Even as nineteenth-century biographers sought to ignore or suppress it, there’s rarely been much shortage of gossip about the sex lives of the Founding Fathers. Cassandra Good’s new book, Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (OUP, 2015), offers a warning to readers of eighteenth-century relationships who can be all too ready to embrace the temptations of scandal—these letters might sometimes look like thin veils for a seething sexuality beneath, “but a careful consideration of how people expressed emotion and an openness to the notion that men and women could be friends offers new, more nuanced readings,” Good argues. Scandalizing male-female relationships only serves to place them beyond the purview of ordinary life. Founding Friendships reminds us that women’s presence in the world shouldn’t come as a surprise, and that their roles were never limited to wives, mothers, and sex-objects.
At the same time, male-female friendships among the early republic’s elite weren’t without their difficulties. The bulk of Good’s book is devoted to analyzing the tricky boundaries and conventions that structured these friendships’ form and content. Just what could a man write to a female friend, and vice versa? When and where could two friends spend time with each other? How easily could they acknowledge their feelings, or even understand them? Good uncovers the complexity of these questions, putting pressure on gender’s intersection with propriety and respectability, while continually nudging the reader away from salacious interpretations. Founding Friendships reads more like a carefully-organized set of index cards than a polemic, but it’s clear what the point is: cross-gender friendship both was and is a reality, and society will be the richer when we can grow up and understand that.
In her determination to take the complexity of personal relationships seriously, Good confronts the borderland between different kinds of relationships. Whether or not it always gets in the way, it’s clear you can’t completely take “the sex thing” out of friendship. Be it the emotional frisson Abigail Adams got from James Lovell’s suggestive letters, or the sheer brazenness of the miniature Sarah Goodridge sent to Daniel Webster, sexuality had something to add to these male-female friendships that couldn’t be ignored. If companionate marriage was supposed to represent “the pinnacle of fulfillment for both men and women,” neither friendship nor sex were ever perfectly contained by institutions.
In a final chapter on “The Power of Friendship,” Good looks towards the political role of cross-gender relationships. She suggests that friendship entails “a different sort of power,” one that “works through persuasion and influence, collaboration and reciprocity, rather than dominance.” But crucially, “only elites could enter into the types of friendships… that allowed them to exercise influence… Power through collaboration… was premised on class distinctions that determined who the collaborators could be.” The world of elite friendship did more to facilitate class power than it did to model equality for all, and as working-class white men gained power in the nineteenth century, “female politicians” lost much of their influence.
Good might have told a much darker story about gender, power, risk, and reputation. Instead, her account resists the notion that the kinds of friendships she describes were inherently unstable, unequal, and ultimately impossible. With imagination, she concludes, individuals two hundred years ago overcame structures of discourse—in what some might see as a (rather schmaltzy) triumph over Foucauldian pessimism, “the quest for emotional fulfillment” in the end “defied the rules of convention.”