Book Review: Sex and the Founding Fathers, The American Quest for a Relatable Past by Thomas A. Foster

Americans struggle to relate to the founding fathers of the United States. These men lived 250 years ago in a world and culture that differs so much from today’s. Thomas A. Foster argues that over the years, historians have molded the founding fathers to make them relatable for their contemporary audience. This meant that those biographies and papers may have ignored evidence or drawn conclusions when there was none in order to make the 18th century men relevant. The men portrayed in history books don’t always have the same depth they had in life.

I’m going to start this review by stating that I haven’t spent a lot of time with history books recently. I graduated with a BA in History (and English) back in 2012, focusing primarily on 20th century military history. My knowledge of the founding fathers isn’t extensive, but it’s reasonable.

Sex and the Founding Fathers is a historiography. That means it documents how historians have reported history. There is very little use of primary sources (evidence from the time period) except to show where historians have ignored evidence of the private lives of the founding fathers. There is no new evidence to shed light on otherwise hidden parts of their sex lives.

With all of that being said, I learned quite a bit about the founding fathers and how they have been portrayed over the years. I never questioned the masculine identity given to George Washington as a founding father even though he never had any children of his own. Historians also censored or completely left out the more scandalous writings of Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris. Despite this not being a book about the historical figures themselves, I did see new aspects of the founding fathers. I also didn’t realize Alexander Hamilton had admitted publicly to an affair or that John and Abigail Adams may have stopped talking to each other had they not been separated for long periods of time.

This book would be a great read for scholars or history students interested in how the sex lives of America’s founding fathers have been portrayed by historians over the past 250 years. For a reader looking to learn more about them, a biography on the individual would be a better option. I may be dusting off the George Washington biography that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years to learn more about him.

Rating for historians: four of five stars

Rating for general readers: two of five stars

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