One Nation Under Sex
How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and their Lovers Changed the Course of American History
By Larry Flynt, David Eisenbach
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach
All rights reserved.
FOUNDING FLIRTS AND FORNICATORS
The first White House sex scandal erupted even before the building's construction was finished. Betsy Donahue, the wife of a carpenter working on the White House, opened a brothel for the construction workers in a shanty in President's Park. Federal commissioners did not care that the workmen gambled and drank, but when Mrs. Donahue began pulling her husband's coworkers off the construction site for afternoon quickies, that was too much. Betsy was arrested and her shanty was torn down on July 20, 1795. Other than its location on White House property, Mrs. Donahue's sex business was not unique during the Revolutionary period, when prostitution was the full-time occupation of 1 in 25 women in America's cities. Today we tend to imagine the people who built the early Republic to have been as dignified and composed as the historic documents they left behind. The Founders were indeed noble and gracious, but they were also earthy, lusty and as interested in sex and sex scandal as we are today. Like America's leaders throughout history, the Founders had vigorous sex drives and vibrant sex lives that played a major role in building our nation.
The Founders might have declared independence on July 4, 1776, but unless they backed up their high-minded words and ideals with weapons and blood, the British army was sure to crush the great American experiment. In the first year of the war, the British invasion force outnumbered the rebels two to one. Since the Continental Congress had no money, no system of taxation and no credit to build an adequate fighting force, America desperately needed France's recognition and more importantly its army and navy. Louis XVI hated the British and was willing to send covert arms shipments, but he did not like the idea of openly supporting a revolution against a fellow monarch and was certainly in no hurry to side with a loser. The Continental Congress understood that the French government was not going to be won over with appeals to liberty or geostrategic interest; to win their full support, the French had to be courted and seduced. The trick was to find an ambassador who could charm the right French nobles and galvanize popular opinion in favor of the Revolutionary cause.
The Continental Congress looked for an ambassador who would be open-minded about French sensibilities, particularly their sexual mores, which appalled most Americans. John Adams said of eighteenth-century Paris, "There is everything here too which can seduce, betray, deceive, corrupt and debauch." Paris at the time had over 14,000 legally registered prostitutes, an army larger than George Washington's Continental army. To the average eighteenth-century American, all Frenchwomen would have looked like whores, with their cheeks painted in bright, round, three-inch-wide patches of rouge and their hairdos towering more than a foot high. To avoid messing their rouged cheeks, Frenchwomen greeted men by offering their necks to be kissed. According to Thomas Jefferson, Parisian women spent their days "hunting pleasure in the streets," while "our own countrywomen are occupied in the tender and tranquil amusements of domestic life." Jefferson reduced the difference between French and American women to "a comparison of Amazons and angels" and observed that Frenchmen "consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice and inconsistent with happiness." French visitors to America also noticed the stark cultural divide over sex. French politician Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville noted in 1788 that almost all marriages in America "are happy and, being happy, are pure," because unlike Frenchwomen, American ladies were "entirely devoted to their households" and thought "about nothing but making their husbands happy and about bringing up their children well."
If an ambassador to France was to be successful, he had to suspend his male chauvinism because French women ran the salons that were the center of political intrigue, social life and popular opinion. The American ambassador needed to be able to win over the ladies, gain admittance to the salons and negotiate the delicate world of French influence, intrigue, innuendo and flirtation. Looking over the professional and personal experiences of various candidates, Congress did not take long to choose Benjamin Franklin, already famous throughout the colonies for being a gossip, a libertine and a ladies man.
Ben Franklin was not the first American newsman to realize that sex sells, but he was a pioneer in pushing the envelope of what was acceptable in print. When he entered the newspaper business in 1729, he attacked Philadelphia's only other newspaper for printing an article on abortion. Under the penname "Martha Careful," the 23-year-old Franklin condemned his rival publisher in the voice of an outraged woman: "If he proceeds farther to expose the secrets of our sex in that audacious manner we will run hazard of taking him by the beard in the next place we meet him." Thus Franklin manufactured the first recorded abortion debate in America. He did not really care about the issue; he just wanted to sell newspapers and undermine the competition. A few years later, Franklin eliminated the rival newspaper and took control of the news business in America's largest city.
Franklin started America's first gossip column, which he called Busy-Body, in 1729. Although he admitted to his readers that Busy-Body's content was "nobody's business," he vowed that "if any are offended at my publicly exposing their private vices, I promise they shall have the satisfaction in a very little time, of seeing their good friends and neighbors in the same circumstances." Franklin reported in 1731 how one unfortunate husband discovered his wife in bed with a man named Stonecutter. The cuckold tried to decapitate Stonecutter with a knife but only wounded him. Franklin ended the story with a pun on castration: "Some people admit that when the person offended had so fair and suitable opportunity, it did not enter his head to turn 'Stonecutter' himself." The next issue reported on a constable who "made an agreement with a neighboring female to watch with her that night." Unfortunately the constable accidentally climbed into the window of a different woman, whose husband was sleeping in another room. Franklin recounted that "the good woman perceiving presently by the extraordinary fondness of her bedfellow that it could not possibly be her husband, made so much disturbance as to wake the good man, who finding somebody had got into his place without his leave began to lay about him unmercifully."
