10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers
10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers

10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers

Larry Holzwarth - March 13, 2018

10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers
Abigail as she appeared around the time of her marriage to John Adams.Wikimedia

John Adams

John Adams has gone down in history as the epitome of an uptight New England prude, with an equally prudish wife. His regard of the French when he arrived in Paris, and of his fellow delegate Benjamin Franklin, reflects his standoffish nature. But in his letters to his wife Abigail and in hers to him there is something of a different nature. John and Abigail endured long separations in dangerous times, but in their correspondence, which is our gift as a result, there is much insight into the lives of their contemporaries.

Adams determined early in his life to remain celibate until his marriage, a feat of which he was proud to speak. In his diary an entry reads, “My children may be assured that no illegitimate son or daughter exists,” a claim made with evident pride in the fact, for it was not his intention that his diary be read during his lifetime. He married Abigail Smith in October 1764; the following July she gave birth to their first child. They eventually had five children together, and another pregnancy ended with a stillborn child. This was over a period of twelve years, during which Adams was frequently away for extended periods, so he clearly had an active sex life.

During his long absences they exchanged an extraordinarily large amount of letters and unlike Jefferson and Washington’s correspondence with their wives these letters survive. John Adams would often coin pet names for his wife in his letters, including “Miss Adorable” and referred to her often as his “Dearest Friend.” His wife responded in kind. She also maintained a steady correspondence with other Founders, and used the information and gossip received from these sources to keep her husband up to date with the news from Congress and the other states.

Beyond the number of children the Adams’ raised there is nothing to indicate their views on sex and sexual behavior other than a stern Yankee disapproval of the behavior of some of their contemporaries. When Abigail joined her husband in France and later as the Ambassador to England she was clearly aghast at the licentiousness there, in the salons of Paris and in the streets of London. Abigail once wrote to John of Alexander Hamilton, “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”

Bawdy drinking songs which used language of a sexual nature and included a great deal of sexual innuendo were common during the days of the Founders and John Adams of necessity spent a great deal of time in taverns. Between leaving the President’s house in Philadelphia and entering the White House he lived in a Washington tavern. But he neither participated nor commented on the widely accepted entertainment with its references to sex. Whatever his thoughts on the matter were, he kept them to himself.

10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers
An engraving of Dolley Madison as she appeared while her husband James was serving as Jefferson’s Secretary of State. University of Texas

James Madison

James Madison is one of the Fathers of the Constitution, the author of many of the compromises which allowed the Constitutional Convention to succeed in producing a working government. He is also regarded as the Father of the Bill of Rights. Madison was inarguably a political genius and a capable debater and writer, but he did not cast a large physical presence. He was just under 5’4″ in height and would have likely been able to follow a career as a jockey had he chose, weighing only about 100 pounds. He likely wouldn’t have been noticed when he entered a room anyway, and when he entered one with his wife she was the immediate center of attention.

Madison’s wife was the former Dolley Payne Todd, a 26 year old widow when she married him. He was 43. Dolley was already well known in the fledgling Washington social circles when Madison entered the White House, having served as Jefferson’s hostess on occasion when the widowed President needed someone to perform that role. Madison did not marry until he was in his forties but he spent time courting several women before settling down. Contrary to what many believe, the Madison’s had an active sex life and a happy marriage, as evidenced in their letters to each other and to friends.

Dolley Madison became famous for her beauty, but viewing her many portraits does not reveal it to 21st century eyes. In her day she was better known for her charm and boisterousness. She was a large woman and once when she received a pair of silk hose she responded that they were too small even for, “…my darling little husband.” A frequent house guest and long-time friend of the couple wrote that the Madisons, “…romp and tease each other like two children.” This was long after Madison left the White House and was home again in Virginia at his Montpelier plantation.

Dolley was known to grab her husband’s hands and pull him up on her back, to race around the room or the front lawn at Montpelier with the former President laughing, to the amusement of the children and other guests which were a constant presence there. Madison’s surviving letters to Dolley reveal a passionate side to his character which is frequently ignored. Her letters, both to her husband and more often to friends and relatives reveal an equal passion and a deep love which existed between them. Rumors and myths about Dolley’s infidelity and Madison’s indifference to it existed during their marriage, which lasted 42 years.

