Tag Archives: LGBT history

Out and about at Valley Forge

About two weeks ago we looked at a press release touting an effort to celebrate LGBT history in various publications.  I found it striking for the number of unsubstantiated assertions it contained.

Now, from the dark recesses of a Google News feed, comes Victoria Brownworth’s creation of a surprisingly gay-friendly George Washington. Personally, I’m not buying it, because I think she jumps to some unwarranted conclusions, but since it’s an interesting foray into historical matters I thought we might analyze it in some detail.

Washington’s letters state that he was less than thrilled with marital life (“not much fire between the sheets”) and preferred the company of men — particularly the young Alexander Hamilton, who he made his personal secretary —  to that of women, as his letters attest. His concern for his male colleagues clearly extended to their personal lives. This was especially true of Hamilton, who he brought with him to Valley Forge, giving Hamilton a cabin to share with his then-lover, John Laurens, to whom Hamilton had written passionate love letters which are still extant.

First of all, if dissatisfaction with married life and a preference for hanging out with the fellas means you’re tolerant of gays, then I think we can safely say that 99.999% of American men are homophobia-free.

As for the stuff about Hamilton and Laurens, it’s hard for me to take it too seriously.  It’s true that Hamilton and Laurens were very close, and that Hamilton’s letters to Laurens are incredibly affectionate and emotional.  Ron Chernow briefly discussed the intense and intimate nature of their correspondence in his biography of Hamilton.  But to state that Hamilton and Laurens were “lovers” is to commit the same historical fallacy that we saw in the article about Baron von Steuben.  The writer takes what is at best a dubious bit of theorizing and presents it as an outright fact.

Alexander Hamilton depicted as a young officer of the Continental Army. Painting by Alonzo Chappel, via Wikimedia Commons

For the life of me, I can’t understand why so many observers are unable to get their heads around the fact that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, intimate friends of the same sex would express intense emotions in their correspondence without having an actual romantic relationship.  It goes back to a point I keep laboring over and over—namely, that people who lived a long time ago were different from us.  For Hamilton to write Laurens that he wanted “to convince you that I love you,” as he put it on one occasion, didn’t necessarily have the same connotations that it has for us today.  In fact, the Marquis de Lafayette referred to Hamilton as a “man whom I love very much and about whom I have occasionally spoken to you” in a letter to his own wife.  If these terms of affection denoted a sexual attraction, why in the world were these guys writing to their wives about it?  (“Guess what, honey? I’ve got the hots for another man!  I knew you’d be happy for me.”)

Even more damning is the indisputable fact that Hamilton was an accomplished skirt-chaser.  It was precisely his inability to stay out of the undergarments of other men’s wives that got him into such trouble later in life, when the husband of his mistress blackmailed him and the whole thing blew up in public.

Hamilton also enjoyed an affectionate marriage.  Although he slept around behind his wife’s back, the two were close, and he managed to get her knocked up no less than eight times.  If Hamilton had a thing for guys, he apparently got over it.  (Laurens got married in England and fathered a child, but he sailed for America not long after the wedding and then died in the war without getting the chance to see his daughter.)

Moving on:

Renowned gay historian Randy Shilts makes the case for Washington’s ever-pragmatic as well as compassionate approach to same-sex relationships in Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.

Shilts details how Washington merely signed the order for discharge of a soldier caught in flagrante with another soldier, and suggests that if Lt. Col. Aaron Burr had not forced the issue, the soldier might have remained at Valley Forge instead of being the first documented case of a discharge for homosexuality in the Continental Army on March 15, 1778 at Valley Forge.

The soldier was court-martialed by Burr, but that was the extent of it. Washington did not flog him, imprison him or as Jefferson had required as part of Virginia law as punishment for sodomy, have him castrated. Washington could also have had the soldier executed. He did none of these things. The soldier just walked away.

He didn’t exactly “just walk away,” though; he got drummed out of camp, which is not at all the same as a simple discharge.  This was a humiliating punishment in which the condemned was publicly marched out to music, formally stripped of rank, and exiled from the camp.  In an age when gentlemen jealously guarded their honor and reputations, this was no small matter.  Brownworth goes on to describe the ritual of drumming out, but doesn’t seem to understand its significance.

Randy Shilts did indeed discuss the Enslin case in Conduct Unbecoming, but he was far more cautious in drawing conclusions from it than Brownworth indicates.  Here’s an excerpt from his book:

Some observers have suggested that Enslin’s sentence is evidence that Washington held a lenient view of homosexuality, since such transgression could have been punishable by imprisonment or even death in the conventions of the day.  (Thomas Jefferson demonstrated his liberalism by proposing a year earlier that sodomy be punished by castration instead of death in the new penal code that would replace Virginia’s Colonial charter.)  This, however, remains speculation.  [Emphasis added.]

Brownworth’s contention that Washington would’ve let the whole thing slide had not Burr “forced the issue” is also rather specious. Signing off on the sentence was about all that Washington, as commanding general of the army, would be expected to do. I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that an officer of Washington’s rank would personally preside over an inquiry into a mere lieutenant’s sexual misconduct.  If anything, Washington seems to have enthusiastically supported Enslin’s expulsion. His general orders for March 14, 1778 betray not the slightest hint of reluctance:

His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return; The Drummers and Fifers to attend on the Grand Parade at Guard mounting for that Purpose.

Brownworth also suggests that “Washington signed the order for discharge more because the case involved fraternization below rank.”  I wish she’d included some sort of citation for this statement, because I don’t see anything to substantiate it.  The court-martial convicted Enslin of sodomy and perjury, not fraternization.  The general orders quoted above make no mention of fraternization, and neither did Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, at least as far as I could find.

