserved, even dour man. Studious and less than enthralled with public speaking, his genius was exhibited through his writing and his private conversations. Madison was introduced to socialite (though the term was not yet known that was what she was) and widow Dolley Payne Todd by the seemingly ubiquitous Aaron Burr while the US capital was still located in Philadelphia. They married in that city in 1794. Dolley was a leader of society in Philadelphia and later in the new capital city of Washington, serving as hostess at White House dinners, levees, and other events, and while Washington tongues wagged at the picture of the slightly built, withdrawn Madison, 17 years older than his buxom and popular wife, their marriage was a solid union.
It was reinforced by breaks from the city and politics at Madison’s Virginia estate, which he called Montpelier. Visitors to the plantation were astounded to see the President carried about the grounds piggyback by his wife, a practice which continued into his retirement. Madison and Dolley often engaged in piggyback races with guests and the multitude of children which visited his plantation. Though James Madison married relatively late in life – he was in his early forties; she was 26 – their marriage was a long and happy one. Madison fathered no children of his own, but he did adopt Dolley’s from her first marriage. Dolley became an important political ally of the President, using her influence with Washington ladies to sway the opinions of their husbands, and more or less established the position of First Lady of the United States as a source of Washington power.
3. The Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings debate
Since he was still alive the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings has continued to be debated by historians and scholars. At its core is whether Jefferson fathered some of her six children, making Hemings a slave concubine. By the late 20th century DNA evidence indicated that Jefferson was likely the father of at least one of the Hemings children, her youngest son, Eston. In the early 21st century the curators of Jefferson’s Monticello estate began changing references to the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, indicating that he was indeed the father of several children with her. The debate continues, with the argument often presented that the available evidence is inconclusive.
What is certain is that Sally Hemings traveled to Paris in company with Jefferson’s daughter Maria. According to Jefferson’s letters Sally was called to Paris to gain instruction in French cooking, and upon her return to Monticello lived in the main house, rather than slave quarters. During Jefferson’s subsequent lifetime it was frequently rumored that he had fathered children by his slave. The emotional nature of their relationship is unknown, Jefferson never discussed it other than to deny its existence. Most of what is supposed of the relationship is the result of oral traditions handed down by Hemings’ descendants. One particularly interesting aspect of the relationship is that Hemings had six pregnancies, and tracing back nine months from the date of birth for each, recorded by Jefferson in his Farm Books, indicates that he was at Monticello at the time of conception for each.
2. Wilhelm (Baron) von Steuben was among the first to practice “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the American Army
One of the duties assumed by Benjamin Franklin in France during the Revolutionary War was the recruitment of European officers to support the American cause. Franklin, as was his wont, often used local scandals and the indiscretions committed by officers to lure them to American service, as a form of honorable exile. One such officer was Wilhelm von Steuben, formerly of Prussian service, but at the time of meeting Franklin, awaiting prosecution on charges of homosexual acts with several young officers to which he was senior in rank. Franklin wrote a letter of introduction for the Prussian, addressed to George Washington, in which he cheerfully embellished von Steuben’s military credentials, ignored the pending accusations, and sent him on his way to America.
Von Steuben arrived in America in the company of several young aides, including Pierre Etienne du Ponceau, his paramour and aide. Whether Franklin notified Washington of the Baron’s sexual orientation in advance is debated, but Washington was soon aware of the fact and pointedly ignored it as the Baron helped to create a new army out of the American units. Following the Revolution von Steuben chose to remain in America, living with a succession of young men, in addition to Ponceau, which he referred to as his “sons.” He never married and never had children. His heirs, Benjamin Walker and William North, had both been young officers who were his aides as far back as the winter at Valley Forge. To them he bequeathed his New York estate upon his death in 1794.
1. John Randolph of Roanoke was asexual
John Randolph was an influential congressman in the early days of the United States, serving in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as serving as the United States Minister to Russia for a time. Randolph was a slave owner who supported the establishment of a colony in Africa for freedmen and former slaves; he violently opposed the expansion of the federal government; he similarly opposed the Missouri Compromise, which added Missouri to the Union as a slave state. He dressed flamboyantly, strutted about Washington and the House floor with his dogs trailing him, and fought a duel with Henry Clay. He also twice fought fellow congressman Willis Alston with fists, once in the Capitol building, where the combatants were separated by fellow legislators.
Randolph retained the voice of a young boy all of his life, never developed facial hair, and took no interest in either sex, though it was said by contemporaries he had a crush on Andrew Jackson. He did demonstrate interest in alcohol and opium. Randolph carried latent tuberculosis for most of his life, and the pain of his condition was likely the reason for the opium, at least at first. The disease ensured that he never entered puberty, the reason for his youthful voice and appearance, and his lack of interest in sexual matters. He once responded to criticism of his impotence as an evident lack of manhood by saying, “Why should a man take pride in a quality in which a jackass is his infinite superior?” Randolph died at the age of 60, finally succumbing to the ravages of tuberculosis, opium, and alcohol.