Many of the rumors which led to the myths of Dolley’s infidelity began with the vicious politics of his day, in which she was portrayed by enemies to be a woman of little or no morals. They were expanded upon by the British during the War of 1812, and added to by the New England states which voiced moral outrage at the behavior which existed only in the minds of the British propagandists. These reached a height during the British invasion and burning of Washington in 1814. In truth there is no evidence of Dolley Madison’s extramarital affairs beyond contemporaneous gossip and there is every indication that the married life of James Madison and his wife was happy, boisterous, and loving.

10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers
A copy of the opening paragraph of a story describing Jefferson and his “concubine”. Wikimedia

False sexual rumors and innuendo

Nearly all of the Founders were the subject of sexually charged rumors and innuendo during their lifetimes, for a variety of reasons, most of which were created by political enmity. It was common at the time for newspaper articles to appear with the true authorship concealed by an alias, often with elaborate pen names usurped from antiquity. Such attacks, even when the true authorship was known, could not be fought in the press without amplification of the falsehood, and to try to do so was self-defeating. Many of the rumors exist today, still fed by poor scholarship.

An example is the multitude of attacks on James Madison which portrayed him as weak, vacillating, and ineffective, unable to keep the loyalty of his own wife due to his impotence as a leader, with the obvious implication that he was impotent elsewhere. These attacks occurred in the press, were repeated in the taverns and other public places, and it became commonplace for Madison’s political enemies to destroy the reputation of the President’s wife, not yet referred to as the First Lady. That Madison always appeared soberly dressed in public, with his wife towering over him, simply added fuel to his enemies fires.

Another reason many of the Founders were attacked in the press was that many of them were Freemasons. This led to assertions that George Washington and many of the other Founders being described by those attacking Freemasonry as participating in rituals involving anal penetration. Their accusers described them using a wooden spike of the sort which was used to peg ship hull planking together, nails of the day being insufficient for the purpose because they would soon rust and dissolve away.

It was during Jefferson’s day that the first rumors appeared that he had fathered children by his slave or slaves, with numbers ranging from one to as many as fifteen. Jefferson had taken Sally Hemings with him to Paris as a servant and companion for his daughter and to be trained in the art of French cooking. Today there is DNA evidence that the Hemings and Jefferson lines are mixed, but it is still debated whether Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ son Madison Hemings, or if the line was mixed before or after by another Jefferson descendant or ancestor. Sally Hemings family had been among the slaves inherited by Jefferson from his father, Peter Jefferson.

All of this gives evidence that sex was very much on the mind of the Founders and the public which they served. In the Royal courts of Europe the presence of wives and mistresses freely intermingling with each other was taken for granted. In the emerging United States it quickly became a subject to be considered a taboo, and when it was brought to light it was for the purpose of denigration of character for political gain. Many of the character assassination tactics applied then remain damaging to the character of the historical figure today.

10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers
Peter Stephen du Ponceau was one of Von Steuben’s many consorts while serving in the Continental Army. Wikimedia

Baron Wilhelm Von Steuben

Von Steuben was not one of the political Founders of the United States, but without his contributions to the formation of a disciplined army there would likely have been no nation. Von Steuben inserted military discipline and tactics in an army which had previously shown little of either. He did so despite the snickers of many of the troops under him who were amused by his antics, his deliberate and slow cursing in multiple languages, his dogs which followed him everywhere, and the fact that he was a homosexual, with his lover serving as his aide.

Von Steuben had fled from the Courts in Hechingen to Paris to avoid a scandal which involved a homosexual seduction. He was on the verge of being arrested in Paris for a similar event when the matter was brought to the attention of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin abetted Von Steuben’s exit from the capital through the dispensing of some well-placed cash and provided Von Steuben with a letter of introduction to Congress and to George Washington. Franklin did not refer to the charges against Von Steuben to Congress, but he did hint at the nature of Von Steuben’s troubles to Washington.

Franklin also wildly exaggerated Von Steuben’s credentials to Washington, which may or may not have been deliberate. When Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge he was accompanied by his young aide and lover, Peter du Ponceau, another young aide, and two additional officers who were traveling with them. Washington was also made aware of the relationship between Von Steuben and his aides by the troops who were assigned to act as their guards in camp. In a short time it was an open secret that there was something different about the Prussian drillmaster, but it did not impede his duties, nor his effectiveness.

