Popular historian Fleming (The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, 2007, etc.) takes a rosy look at the enduring marriages of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, despite some dalliances, separations and extreme job pressure.
The author is determined to restore the honor to these great men, whose lives have been dissected ceaselessly for evidence of human fallibility—especially Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings probably resulted in several children. Fleming doesn’t buy it, and he’s holding out for the results of DNA testing. Instead he underscores Jefferson’s tender devotion to Martha Skelton, who died after ten years of marriage in 1782, leaving him with only their daughter to comfort him. Washington, despite a youthful rejection, made a spectacular match in the wealthy widow Martha Custis and was put in charge of her 17,000-acre Virginia estate. The evidence shows he grew to love his sweet-tempered, practical wife, despite their inability to have children, while she found him a manly pillar of strength and a good stepfather to her children. Franklin had an “ungovernable sex drive” and married his landlord’s daughter Deborah, who was then forced to raise his illegitimate son as her own. She did not accompany him to Paris as emissary, and after she died he was a great favorite of the ladies, even proposing marriage to his beloved Madame Helvetius. In the chapters on Adams and Madison, their strong wives take over the narratives with a presidential agenda of their own—Abigail Adams as a protofeminist, and Dolly Madison as an inimitable hostess. Hamilton married a rich man’s daughter, flirted with his sister-in-law, indulged in a seduction by a speculator’s wife and was blackmailed by the husband. He died scrambling to repair the marriage and, we are assured, racked by guilt.
Applying the kid-glove treatment to his subjects, the author doesn’t unearth much that hasn’t been picked over before.