The Intimate Lives Of The Founding Fathers, by Thomas Fleming
At times my friends comment that I am something of an eighteenth century man, and I take that term as a compliment . Like Abraham Lincoln , I too have looked back to the Founding Fathers of the United States, for all their flaws, as people who can serve as a model of worthiness in terms of handling the public trust and dealing with problems such as virtue and ambition in the political realm. This book comments at length about the political culture of the time, which like American culture until the Progressive Age, tended to frown on politicians who made too big of a show of their ambition for high office. The American people, and those who chose leaders, tended to prefer those who were available but did not try too hard, who had enough restraint to wish to be invited into high office rather than pounding the door down aggressively. Fortunately, the late 18th century in the United States was full of people who were adept in aspects of political arts and the people as a whole were able to appreciate civic virtue on the part of leaders, which made the United States, thanks be to God, a far more fortunate nation than the vast majority of the earth.
This book is skillfully written and organized, looking at the private lives of a small set of illustrious founding fathers, a selection that seeks to blend depth (at about 400 pages of narrative, it has some heft) as well as a wise selection of what amounts to case studies in the family lives of various American founders. The list of worthy names is as follows: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Few could quibble with this list of the top six American founders as making a sufficiently robust case study, each case ranging between three and five chapters, averaging around 60-70 pages apiece, allowing for significant depth in the role of parents and wives and personal psychology in explaining the lives and decisions of these men. This book, although it deals with its titular concern of the founding fathers, spends a great deal of time showing how the fame of these great men is due in large part to the considerable virtues of their wives, which ought to remind us never to reject the importance of those for whom law, custom, and tradition have given short shift in terms of praise and celebration, even if that historical wrong is being repaid rapidly in kind in reverse in our corrupt and biased contemporary culture. Ultimately, the author argues (and I concur with his statements) that such founding fathers as George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison owe a great deal of their ultimate reputation to the excellence of their wives.
Despite the excellence of this book, there are many reasons why it is painful reading for me personally, although others may not take this book so personally. One of the difficulties I had with this book is the fact that a lot of the discussion about families and the search for a good wife and the difficulties of family background struck too close to home. The chapter on George Washington discusses Washington’s famous restraint, which allowed him to show a dignity that hid his intense anger at the unfair criticism he suffered as president. John Adams and his neuroses are well-explored, and that worthy and honest man was well-served by having a wife who could help steady him and give him wise counsel as well as a vent for his considerable feelings. Alexander Hamilton married well, but the damages of his harrowing childhood left deep scars, and left him deeply susceptible to manipulative and flirtatious damsels in distress. Madison was deeply intelligent but painfully shy in courtship, having his first engagement in his early 30’s end in embarrassment to a pretty sixteen year old who fell for a young man closer to her age and retracted her engagement to him, leaving him deeply humiliated. The founding fathers of our nation were not granite statues, but rather people with a nature like ours, and in many cases painfully close to my own. If the book seems to dwell a bit too long on the problem of Thomas Jefferson’s reputation in light of the Sally Hemmings affair, this is only a minor quibble in a book that is a deeply humane and scholarly work that appeals to both the head and the heart. What more can one ask for than that?
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