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
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