Lorri Glover is the author of the new book Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries. Her other books include The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown and Southern Sons. She is the John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair in the Department of History at Saint Louis University.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the family lives of the founders in your new book?
A: Despite Americans' knowing so much about the political careers and civic accomplishments of leading members of the Revolutionary generation, we understand surprisingly little about their family lives and especially about the ways family values shaped their careers and, in turn, how the Revolution transformed family life.
For example, Thomas Jefferson had completely retired from politics in 1782 to devote himself to his family at Monticello. Then his adored wife, Martha Jefferson, died.
James Madison, his closest friend, rather callously speculated there might be a political opportunity in Jefferson’s devastating loss: “perhaps this domestic catastrophe may prove in its operation beneficial to his country by weaning him from those attachments which deprived it of his services.”
And he was right. To escape his heartbreak, Jefferson agreed to move to France and become an ambassador, which marked the beginning of a second career in politics that ran for the next 20 years.
Q: You write that George Washington “sometimes reluctantly but always consistently chose his country over domestic life.” Were the other Founding Fathers as willing as Washington to make those sacrifices?
A: Almost none were. Most of the leaders of the Revolution moved in and out of public service based on family obligations.
Patrick Henry, for example, was very reluctant to take on any national office or even travel outside Virginia despite being incredibly talented and influential, because he had 16 children by two wives. His first wife want insane during the 1770s and her family confined her to the basement of her home, leaving him essentially a single father for several years. Supporting his children was paramount in Henry’s mind, and so he usually fit his political service around that family duty.
Washington often said he preferred life at Mount Vernon with Martha and her children but his sense of civic obligation, his commitment to building a strong republic, and his ambition and quest for fame pulled him onto the political stage, time and again.
Q: How would you characterize the differences between the upbringing of boys and girls in the families you examined?
A: Many of the underlying values and expectations were the same because of the American Revolution. The Revolution made developing individual talents and self-determination central to childrearing, regardless of gender.
But boys and girls acted out those shared values in very different ways. A talented girl developed appropriate female talents — making pies and puddings or playing a musical instrument, for example. And most importantly of all, young women needed to attract and wisely chose a respectable husband. The ultimate success of a white woman was a happy marriage and upstanding children.
Boys, meanwhile studied Latin and oratory in order to prove themselves in a respectable career, like law or business. The ultimate measure of a man was whether he was worthy of serving in public office.
Q: You write, “Virginia’s presidents confronted a new issue, one unfamiliar to men of their fathers’ generation: Should family matter in politics?” What was their answer to this question, and how did it affect political life of that era?
A: In the colonial period, men served in public office mostly as a reflection of their rank in society–which was determined by their family ties—and for the benefit of their kin. What we think of as nepotism was just the standard operating procedure in colonial America.
But Revolutionary-era values emphasized equality and self-determination, which meant that white men needed to actually compete for political power based on their individual abilities. And governing was now about serving the greater public good.
So, increasingly, merit ran headlong into family interests. The most powerful leaders of the Revolution decided that individual men should make their own way into political office rather than power running through family blood lines. Certainly, they helped their kin when they could, but they tried to live up to the ideal of a meritocracy—that governing based on talent and accomplishment would make the republic stronger.
One consequence of this was that men like George Washington and James Madison welcomed into their homes and presidential administrations young protégés to whom they had no family ties but who they considered part of their innermost circles because of their talents. They sometimes called this their “political family.” Washington’s wartime relationship with Lafayette, which took on a father-son dynamic, is a great example of a widespread pattern.
A: Right now I am writing a book about the 1788 debates in Virginia over whether to ratify the Constitution. The formal debates pitted James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution and its most formidable advocate, against Patrick Henry, the most powerful man in Virginia who made no bones about his contempt for the Constitution.
The record [of] the month-long formal debates is extensive, the drama unsurpassed in early American history, and the final outcome stunningly close: 89-79 in favor of the Constitution. Five votes swung in the other direction would have undone the Constitution and changed the course of American history. I am having great fun witnessing this history unfold.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope that readers of Founders as Fathers will come away with a clearer understanding of the familial context and costs of the American Revolution. I hope, too, that by seeking to capture the founders’ complexity and their vulnerabilities and humanity that I’ve offered some fresh insight into famous men we’ve too often cast in marble or seen as larger-than-life paragons of a lost American ideal.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb