America's Founding Playboys: Washington, Franklin, and Hamilton

Thomas Fleming discusses The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

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Tired of hearing about Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford? Historian Thomas Fleming has a few new names to add to the list of America's most famous playboys, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. The former president of the Society of American Historians and author of over 40 fiction and nonfiction books, Fleming exposes the little-known tales of the country's early figures in his latest work, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. Fleming recently chatted with U.S. News about the influence of women on the lives and actions of the most revered U.S. politicians. Excerpts:

Has the public always been fascinated with politicians' private lives?

Only when we got into the political world of the first decade of the republic did they get very interested in the private lives of the various politicians. And the press at the time were either violently for or violently against a particular politician. And it was no holds barred. They would definitely go in, go after their private lives.

Was there a particular story that made you write this book?

I came across the amazing story of how Washington's love letter to Sally Cary Fairfax—who was the wife of his friend and neighbor—came to our attention. It appeared for the first time in 1877 on the front page of the New York Herald, the biggest newspaper in America, and it caused a sensation.

And that was before he married Martha?

He had written the letter four months after he became engaged to Martha Custis, who happened to be the richest widow in Virginia. That only deepened the scandal.

Your book suggests that women were influential in the nation's early history.

Behind the facade of "the man is running things," etc., etc., women had a tremendous amount to say. Certainly John Adams never did anything without consulting Abigail.

Who was the most influential "founding mother"?

Dolley Madison. Her husband needed her desperately because he was almost an antipolitician. He was a little guy—barely 110 pounds soaking wet—he always wore black, and he talked in a sort of whispery voice. He's the last person in the world you'd ever expect to make any progress in politics. But he was so brilliant. Once he married Dolley, his political career gained immense momentum because she was a master politician.

How so?

She never let anyone get to her. When Madison was running for president in 1808, his enemies started circulating rumors and stories that Dolley had orgies with congressmen that were going to persuade them to vote to support Madison. And people would come and tell her these stories, and she would just smile and say, "Oh, those stories! People are telling those stories just to wound my sensibilities." Madison won, and his opponent said, "I could have won if I was running against Mr. Madison alone, but when I was running against Mr. Madison and Mrs. Madison, I never had a chance."

Was infidelity more or less common in the times of the Founding Fathers?

It certainly was not as common as it is today. Women had to be much more careful because they could get pregnant. But yes, there was a fair amount of infidelity—certainly in the big cities. Franklin, when he was a very young man, he was a runaway in Philadelphia at the age of 17. He did have sexual relations with various women that he met among the lower classes and eventually had an illegitimate son.

Are politicians more susceptible to such scandals?

Being in politics made a man much more of a target for scandal because it was a way of wounding him. I have a chapter, "The Other George Washington Scandals." He's supposedly having an affair with Kate, the little washerwoman's daughter, and there are two witnesses who say he went to see a woman at night during the summer of 1776. We find that these are British forgeries. But when Washington got to be president, these old scandals were exhumed and published in a book. At the end of his term, one of his last acts, Washington wrote a public letter saying he wanted people to know there was not a word of truth in these public scandals.