I’m sure our TRUNNELS look’d clean
As if they ne’re up A—se had been;
For when we use ‘em, we take care
To wash ‘em well, and give ‘em Air,
Then lock ‘em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.
In 1751 the Boston Evening-Post published an extraordinary engraving alongside the above poem that derided the Freemasons as sexually perverse because of their interests in all-male fraternizing. The engraving depicted one man bent over gleefully receiving a wood ship-building spike called a treenail (“trunnel”). I refer to this poem in Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past as a way to explore how the public has remembered the intimate lives of the American Founders. As George Washington was a Freemason, I suggested that he may have been the subject of such sexual aspersions. Yet, a carefully framed reading of how Washington’s sex life has been remembered led to the headline “Book Claims George Washington Was Gay” at the New, Now, Next website, sponsored by Logo TV. It also led a live interview on Fox News radio with Alan Colmes, who pointedly asked, “So, George Washington, Gay or Straight?”
These reactions reveal how some Americans are deeply invested in getting what they feel is an unvarnished history of the sex lives of the Founders, political leaders of the American Revolution and US founding. And my project, which deals with memory and representation, has at times fed into the very processes of sexual and historical identification I tried to deconstruct. Indeed,The History Book Club selected Sex and the Founding Fathers and advertised it in an email to its members as “Sex Lives of the Founders.” The headline read: “The Founders Laid Bare.” The content of the email touted precisely what I was seeking to deconstruct – that we could learn more about the nation by learning about their sex lives. Notably, these responses skimmed over the thrust of the book: how we remember the sex lives of the founding fathers reflects contemporary concerns and projections.
For popular audiences, the subject of the Founders and sex generates a telling reaction today and that reaction reveals something about how Americans thinks about sexuality, history, and national identity. The Founders are such representations of traditional American history that sexualized images of them carry a certain cultural spark that gives rise to both the raunchy and the refined. The title, Sex and the Founding Fathers, and the cover image, the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington with an added lipstick kiss on his check, can be seen as exploiting this interest. But both the subtitle and the cover depict what is being interrogated in the book: the problematic fascination of the sex lives of the Founders. If it’s disappointing to some that the book doesn’t tell the true story of the sex lives of the Founders, it’s because such expectations pre-exist in the culture and are layered with national resonance. Indeed, the cultural project of discovering sexual “truths” about those individual men carries symbolism for getting at truths about the nation. Are we virtuous? Exploitative? Deeply loving? Independent and forward-thinking? By tracing how stories about the Founders and their sexuality have changed over time, we’re able to see that the stories we tell are more about ourselves than about them.
A mural in Camp Washington, Cincinnati, aptly named Campy Washington, illustrates and interrupts these processes of identification and desire. Here, Washington is depicted much as he appeared in an engraving from the Revolutionary War era, in a dress, to mock his manhood. But in the mural’s case, the image can be read as disrupting our reverence of his manliness and his iconic status. The mural, in this sense, serves as a reminder that the Founders believed radically different things about their own bodies, desires, the purpose of marriage, the hierarchies within society, and the purposes of sexual intimacy. To collapse those historical differences by focusing on our own conceptualizations erases the sexual world they came from and replaces it with our own.
The Founders are so central to historical understandings of the United States — and to symbolic representation of national character — that historians of sexuality should view casual treatment of their personal lives as a canary in a coal mine. Until we see historical sexualities being treated in popular sources in more complex ways, we cannot truly as a culture be recognizing and conceptualizing sexuality in ways beyond the superficial or as part of polarizing political discourses. But even with historically nuanced understandings of the sexual lives of the Founders, we should still be wary of what truths we are claiming to uncover when we focus on their intimate lives. Are they of individuals now long gone or are they somehow being used as a mirror for Americans’ competing sexual values and visions of a national identity?
Thomas A. Foster is a professor of history at DePaul University. He is the author or editor of six books, including most recently editor of Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America (Chicago), author of Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple) and editor of Women in Early America (NYU). He tweets at @ThomasAFoster.
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