Male friendships during the early Republic played an important role in its politics. The bonds between the Lees of Virginia and the Adamses of Massachusetts, between George Washington and James Madison, between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are often noted even in brief biographical sketches. On the other hand, intimate male friendship—enshrined in Western myth and honored in Western history as ennobling and virtuous since classical times—has generally been ignored in studies of the politics and culture of the period. Until its last decade, twentieth-century historians confronted by the devotion and anguish of the love letters that such friends wrote each other have veiled their meaning with a dismissive remark about the flowery language of the times. In fact, intimate male friendship seems to have flowered in the early Republic, fueled in part by the cultural role of the Continental Army and the male bonding inherent in war, but also perhaps by the need to define republican citizenship differently than colonial citizenship. Consequently, it was not shocking in 1826 that George Washington Parke Custis published newspaper articles identifying Robert Morris as the man whom George Washington really loved and who "had the privilege of his heart," or comparing the relationship between his step-grandfather and General Nathanial Greene to that of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion.
These intimate male friendships did not generally occur in the absence of women; indeed many of the men married or had sexual relations with women. Nevertheless, the question of whether there was a genital sexual component to any of these relationships is raised by the passionate and—to modern ears—homoerotic language of the letters and diaries, as well as by the argument that intimate male friendship was one of the roots that gave rise to homosexual culture in the twentieth century. We may never know the answer because in the early Republic sexuality was seldom the subject of the written discourses on which historians rely, the exception being political attacks such as those suffered by Jefferson and Hamilton.
notable early american intimate male friendships
While early American historians have only begun to discover and study these friendships in and of themselves or within the social context in which they existed, the source materials are rich.
Peter Charles L'Enfant and Swedish Consul Richard Soderstrom began living together in Philadelphia in 1794 when the planner of Washington, D.C., moved to the city to build a mansion for Robert Morris. Ten years later the relationship ended in federal district court. The emotionally charged self-defense that the French-born American put on paper, and kept all of his life, indicates that the lawsuit is better described as palimony rather than settlement of accounts.
Two hours before being blown up in Tripoli harbor, United States Navy Captain Richard Somers gave fellow naval hero and soon-to-be-inconsolable Captain Stephen Decatur a gold ring engraved "Tripoli 1804" on the outside and "R.S. to S.D. 1804" on the inside. A better documented though unexplored military friendship was that between William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. Built on mutual respect and trust, the relationship was strong enough to support a voluntarily shared command over a United States Army unit that explored the North American continent from the mouth of the Missouri River to the mouth of the Columbia River from 1804 to 1806.
Another well documented intimate friendship was that among former Continental Army General Frederick Steuben and his two aides, Colonels William North and Benjamin Walker. Steuben had come to manhood in a Germanic culture that, as Stephen Jaeger notes, was experiencing the revival of passionate male friendships rooted in admiration of the male physique. North, who believed that the three veterans should live together and that his and Walker's wife should submit to the situation, stood at the center of the triad, comfortably expressing love to both men while at the same time struggling to understand the meaning of the friendship.
Other examples of intimate male friendships include Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, Robert Fulton and Joel Barlow, William Wirt and Dabney Carr, Rep. George Thatcher and Thomas B. Wait of Maine, the abolitionists Theodore Dwight Weld and Charles Stuart, the South Carolinians Jeffrey Withers and James Hammond, the Brown University students Virgil Maxy and William Blanding, and, in fiction, Natty Bumppo and Chingachook.
E. Anthony Rotundo, who finds little evidence of male friendship in the late eighteenth century outside of the Continental Army, sees the phenomenon throughout the nineteenth century as a rather commonplace bonding between young adult males during the transition between their childhood and marriage. He discusses several such intimate relationships, concluding that most resembled a marriage in which genital sexual activity was not allowed but caressing, kissing and other forms of physical affection in and out of bed was.
Donald Yacovone argues that American fraternal love was modeled on classical tradition and particularly on agape, the love of the early Christian Church inspired by Christ's love for humanity and the twelve disciples' love for Christ. Thus, a man's character was measured by his ability to be gentle and affectionate as well as strong. Fraternal love was, according to Yacovone, a remarkably constant and pervasive cultural ideal from the Puritan settlement until the second decade of the twentieth century.
In the most sophisticated study of the subject to date, Caleb Crain mentions or explores several intimate friendships, including those of Daniel Webster and James Bingham and Charles Brockden Brown and various men. John Mifflin and James Gibson recorded their relationship in shared diaries in 1786 and 1787, the sources from which Crain so ably, and in such detail, reconstructs their intimacy. That Mifflin's mother and her neighbor Mary Norris both welcomed the older Gibson into their sons' beds is shown to be quite ordinary. Crain suggests the thesis that male romantic friendship was better suited as a metaphor and model for republican citizenship than the filial parent-child metaphor that had defined the relationship between the American colonies and England, or even a marital metaphor because women were not full citizens in the early Republic.
While some attempt has been made to categorize these friendships as egalitarian or dependent, all such categories—other than older/younger—seem to fall apart. Was the Hamilton–Laurens relationship egalitarian given the class distinctions? Was the French aristocrat Lafayette, whose support Washington desperately needed, really the dependent partner? How long, if ever, was the L'Enfant–Soderstrom relationship egalitarian?
Crain argues that democracy's assault on the culture of sympathy and sensibility at the close of the early Republic wounded intimate male friendship, citing Tocqueville's observation that the direct expression of love between men was becoming stigmatized in the United States by 1831. That the wound was not mortal can be seen in the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, and, most strikingly, in the many surviving photographs of male friends. The gradual adoption of the concept of homosexuality in the United States after World War I (the word entered the English Language in 1892), and the resulting concern of males that they not be so targeted finally struck the death blow.
See alsoManliness and Masculinity .
Bowling, Kenneth R. Peter Charles L'Enfant: Vision, Honor and Male Friendship in the Early American Republic. Washington, D.C.: The Friends of The George Washington University Libraries, 2002.
Dietcher, David. Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840–1918. New York: Abrams, 2001.
Halperin, David M. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002.
Jaeger, C. Stephen. Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Yacovone, Donald, "Surpassing the Love of Women." In A Shared Experience: Men, Women, and the History of Gender. Laura McCall and Donald Yacovone, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Kenneth R. Bowling