Monday, January 25, 2010

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming

This book is taking a closer look at the personal lives of the six most famous founding fathers, in particular their relationships to their wives and other important women in their lives. I'm not sure why the order of the sections is as it is (I think it should have started with Franklin as the oldest rather than Washington).

1. George Washington: it addresses the rumors of an affair with his friend's wife Sally Fairfax but concludes that GW was very happy with Martha. It was interesting to see how they welcomed all of their assorted relatives to their home and how she worked to maintain a pleasant home for him.

2. Benjamin Franklin: was married by common-law to Deborah (who was actually officially married to another man who had abandoned her) but during his time in London seemed to acquire another woman who acted as wife. I knew Franklin wasn't exactly big on propriety but I didn't realize the full extent of it. I also tend to think of him as an old, gout-ridden man so it was eye-opening to read about his younger self.

3. John Adams: I've always been fond of the Adamses. It was heartwarming to read about her support of him especially considering the tumultous relationships of the couples before and after them in this book. She was so essential to him and they had an amazing relationship sustained over long stretches of separation.

4. Alexander Hamilton: He was a real creep to his wife Elizabeth, what with his affair and subsequent humiliation for her. But after his death she devoted herself to preserving his memory and brilliance.

5. Thomas Jefferson: I was really creeped out by his daughter Martha's devotion to him. She was one of his few remaining relatives but she seemed to want to do everything for him even to the point of alienating her husband and possibly ignoring her children. And I felt too much time was spent on Sally Hemings. At some point, someone with Jefferson DNA raped her and caused her to have children. I don't really care if it was TJ or one of his nephews (as the author claims). There was too much time spent on this speculation for my taste. I also don't really like TJ, with his hypocrisy over liberty/slavery; championing states rights; denigrating the part women should play in politics; depletion of the army/navy under his low taxes so that America was left largely undefended; his insistence on small farmers in an agrarian society (not of course that he was a small farmer) in the face of Hamilton's support for a great industrial power (who won that battle?)

6. James Madison: He had an awesome wife (Dolley!) who was probably the most helpful of all the women mentioned here to helping Madison with his political career. And then after his death, she continued to champion his memory and legacy. She also joined forces with Hamilton's widow to help create the Washington Monument. My favorite part of this though was Madison's statement even as he dies that the Union was made indissoluble; as the writer of the Constitution, it is clear that there is NO basis for secession or the breaking up of the Union. (I'm studying the Civil War this semester so these thoughts are on my mind.)

Overall: 4.5/5 Definitely recommended to those who'd like to see a different side to the Founding Fathers.

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