San Francisco Chronicle
Sex and the American politician
Pols 210 years ago were just as randy as today's
Sunday, November 12, 2006
In 2002, publishers of American history high school textbooks altered an image of Emanuel Leutze's famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware'' (1851) because the original painting depicted Washington's watch fob dangerously close to his crotch. Administrators feared that it would draw attention to his manhood. The altered image blurred the painting enough so the fob melted away.
It was not the first time educators had reacted negatively to the famous painting of the famous man. In 1999, teacher's aides in Georgia's Muscogee County school district were instructed to hand-paint 2,300 fifth-grade textbooks to erase the image. In Cobb County, they just tore the page from the book.
The controversy prompted some to ask: Have we, in our squeamishness about sex, become neo-Victorians?
We have not. In fact, judging by election-cycle waves of sex scandals, we now look a lot like the Founding Fathers' generation.
Former Congressman Mark Foley, evangelist Ted Haggard and former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey are only the latest in a long line of straying American public figures.
Like us, the Founding Fathers lived in an era that was more open about sexual matters than the 19th century Victorians. And they, too, embraced standards of morality for public men that often reflected ideals more than social realities.
The Founding Fathers also operated in a strikingly similar media climate - the 1790s was perhaps the last time the media poured forth so many sex scandals before a relative silence that would endure well into the mid-20th century. And the 1790s was not so unusual for the 18th century. Despite what you may have learned in school, people actually had sex in the colonial era -- and more importantly they talked and wrote about it. And not just about women. Sex was an important part of masculinity.
In the 18th century, much like today, men used sex scandals to smear political enemies -- and newspapers played a role. When a local tiff between two satirists arose in 18th century Massachusetts, for example, one used a scurrilous image and poem suggesting that the Freemasons with their all-male all-secret parties just might be up to no good, to set up his rival as the author of the harmful front-page item. In his defense, the man made to look like the author printed notices denying that it was his.
The shocking engraving -- a rarity in early American newspapers -- depicted one Freemason penetrating another with a wooden peg commonly used in ship-building. It enraged the Freemasons, who subsequently boycotted the newspaper and lobbied the government to punish the printer.
In raising his eyebrows over the all-male secret society, the satirist perhaps had in mind clubs of 18th century London where men met for social, erotic and romantic purposes. Many of the men used elaborate costumes and rituals to mock dominant heterosexual culture. Reports noted men dressing as milkmaids, brides, high-fashion elite women, and engaging in mock weddings and even elaborate mock labor and childbirth. These "molly houses" were reported on in American newspapers, keeping early American readers both informed of such urban developments and comforted by the thought that they were over there, not here.
Diary evidence also reveals examples of early American sex scandals, some that led to dismissal. Men wrote about disgraced men leaving the community, such as when minister Stephen Roe left Boston. Having impregnated the daughter of his landlord, Roe had first been gossiped about by the community, and then officially "silenced" by his church before being "discharg'd."
One Benjamin Walker Jr. had been there when Roe left town and wrote in his diary about seeing him in the stern of a boat "with his back to ye people on ye wharf looking very pale & disconsolate" and then how he "looked out on ye people on ye wharf & just bowd his head & then put his hat on."
The happenings were still fodder for gossip a year later. One summer day while Walker was out walking, a young man informed him about the details of the financial settlement between the minister and the family that he had wronged. And another "man following" Walker and the young man, having overheard their gossip, broke into the conversation to add that a child was born which had lived just 24 hours.
For these three individuals, as for most men, whether in newspapers or simply swirling in town gossip, sexual behavior was one important measure of a man's respectability. Observations about it and informal regulation of it were threads that bound the social, economic and political community of men together.
At the core, such men deviated from the model of monogamy to which colonial Anglo Americans tied their identities. Indeed, Anglo Americans used the model to denigrate polygamous Native Americans, and relied on it as a measure of civility. The paradox of early American manhood was embodying the strength and power of the dashing eroticized libertine with the self-mastery and restraint of the virtuous monogamous husband.
With more than half of U.S. households unmarried today, shifting realities have yet to be fully reflected in our political representatives. Our Founding Fathers era may well have emphasized a dominant ideal of marriage and family, but the reality is that individuals often lived in opposition to these standards. Even couples who did marry and have children tended to engage in premarital sex. At the time the nation was founded, one-third of all brides were pregnant on their wedding day.
Our Founding Fathers themselves also did not all hold to these sexual ideals, but for their transgressions had their names dragged through the mud in the muckraking media decades of the early United States.
Much of what we know about Benjamin Franklin (child out of wedlock), Alexander Hamilton (extra-marital affair), Thomas Jefferson (relationship and child with slave Sally Hemings), and Aaron Burr (multiple extra-marital conquests and relationships) comes down to us from that same early American media. For political manhood, it seems, the model of monogamy has changed little.
Given that contemporary sex scandals have a tendency to lump together abuses of power, pedophilia (sexual interest in pre-pubescent children), ephebophilia (attraction to adolescents), with adultery, consensual affairs and a host of other disparate but non-normative behaviors, some might ask if we have become overly puritanical about sex.
But we are not prudish neo-Victorians. Much like the culture of early America, a certain degree of openness and frankness about all things sexual pervades the culture of today. And much like the culture of the early United States, a certain desire for virtue exhibited by normative sexual desire and behavior is demanded of politicians -- despite the fact that many Americans when pressed on the question will acknowledge that politicians should be able to have private lives -- and that extra-marital affairs should have little bearing on political careers.
Thomas A. Foster teaches history at DePaul University. He is the author of "Sex and the Eighteenth Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America" and editor of the forthcoming "Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America." Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle