National Authority and Masculine Sex Appeal (book review)

Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, Temple University Press: 2014.

In Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster explores how gendered sexuality has featured in American national identities since the founding of the United States of America. Foster emphasizes the occurrence of an overall shift in public representations of the Founding Fathers from disembodied men of virtue to intense masculine virility. Using a combination of secondary publications and primary documents, Foster argues that these representations of the Founding Fathers’ private lives reveal more about contemporary national identities surrounding masculine sexuality than about the men themselves. However, while Foster argues for a distinct shift toward these conceptions of masculine virility, it is apparent that depictions of the Founding Fathers from the Revolution to the twenty-first century in popular media speak to a long-standing obsession with white, heterosexual, and able-bodied masculinity.

Foster argues that public portrayals of the Founding Fathers in popular media highlighted close reflections on their personal character throughout most of the American past. Foster examines how the Founding Fathers’ private lives have been presented and rewritten from eighteenth century newspapers, cartoons, and published songs to modern-era popular films and biographies. Foster selected several Revolutionary political leaders for this investigation: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris. George Washington is, appropriately, the first Founding Father we encounter in this book. In a London newspaper during the American Revolution, Washington was portrayed by British satirists as a cross-dressing woman.[1] This marked an early attempt to attack both his masculine character and his political project (that of the Revolution). In addition, Foster argues, the fact that Washington did not produce any children posed an apparent problem for Washington’s masculinity in popular media. Instead, he is frequently portrayed as the father of the nation. It is also often noted that Washington parented his step-children and next of kin.  Creators of his image could compensate for his near unmanliness by establishing these aspects of his paternal nature.

Twentieth century authors illustrated Washington’s masculine prowess by describing many love affairs – primarily through inferences based on his letters to select women – and suggesting that Washington was courageous enough to face sentiment as well as his enemies. In love and war, therefore, Washington was presented as victorious.[2] Further, the writer Thomas Fleming suggests that many woman would have “felt shivers” at the thought of Washington’s embrace.[3] George Washington’s image has become increasingly sexualized in a clearly heteronormative sense. In addition to being well-suited for fatherhood, Washington is portrayed as decidedly both heterosexual and sexually appealing.

Creators of Washington’s image, Foster continues, have systematically portrayed him as especially masculine and imposing. Foster highlights the fetishism of Washington’s body by biographers who aim to portray Washington as the embodiment of both national authority and masculine sex appeal. In 1832, U.S. Congress commissioned a statue to celebrate the centennial of Washington’s birth. This statue depicts Washington in a similar fashion to the Greek god Jupiter: Washington sits on a throne half-naked, toga-clad, and classically muscled.[4] For Foster, this fetishistic obsession with Washington’s body continues with a fascination of his wedding gloves: Alice Curtis Desmond wrote in 1946 that Washington’s gloves are still treasured in the Masonic Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, and “they are huge.”[5] In all of these images of Washington, his large, muscled body is imposing and able.

Even further, author Joseph Ellis described Washington as “the epitome of the man’s man” in 2004. Richard Brookhiser’s 1996 analysis of John Trumbull’s 1792 portrait of Washington emphasizes his “well-developed thighs.”[6] In 1988, John Ferling initially described Washington as “wide across the hips,” yet twenty-one years later, he changed his description of Washington’s physique so that Washington would have “broad shoulders,” “muscular arms,” and a “small, flat waist.”[7] Washington’s wide hips were apparently too feminine, and Ferling changed his description of Washington’s body to something essentially anti-feminine. Foster suggests that this change, juxtaposed with other commentary on Washington’s build, embodies a twenty-first century athletic eroticized ideal.

However, this eroticized ideal of the muscled and able body was not exclusive to the twenty-first century. Clearly even during the Revolution, when Washington’s masculinity was attacked by a London satirist’s depiction of him as a cross-dresser, there existed an obsession with this kind of hetero-masculinity. Washington’s large and able body, as imagined in 1832 by the creator of Washington’s statue and in 1942 by Alice Curtis Desmond, is imposing and domineering. Foster uses Desmond’s statement about the size of Washington’s hands to illustrate the obsession with the body in public media as an expression of both authority and sexuality.