At least two other officers in the Continental Army were rumored to have been involved with Von Steuben during the time he served under Washington. Both of these men were later “adopted” by the Prussian following the war, when he opted to remain in America rather than return to Europe. Von Steuben made these two officers his heirs in his will. Du Ponceau too remained in the United States, settling in Philadelphia and becoming an internationally known expert in linguistics, including many of the languages of the Native American peoples.

Von Steuben retired to an estate in Oneida County, New York, after living for a time following the war on an estate loaned to him by the State of New Jersey. Eventually he acquired title to that estate and sold it to pay off debts before relocating to New York. He never publicly admitted his sexual bias, out of awareness of the laws which made it illegal at the time, but it was hardly a secret either in Europe or the United States. He may well have been the first example of “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military of the United States.

10 Tales From the Relationships Of Our Founding Fathers
John Randolph of Roanoke was a fiery tempered orator with a soprano voice. Wikimedia

John Randolph of Roanoke

John Randolph was afflicted with a condition which made him both beardless and possessed of a high pitched, prepubescent voice. He contracted tuberculosis in his youth, which had an ill-effect on his health throughout his life. He was a contemporary of many of the Founders and was one of the youngest men ever elected to Congress, winning his seat in the Sixth congress at the age of 26. He never married, was possessed of a ferocious temper, and strutted about the Halls of the Capitol in Washington wearing riding boots, spurs, and carrying a riding crop. He appears to have been asexual.

Randolph claimed, as did many of the First Families of Virginia, to have been descended from Pocahontas. He dressed in a manner which would be called Beau Brummel in England. Despite the handicap of his childish sounding voice, he was an accomplished orator and persuasive speaker, especially when campaigning. In addition to his other perceived inadequacies he was slightly built and small, and he compensated for these handicaps with an unbridled aggression. He once fought a duel with Henry Clay.

Randolph frequently appeared on the floor in Congress with his dogs and slaves accompanying him, and Clay as Speaker of the House ordered the dogs be removed. The two were already political opponents and the resulting duel was bloodless. Still, Randolph’s belligerent manner was untamed. He fought another Congressman in a Washington boarding house and again on the House floor, requiring bystanders to separate them. He fought him again in a Capitol stairwell, where he beat the Congressman, Willis Alston with his cane until he was bloody. Randolph had been offended when Alston referred to him as a “puppy.”

Randolph appears to have substituted opium for sex, and was well known as a heavy user of opium for most of his adult life. Some have speculated that this may have been to eradicate the pain of tuberculosis symptoms, but he was a heavy opium user long before the tuberculosis he likely contracted from his brother as a child exhibited itself in him. The tuberculosis while latent may have prevented the onset of puberty in him, explaining both his childish voice and his evident lack of interest in any type of sexual activity.

Randolph once said that he loved liberty but as an aristocrat he hated equality. When he died, his will directed the manumission of his slaves, and the purchase of lands for them in Ohio, with each man over the age of forty receiving ten acres of their own land. Nearly 400 former Randolph slaves settled in Ohio near present day Rumley based on these provisions. Randolph died in Philadelphia in 1833 while waiting for a ship which was to carry him to England. Because he never entered puberty, he could be called the boy who never grew up, even after serving in Congress, the Senate, and as Minister to Russia.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway”, by Charles B. Van Pelt, American Heritage Magazine, August 1971

“Ben Franklin’s Dangerous Liaisons”, by William Ecenbarger, The Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1990

“Alexander Hamilton’s Adultery and Apology”, by Angela Serratore, The Smithsonian Magazine, July 25 2013

“The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris,” edited by Anne Cary Morris, 1888

“George Washington, A Biography”, by John R. Alden, 1993

“John Adams”, by David McCullough, 2001

“Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison”, by Richard N. Cote, 2005

“Sex and the Founding Fathers”, by Thomas Foster, 2014

“The Magnificent Fraud”, by Thomas Fleming, American Heritage Magazine, February/March 2005

“Unforgiving Cousin: John Randolph of Roanoke”, by Francis Biddle, American Heritage Magazine, August 1961