Trotting out the rumors of Baron von Steuben’s homosexual dalliances and assuming that they were true, Brownworth then claims that the drillmaster, his assistant, Hamilton, and Laurens all constituted, in her words, “a gay foursome working directly with the leader of the Continental Army.”

Washington obviously considered morale in what was inarguably the most horrific battle station in U.S. military history, the winter at Valley Forge, needed to be upheld. Allowing men their one solace — each other — made sense from a general’s point of view. The less miserable the soldiers, the better they would fight. If keeping each other warm in the bone-crushing cold and abject misery (2,500 soldiers died at Valley Forge from starvation, disease and exposure) made life somewhat more bearable, then Washington had no issue with ignoring homosexuality in his ranks.

I repeat here what I stated with regard to the press release we examined two weeks ago: This whole thing is eerily reminiscent of the sort of historical shenanigans we’ve come to expect from Christian Nationalist writers.  We get poorly-substantiated inferences presented as rock-solid facts, quotes taken out of their proper historical contexts, and elaborate reconstructions of prominent figures’ beliefs and attitudes based on the most precarious foundations.  Still, I’ve got to admit that the idea of Washington willingly looking the other way while four members of his inner circle shacked up at Valley Forge sounds like an awesome premise for a sitcom.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Our gaydar seems to be broken

Here’s an excerpt from a press release that’s been popping up around the Internet for the past few days:

In what is hailed as the largest gay history project of its kind in the nation, 30 U.S. publications serving lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people will celebrate October as Gay History Month by presenting “We are America: How members of the LGBT community helped create the U.S.A.”

This groundbreaking month-long series will provide compelling evidence that our Founding Fathers not only welcomed LGBT people to helped create this country, but without the contributions made by LGBT people, American history might have turned out quite differently.

Based on the information contained in the article, this seems to have little to do with the discipline of LGBT history and more to do with seizing on any possible indication that a given historical figure might have been gay and then running with it as hard and fast as possible.

Take this revelation, for example:

Following the historic repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it might surprise many Americans that the individual often considered the father of the United States military was a gay man: Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. He wrote the “Revolutionary War Drill Manual” and introduced drills, tactics and discipline to the rag-tag militia, which culminated in our independence and victory over the British.

Aside from the failure to properly distinguish between “the rag-tag militia” and the Continental Army, this brief passage contains one whopper of an assumption.  It is by no means certain that Baron von Steuben was gay.  In fact, the case rests mostly on rumors which circulated in Europe before his departure for America.  Steuben was accused of having inappropriate relations with young boys during his service at the court of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen.  One of Steuben’s biographers notes that the rumors “were never proven, but they were no less damning than if they had been.”  They squelched a hoped-for military appointment by the Margrave of Baden, leaving Steuben to travel around Europe in search of employment. Eventually he ended up in Paris, where (through the French Minister of War) he met Benjamin Franklin, and the rest is history.

Baron von Steuben, by Charles Wilson Peale via Wikimedia Commons

There is some additional, circumstantial evidence that Steuben may have been homosexual, but it’s not terribly impressive; it rests mostly on close relationships he had with male contemporaries, and of course such emotional relationships were not as unusual in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they would be today.  My point is not to argue that Steuben was straight—perhaps he wasn’t—but simply to demonstrate that the writer or writers have jumped across the gulf between possibility and certainty without so much as a backward glance.  (They’re not the only ones to do so.  Google “Baron von Steuben gay” and you’ll find website after website proclaiming Steuben’s homosexuality with absolute certainty, completely unaware of the tenuous nature of the case for it.)

We’re also told flatly that Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful,” was a lesbian.  Again, this is a case of manufactured certainty.  The contested belief that Bates was a lesbian relies on her relationship with Katharine Corman, with whom she lived until the latter’s death from cancer, and to whom she dedicated a book.  The exact nature of their relationship is uncertain, but you’d never know it by reading the press release.

In a particularly desperate attempt, we’re also told that “it is impossible to refute that [James] Buchanan might have been gay.”  No kidding; it’s “impossible to refute” that a great many people were gay, in the same way that’s impossible to refute that James Buchanan was really a walrus dressed in a rubber human costume.  But history doesn’t operate on the basis of whether or not something is “impossible to refute.”  It operates on the basis of whether or not something is probable in light of the evidence available to us.  In the case of Buchanan, what we’re dealing with once again is rumor and innuendo, based on his very close relationship with William Rufus King and contradicted by references to women in his letters.

Finally and inevitably, the press release trots out the ever-trusty gay Abraham Lincoln question, ignoring or unaware of the ways that proponents of the gay Lincoln meme have misinterpreted masculine relations of the nineteenth century.

Let me stress again that what irks me is not the argument that any or all of these historical figures may have been gay; perhaps some of them were, though in the case of all except for Bates, I very much doubt it.  What bothers me is the substitution of certainty where it doesn’t exist.  Debate has been transformed into fact, and many readers will be misled and exposed to bad history as a result.

I doubt either party would appreciate the comparison, but this whole article reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Christian Nationalist pseudohistorians.  In both cases, what we have is not really an attempt to understand a phenomenon (whether religion or sexuality) within its proper historical context, but rather an attempt to jump on any pretext—no matter how unsubstantiated or unlikely—which allows you to claim a prominent American figure as a member of a particular group.  It has about as much to do with the discipline of LGBT history as the notion that Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge has to do with the history of American religion.

6 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory