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George Washington: The gay-friendly father of our country
National Gay History Project
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. Among the Republican presidential contenders for 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann both contend the men who built America (with slaves who were, according to Bachmann, deeply grateful to be slaves) were red-staters before there were even states.
Delving into the Founding Father’s 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 strongly gay-friendly attitude.
Among the Founding Fathers there 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. (Washington noted in a letter, for example, that those not of the upper classes were to be “treated civilly” but to be kept “at a proper distance, for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority.”) Socialists these men were not. Yet some of their personal ethics and standards would 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 at the University of Virginia) and diaries affirm, Washington was above all a pragmatist. That pragmatism made him a superb military strategist and also increased his wealth as a Virginia landowner long before he headed the Continental Army or became the first president (president, as he refused to be made king, because of his anti-monarchist stance).
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.
One of these issues was homosexuality in the military.
Many historians have tried to place Washington on the modern political spectrum in revisionist categories, but Washington was a diligent, even obsessive recorder of every detail of his life down to minutiae of his personal, military, political and even agricultural experiences. His own records of his life and that of his milieu stand for themselves.
In 2007, Washington’s home in Philadelphia was excavated in an archeological dig, reviving questions about his slaveholding in the first White House in Philadelphia. An example of Washington’s shift in personal politics, however, is his stance on slavery. When Washington was 11, his father died, leaving him 10 slaves. Washington increased his slaveholding between wars to more than 100 slaves as he acquired land in Virginia as a monied aristocrat. But then he inserted a codicil to his will that his slaves — 318 in all — were to be freed upon his death.
Such acts were contrary to the Southern politic on slaveholding and Washington died in 1799 — well before abolition had taken hold in the country. Even more dramatic, however, was Washington’s stance on homosexuality, which evolved well before his views on slavery as has been chronicled by historians and military documents (Washington’s own and others) from Valley Forge.
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. All the 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 — Jefferson wrote extensively about Washington’s prowess — and one of the strongest men any of his compatriots had ever met, his feats of strength were regularly recorded.
That personal strength combined with a strength of purpose and integrity; he had values and he didn’t waver on those. This is what drew other men to him and what made him a great leader.
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.
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 no children of their own. (Washington was thought to be sterile either from a bout of smallpox or a fever in childhood.) 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, as there are with Thomas Jefferson, for example, who was a womanizer with both colonial and slave women.
Washington’s passion was reserved for his work and for 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 and then president himself — 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.
While some have tried to make the case for Washington being gay predicated on his special friendships, there’s nothing in his papers that could be considered proof the way his growing queasiness about slave-owning was proven by his will. Nevertheless, Washington was certainly gay-friendly.
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 and an irrefutable proof of Washington’s leniency on homosexuality in the military is the context. (Bear in mind Washington’s earlier dictate about those of lower station.)
When Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin was drummed out of the corps (literally, because being discharged dishonorably from the military was a dramatic affair that included a solemn drum beat, a tearing of the uniform and a breaking of the sword over the head of the discharged soldier) 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.
At Valley Forge, soldiers of like rank shared cabins. Maxwell went to Burr, his commanding officer, with the accusation. Enslin denied it and accused Maxwell of slander. Burr then court-martialed Maxwell for the slander of a senior officer, but in the course of the proceedings, determined it was Enslin who was lying, not Maxwell. Maxwell was found not guilty and, 11 days later, Enslin was court-martialed and found guilty of sodomy and perjury against Maxwell.
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 he enlisted to help him strategize at Valley Forge. Von Steuben arrived at the encampment two weeks before Enslin’s discharge and arrived 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, his job was to teach 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 also came to Valley Forge as a known homosexual: It was Benjamin Franklin who provided the letters of recommendation to Washington, but Franklin was aware that von Steuben had been implicated in relationships with boys and young men and had been expelled from the court of Frederick the Great for homosexual behavior and was on the verge of being prosecuted when he left Germany for France.
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. Col. Alexander Hamilton and Lt. Col. John Laurens, who shared a cabin at Valley Forge at Washington’s bequest. And as noted historian Jonathan Katz details, Hamilton and Laurens were lovers. Hamilton wrote letters expressing his love for Laurens (“I wish, dear Laurens ... to convince you that I love you.”). And Washington, who had to have known the nature of their relationship due to his own closeness with Hamilton, situated the two together at Valley Forge and then connected them with von Steuben and Duponceau--a gay foursome working directly with the leader of the Continental Army.
Laurens would later die in the war and has since been claimed as the first gay war hero in the U.S. by gay military groups.
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.
It is significant that the only soldier discharged for homosexuality was Enslin--who was investigated by Burr, not Washington.
It’s also a matter of record that Washington himself honorably discharged a passing woman, Deborah Sampson, who served in the Continental Army disguised as a man, Robert Shurtlieff. Sampson, who was alleged to have had relationships with other women during her time in the Continental Army, was wounded several times. In order to maintain her “male” identity, she carved a musket ball out of her own thigh with a penknife and sewed the wound herself with her sewing kit rather than have her gender revealed to an Army medic. (Her grandson, ironically named George Washington Gay, later arranged for a statue memorializing her in Massachusetts.)
Prior to her service in the Continental Army, Sampson had been arrested in church for dressing like a man--and was arrested for the same “crime” after the war. So Sampson’s case and Washington’s involvement was particularly telling. In other instances women had been arrested and court-martialed (ironically) for trying to serve as men in the Army.
Over the decades of his military service, Washington spent his most emotional and life-altering time 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 and historical record confirms that these men were indeed lovers.
Washington didn’t just look the other way but specifically sought to help these gay soldiers as well as that passing woman, Sampson. This is irrefutable proof--in Washington’s own records and that of others--that the Father of Our Country was gay-friendly toward his key military personnel at the most pivotal point in American history. 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 author.