Summary: 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. -- Smithsonian
My father is always up for a good read about American History. In fact, I think I buy him a book on some famous president as a gift almost every holiday season. So when I heard about THE INTIMATE LIVES OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS by Thomas Fleming, I knew it was right up his alley. Needless to say, he thoroughly enjoyed this book (as evident in how much information was spouted off to my mom and me!)
Here are his thoughts:
One of my favorite reading subjects is the early history of the United States so I was excited to read Thomas Fleming’s THE INTIMATE LIVES OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS. Fleming gives the reader an amazing insight into the roles women played in the lives of the six men often credited with playing the largest role in the birth of our nation.
The book is divided into six sections; each section is dedicated to one of the founding fathers, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.
We all have read enough history to know the achievements of these great men. Fleming goes well beyond these actions and shares with the reader how the private lives of these leaders influenced these achievements.
The one thing that struck me while reading the book was how much sacrifice these individuals and their families made in serving their country. In most case there were long periods of separation. Adams, Jefferson and Madison dealt with these separations with great reluctance while Franklin literally abandoned his American wife for several years without much remorse.
We also become familiar with the families of these great men. Washington had no children but assumed responsibility for Martha’s children from a prior marriage. Martha’s son was a difficult problem for Washington. Fleming also describes the arduous relationship between Washington and his mother. It was very interesting to learn how often Martha joined her husband during the War for Independence. We know of Franklin’s illegitimate son but we now learn of his son’s illegitimate child. We become familiar with the many women in Franklin’s life. The author tells of the great trials and tribulations Abigail Adams suffered not only during her husband’s long absences but also during his controversial presidency. We learn of Jefferson’s reluctance to play a role in the government because of his wife’s illnesses and we become aware of his infatuation with another woman while serving as ambassador to France. The author expounds (maybe excessively) on the controversial relationship between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings. Fleming shares with the reader the promiscuity of Hamilton’s mother, Hamilton’s own infidelity, his son’s death in a duel and his reconciliation with his wife. He describes Madison being jilted by his first love and then his courtship of Dolly, possibly the most popular First Lady.
Letter writing was the only form of communications at the time so you can imagine how long it took to conclude an issue between governments or to receive a communiqué from an individual. I was surprised by the volume and sensitivity of letter writing between these men and women. The letters were beautifully written and quite explicit. It’s quite a contrast with today’s shorthand text messages and cell phone calls.
I was also awed by the difficult lives of these women. Not only were they left alone to run farms and plantations and rear children, but at the time pregnancy and child bearing were extremely dangerous and infant mortality rates were very high. For example, Martha Washington and Martha Jefferson each lost four children.
It’s apparent that each of these men knew that history was in the making so all the women in the lives of the founding fathers had to deal with fame which made much of their private lives very public. Some of them like Dolly Madison dealt with this very well. Others like Abigail Adams were consumed by it. Scrupulous reporting and political dirty tricks was not reserved solely for the twenty-first century.
There are many great stories in this book addressing the inner strength of these women. In fact Adams and Madison most likely would not have reached their potential but for the driving forces of their wives. My favorite story regarding the strength of these women was the account of the actions of Dolly Madison during the British assault on Washington D.C. in the War of 1812.
Thomas Fleming uses his great storytelling skills to present in depth portraits of our founding fathers that are very human and give the reader an even greater appreciation of their accomplishments. If you like reading about history, you will love this book.
Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his excellent review and to the publisher for providing a review copy.