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The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers…

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers (2009)

by Thomas Fleming

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I found this book to be interesting because it provided insight into the family life of these famous people. It taught me the lesson that these people dealt with relationships, health problems, finances, and other common issues. I enjoyed the book and learned some from it. I recommend this book freely. ( )
  GlennBell | Apr 25, 2017 |
This book was interesting to me because I did much research into America's revolutionary times when I was writing The Lees of Menokin, a fictional account of the life of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a Virginia signer of the Declaration. It was light and thought-provoking. And with three of the six men featured being Virginians, I felt right at home. ( )
  suztales | Feb 7, 2012 |
This overview of the lives of the Founding Fathers shifts the focus of our attention from the men, to the women who most influenced their lives.

Fleming looks at six Founders: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison and explains: "Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the pubic dimensions of the founding fathers’ political journeys. … In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.”

Several of the Founders had dashed romantic hopes with other women before they found their life mates. George Washington was said to be smitten by Sally Fairfax, the wife of his neighbor. James Madison, at age thirty-one, fell in love with fifteen-year-old Kitty Floyd, but she rejected him for a younger man. Jefferson was besotted by Rebecca Burwell for five years, to no avail. Even John Adams had a love before Abigail; he was infatuated with Hannah Quincy, but she chose another.

There are lots of entertaining tidbits in this book. Perhaps the most interesting stories concern Dolley Madison, whose influence caused people to bestow on her the [new] title of “First Lady.” Dolley was determined to counterbalance her husband’s reticence, social ineptitude, and unpopularity. As Fleming notes, “by day she was a tireless visitor, leaving her calling cards all over the city.” At night, she organized lavish social events, inviting so many people the parties were known as “squeezes.” When the invading British army burned the White House in 1814, it was Dolley that stayed back despite the danger to save George Washington’s portrait and the White House copy of the Declaration of Independence. But Dolley’s influence wasn’t only of the social kind. Her husband kept her apprised of domestic and foreign affairs, and she used her visits and soirees to push positions amenable to the administration.

Dolley also expended a great deal of energy in a way similar to that of the other first ladies: supporting her husband and boosting his morale in the early, critical days of the Republic. These men were pioneers, and during their lifetimes they were often vilified, slandered, unappreciated, and subsequently dispirited. During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s spirits notably approved whenever Martha arrived in the encampments. Adams, who possibly was a manic depressive, was particularly dependent on Abigail to pick him up when his emotions laid him low. Hamilton’s wife stood by him when he was forced to admit to an affair that led him to be blackmailed for a time.

Fleming devotes the most space to Jefferson, and the Sally Hemings question. Despite his unflinching portrait of Jefferson’s shortcomings in other books, here, Fleming seems to want us to give Jefferson our sympathy. He portrays Jefferson as an airy, poetry-spouting, head-in-the-clouds kind of guy, who was totally devoted to his wife Martha. If emotionally upset, Jefferson would get stricken with a migraine that could incapacitate him for weeks. Martha had a weak constitution and constant pregnancies didn’t help. Jefferson hovered over her, nursing her himself. When Martha sank into a coma, Jefferson blacked out. She died in 1782, just ten years after they were married, when Jefferson was thirty-nine.

The Hemingses, a slave family, came to Monticello prior to Martha’s death, after her father died in 1773. Reportedly they were the children of her father by a half-black slave mother, Elizabeth Hemings. Thus Sally Hemings was Martha’s half-sister.

At the time of Martha’s death, Jefferson had three living daughters. He left them with a relative and went to France to help negotiate a peace treaty. Later, he returned to France, taking eldest daughter Martha with him. When Jefferson requested that his next oldest girl, Polly, come to France also, Martha's sister sent along Sally Hemings as Polly's chaperon.

Eventually Sally had six children. In Jefferson’s will (he died on July 4, 1826), Jefferson freed all the Hemingses (except Sally - more on that momentarily). Jefferson's favorable treatment was undoubtedly a reflection of the Hemings' relationship to Martha. He also was opposed to the slavery of third generation mulattos. Fleming does not indicate why Sally was not freed, but Virginia had a 1806 removal law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within a year. Later, Jefferson’s daughter gave Sally her "time," which was an informal way of bestowing freedom without incurring the effects of the removal law. It has been speculated in other sources besides this book that Jefferson did not want to give fodder to rumor-mongers by freeing Sally outright; nor did he want to force her to leave the state. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation speculates that Jefferson probably made a verbal agreement with Martha before he died to adopt this strategy, but there is no evidence for it.

Fleming profers myriad arguments that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings children: (1) her children seem to have come from at least two separate fathers, going by their reported appearances; (2) the DNA evidence only shows that someone in Jefferson’s family fathered (some of) the children; (3) Jefferson remained passionately devoted to the memory of his wife and to his living children and grandchildren; and (4) furtive sex for thirty-eight years would have been highly unlikely in a house “swarming with visitors and grandchildren” with all of the bedrooms in the same wing.

Evaluation: Fleming’s dedication of this book, listing all of the women in his life, indicates that he wanted to give them a gift: an affirmation that women played an important role in the founding of the country. He does a fine job on that score. The portraits of both the Founders and their wives are a bit sketchy, since the author is covering six of them in one book, but he does a nice job in picking out the highlights of their careers. If you would like an overview of the lives of the Founding Fathers that also shows how much women contributed (to the extent they were allowed) to the country’s beginnings, this is a great place to start. ( )
  nbmars | Sep 8, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061139122, Hardcover)

A compelling, intimate look at the founders—George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—and the women who played essential roles in their lives

With his usual storytelling flair and unparalleled research, Tom Fleming examines the women who were at the center of the lives of the founding fathers. From hot-tempered Mary Ball Washington to promiscuous Rachel Lavien Hamilton, the founding fathers' mothers powerfully shaped their sons' visions of domestic life. But lovers and wives played more critical roles as friends and often partners in fame. We learn of the youthful Washington's tortured love for the coquettish Sarah Fairfax, wife of his close friend; of Franklin's two "wives," one in London and one in Philadelphia; of Adams's long absences, which required a lonely, deeply unhappy Abigail to keep home and family together for years on end; of Hamilton's adulterous betrayal of his wife and then their reconciliation; of how the brilliant Madison was jilted by a flirtatious fifteen-year-old and went on to marry the effervescent Dolley, who helped make this shy man into a popular president. Jefferson's controversial relationship to Sally Hemings is also examined, with a different vision of where his heart lay.

Fleming nimbly takes us through a great deal of early American history, as his founding fathers strove to reconcile the private and public, often beset by a media every bit as gossip seeking and inflammatory as ours today. He offers a powerful look at the challenges women faced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While often brilliant and articulate, the wives of the founding fathers all struggled with the distractions and dangers of frequent childbearing and searing anxiety about infant mortality—Jefferson's wife, Martha, died from complications following labor, as did his daughter. All the more remarkable, then, that these women loomed so large in the lives of their husbands—and, in some cases, their country.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:02 -0400)

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An intimate look at the founders--George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison--and the women who played essential roles in their lives.

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