Among the former presidential characters that comprise the Founding Fathers, Foster includes Gouvernor Morris, who penned the preamble to the Constitution. Foster’s use of Morris highlights that the American nationalist obsession with masculine sexuality is not limited to the top political tier. While Washington’s virile masculinity was challenged by his lack of biological children, creators of his image could compensate for this dilemma by constructing a persona that embodied paternal ideals, physical sex appeal, and specifically heterosexual relationships. In contrast, it seems, Gouvernor Morris crafted for himself an image of sexualized manly prowess despite, as Foster describes, his non-normative body, and nineteenth-century portrayals of him largely erased his sexuality.

Morris, in his sexual exploits described in his explicit diaries, created a dilemma for writers who sought to perpetuate ideals of normative bodies and sexuality contained within marital monogamy. The nineteenth-century biographer Jared Sparks, Foster notes, made little mention of Morris’s sexual or romantic life in his biography and portrayed Morris as a chaste bachelor for much of his life, focusing primarily on his marriage at age fifty-seven. Fifty years later, Morris’s granddaughter published his – censored – diary and letters that support this representation of Morris as a chaste yet social bachelor, thus conforming to a model of normative, heterosocial interactions.[8] Theodore Roosevelt continued to make the unconventional Morris appear conventional and normative by describing his experience in Paris as one of diplomatic interactions, as opposed to Morris’s self-described experience that intertwined the sexual and the political.

In the twentieth century, Foster suggests, the American public seemed to experience more comfort with a sexualized Founding Father. Interestingly, Foster observes that the fetishist obsession with the body seen applied to Washington carries on into Morris’s image. Howard Swigget’s 1952 biography about Morris describes him as “magnificent, well over six feet tall, a strong, athletic figure without the lankness of Jefferson or Monroe.”[9] However, Swigget also emphasized Morris’s non-normative body, namely an amputated leg and disfigurements from a burn early in life. In recent biographical works, such as Richard Brookhiser’s Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, Morris’s affair with Madame de Flahaut in Paris characterizes him as a “rake,” or a womanizer.  Foster suggests that this mobilizes a sensationalism “that one need not take seriously as a model of American life.”

In concluding his chapter on Gouverneur Morris, Foster postulates that Moriss’s transformation from chaste bachelor to the rake who wrote the Constitution “highlights the enduring problem of publicly remembering and celebrating a sexually active, disabled, bachelor Founding Father.”[10] Indeed, much of this chapter illuminates another facet of masculine sexuality – that of the able-bodied. Modern nationalized masculinity heavily relies on able-bodied sex appeal. Even further, placed within the pantheon of the rest of the Founding Fathers, nationalized masculine sexuality is incredibly able-bodied, white, and financially successful.

In creating a historiography of American national and sexual portrayals of the Founding Fathers, Foster aims to reveal that American attitudes toward sexuality and masculinity have fluctuated over time and have been influenced by political, economic, and social changes. I would argue that some Fathers illustrate these fluctuations better than others. In the case of Washington, for example, a clear continuity appears to pervade public representations of the first president. Public depictions of Morris, in contrast, did seem to bend to changes in attitudes toward sexuality and masculinity.  This resonates with the attempt made by John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman in Intimate Matters: A History of American Sexuality to establish that American sexualities were constructed and influenced by political, economic, and social circumstances. Yet, like Intimate Matters, Sex and the Founding Fathers reveals images of white, wealthy, hetero-masculine sexuality.

In addition, Foster relies largely on documents located within public media: including newspapers, biographies, paintings, and the occasional statue, in the case of Washington. Foster’s reliance on these materials assumes that these documents actually reveal to us what Americans thought, and that “American thought” might be fairly homogeneous. This is a frequent problem which arises for historians. Rather, Foster’s argument could be strengthened by a discussion of how these materials can both disseminate and produce knowledge.

Foster’s examination of highly gendered and sexualized national identities appears to contribute to a substantial commentary on modern nationalized manhood and sexuality. That he structured Sex and the Founding Fathers along biographical lines speaks to this contribution. In fact, he chose to do so in order to illustrate how “biography itself” participates in how manliness and appropriate sexualities are defined, and the biographical narrative is often shaped to fit its cultural moment. Foster’s historiographical biographies certainly fit a particular cultural moment. Today, American national identity remains intertwined with gendered sexuality, especially that of white, heterosexual masculinity.

[1] Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (2014), 13

[2] Ibid., 27

[3] Ibid., 34

[4] Ibid., 20

[5] Ibid., 33

[6] Ibid., 34

[7] Ibid., 36

[8] Ibid., 152

[9] Ibid., 156

[10] Ibid., 163

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