Sunday, December 20, 2009;
THE INTIMATE LIVES OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
By Thomas Fleming
Smithsonian. 456 pp. $27.99
JFK had Marilyn Monroe, and Bill Clinton had Monica, but that doesn't mean 20th-century presidents had all the fun. "Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the public dimensions of the founding fathers' political journeys," Thomas Fleming writes in this well-researched peek into the boudoirs of America's political architects.
Those who think only prudes attended the Constitutional Convention should know that Independence Hall's closets were not free of skeletons: George Washington coveted his neighbor's wife, Benjamin Franklin fathered a child out of wedlock and abandoned his wife to flirt with Parisian madames, and Alexander Hamilton's invention of the Federal Reserve did not distract contemporary critics from his adultery. Fleming's awkward pages on Sally Hemings, the slave who allegedly gave birth to children fathered by Jefferson, occasionally emulate the hysterical tone that he criticizes in modern political discourse: Future generations will wonder why so many historians debated the likelihood of this 200-year-old affair (most recently chronicled in Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello") rather than what it might mean. Still, Fleming's consideration of Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison as their idiosyncratic husbands' "Presidentresses" ably shows that neither Hillary Clinton nor Eleanor Roosevelt nor even Edith Wilson was the first First Lady to call the shots.
-- Justin Moyer