by Victoria A. Brownworth
Tea Party leaders have taken a revisionist view of early American history, insisting that the Founding Fathers were not revolutionaries and radicals, but arch-conservatives.
Delving into the Founding Fathers’ own papers indicates something altogether different. Some of the Founding Fathers leaned right, but the majority were anti-monarchists, Freemasons and atheists who held what modern historical language would term a secularist and globalist view. In some cases — like George Washington’s — this included a strong gay-friendly attitude.
Among the Founding Fathers were definitive class biases. Most of these men, like Washington (1732-99) and Thomas Jefferson, were wealthy land- and slave-owners who led aristocratic lifestyles and were elitist toward the “lower” classes. Socialists these men were not. Yet some of their personal ethics and standards reveal that they were more open to what would be considered a “modern,” 21st-century perspective on life, love and sexuality than might be presumed in the stodgy, post-Puritan 18th-century colonies.
This was particularly true of Washington, whose stance on homosexuality, which at the time was punishable by imprisonment, castration and even death throughout the colonies, was noticeably — even dramatically — relaxed in comparison to many of his cohorts. His personal correspondence and diaries bear this out.
As his letters (over 17,000 have been collected) and diaries affirm, Washington was above all a pragmatist. This made him a superb military strategist.
Washington’s views on democracy, liberty and the codified “pursuit of happiness” that current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited specifically in his ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned federal sodomy laws, were straightforward. Washington’s letters, diaries, military papers and conversations with friends and colleagues of his era were all succinct: He believed in freedom with discipline; he was left-leaning, but no anarchist. He looked the other way on matters that may have otherwise raised eyebrows when it was the pragmatic thing to do, as he would throughout his tenure as both military leader and leader of the nation.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact Washington had on both the founding of the nation and, of course, the winning of the Revolutionary War. Part of Washington’s genius as a strategist was his ability to rally troops — literally. Documentation from the era states without equivocation that Washington inspired tremendous loyalty in all levels of his military. By all accounts a man’s man, Washington was superb at all kinds of sport. Considered the best horseman of his time and one of the strongest men any of his compatriots had ever met, his feats of strength were regularly recorded.
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, whom he made his personal secretary — to that of women. His concern for his male colleagues clearly extended to their personal lives. This was especially true of Hamilton, whom 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 that are still extant.
Washington himself had married late for the time — at 28 — and to a wealthy widow, Martha Custis. They raised her two children from her first marriage, but had none of their own. Letters of Washington’s make clear that while he cared deeply for Martha and her children, there was no passion between them. Nor are there records of Washington’s dalliances with other women.
Washington’s passion was reserved for his work and the men with whom he served closely, notably Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. When Hamilton was a young soldier — later to be made Secretary of the Treasury by Washington — he was engaged in relationships with other men, as love letters he sent during the Revolutionary War prove.
Historians assert that passionate same-sex friendships were normative in the 18th century. At the same time, however, sodomy and open homosexuality were punishable by imprisonment, castration and even death, both in and out of the military.
However, as historian Kai Wright notes in “Soldiers of Freedom,” the military was often far more advanced on social issues than civilian life and cites the desegregation of the military on race and gender as examples. Thus Washington’s laissez-faire attitude toward homosexuality at Valley Forge fits that construct. Washington was a gay-friendly pragmatist who put the importance of the revolutionary struggle above the concerns of civilian life.
The most succinct evidence for this was Washington’s clear “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy when it came to same-sex coupling among his regiments at Valley Forge.
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.
What makes this so stunning as proof of Washington’s leniency on homosexuality in the military is the context.
When Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin was drummed out of the corps (literally) for homosexuality, it seems that Washington signed the order for discharge more because the case involved fraternization below rank.
According to military documents, Enslin was caught having sexual relations with Pvt. John Monhart by Ensign Anthony Maxwell.
Enslin was court-martialed and found guilty of sodomy and perjury for lying.
Monhart was neither court-martialed nor discharged. Whether he was underage — many privates in the Continental Army were 14, 15 and 16 — and this was the actual reason Enslin was discharged is unknown.
That Washington looked the other way with same-sex couples is most obvious in his dealings with Maj. Gen. Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian military genius enlisted to strategize at Valley Forge. Von Steuben arrived at the encampment two weeks before Enslin’s discharge and with his young French assistant, Pierre Etienne Duponceau, who was presumed to be his lover, in tow, making Enslin’s subsequent discharge ironic and reinforcing the theory that it was Burr, not Washington, who compelled the action.
Von Steuben is perhaps the best-known gay man in American military history. Although his sexual orientation is rarely mentioned and has been excised from standard history books, his role in winning the Revolutionary War was incomparable and second only to Washington’s own. As inspector general and major general of the Continental Army, he taught drills, tactics and maneuvers. He authored the “Revolutionary War Drill Manual,” which was used through the War of 1812, and his other maneuvers were used for more than 150 years.
Von Steuben’s relationship with Washington was close and there were no conflicts with Washington over von Steuben’s sleeping arrangements at Valley Forge with his young Frenchman, Duponceau. What’s more, because von Steuben’s English was limited but his French was perfect, Washington assigned his own secretary and one of his aides-de-camp to von Steuben.
Who were the men? Lt. Cols. Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, who shared a cabin at Valley Forge at Washington’s bequest.
It’s not revisionist to assert that Washington’s pattern of ignoring same-sex relationships at Valley Forge was both indicative of his pragmatic nature (without von Steuben, Hamilton, Lafayette and others, America might still be a colony of the British) and of his seeming lack of concern over homosexuality.
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.
Over the decades of his military service, Washington spent his most emotional and life-altering timeS with other men. He certainly knew of the relationships between Hamilton and Laurens, von Steuben and Duponceau, and yet brought none of them up on charges.
Washington didn’t just look the other way but specifically sought to help these gay soldiers. Washington didn’t think morale suffered with gay soldiers serving under him or even, in the case of von Steuben and Hamilton, being his key strategists. Rather, he saw these men for their value to him and to the nation — a fact that should be added to every American history textbook.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and founder of Tiny Satchel Press. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books, including “Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.”