One of Franklin's most famous stories featured Polly Baker, who was put on trial for having her fifth illegitimate child. Polly argued in court that far from being punished she should be rewarded: "Can it be a crime (in the nature of things I mean) to add to the number of the king's subjects in a new country that really wants people? ... I should think it a praiseworthy rather than a punishable action." Polly concluded, "In my humble opinion, instead of a whipping, [I deserve] to have a statue erected in my memory." The judges were so moved by the speech that they acquitted her, and one of the judges married her the next day. Franklin later admitted to Thomas Jefferson that he made up Polly's story and many others: "When I was a printer and editor of a newspaper, we were sometimes slack of news, and to amuse our customers I used to fill up our vacant columns with anecdotes and fables, and fancies of my own." More than any other Founding Father, Franklin had a great appreciation for strong, sexually liberated, sassy women like the fictitious Polly Baker.
When readers complained about all the gossip in his newspaper, Franklin published an anonymous letter (written by himself, of course) defending gossip as "the means of preventing powerful, politic, ill-designing men from growing too popular. All-examining Censure, with her hundred eyes and her thousand tongues, soon discovers and as speedily divulges in all quarters every least crime or foible that is part of their true character. This clips the wings of their ambition." Franklin argued that gossip columns promote good behavior because, "what will the world say of me if I act thus? is often a reflection strong enough to enable us to resist the most powerful temptation to vice or folly. This preserves the integrity of the wavering, the honesty of the covetous, the sanctity of some of the religious, and the chastity of all virgins." Of course, Franklin wasn't publishing gossip to protect the virgins; he was just out to sell newspapers.
He also invented America's first sexual and moral advice column. In 1731 he published an anonymous letter (which he wrote) asking, "Suppose a person discovered that his wife was having an affair with a neighbor, and suppose he had reason to believe that if he revealed this to his neighbor's wife she would agree to have sex with him, is he justifiable in doing it?" In the voice of the editor, Franklin self-righteously replied to his own letter, "Return not evil for evil, but repay evil with good." In a 1731 treatise, "Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress," Franklin recommended sex with older women, "because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one." Sex with a basket-covered older woman also avoided pregnancy. Franklin pointed out that "as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement." "And Lastly," Franklin concluded, "they are so grateful!!"
By attracting readers with salacious stories and an open discussion of sex, Franklin became the first American printer to make a profit from his newspaper. Other printers used their newspapers to advertise their other businesses—job printing and often a general store. Franklin pushed ad sales and advised businessmen on the best ways to market their products in print. While other colonial newspapers crammed their ads onto the back page, he sprinkled his ads throughout his paper, making them harder to skip over. He plowed his fortune into funding other printers in cities up and down the seaboard and in return got a share of their profits and their big scoops. By the age of 42, Ben Franklin was America's first media mogul, with his own news network, and so rich that he could retire in 1747 to concentrate on the passions that would make him famous: inventions, science experiments, politics and women.
Along with his racy writings, Franklin's unconventional personal life was well known to the Continental Congress. In his autobiography, he confessed, "[The] hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience." One great inconvenience of sex with "low women" was venereal disease, "a continual risque to my health, ... which of all things I dreaded, though by great good luck I escaped it." One great expense of Franklin's running around was the birth of his illegitimate son William in 1730. A friend recalled that Franklin made "some small provision" for the mother, "but her being none of the most agreeable women prevented particular notice being shown, or the father and son acknowledging any connection with her." Franklin had no use for the mother, but his son came in handy 20 years later when he needed someone to risk his life flying a kite in a lightning storm. Franklin had William perform the death-defying feat.
Right after William's birth, the 24-year-old Franklin decided he needed a wife to look after his infant. His first choice turned him down after he insisted that her family mortgage their house to pay him a sufficient dowry. Next he approached his ex-girlfriend, Deborah Read, whom Franklin called "a fat, jolly dame, clean and tidy." The problem was that Read was still married. Although her husband, John Rogers, had run away, Pennsylvania law did not allow divorce for abandonment. If Read and Franklin married and Rogers returned, Deborah could be charged with bigamy, punishable by 39 lashes and life imprisonment. So six months after the birth of William, Deborah and Ben simply began living together in a common-law arrangement.
Franklin's love child became an issue during his run for the Pennsylvania assembly in 1764, when he was 58 years old. An opponent published a pamphlet claiming William's mother was a prostitute who later served Ben and Deborah as their maid until her untimely death and burial in an unmarked grave. Franklin's opponents also published a doggerel that mocked his wanton ways:
Franklin, though plagued with fumbling age,
Needs nothing to excite him,
But is too ready to engage,
When younger arms invite him.
Even Franklin's best-selling Poor Richard's Almanac, first published in 1732, made clear his skepticism about marital fidelity: "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards."
The Continental Congress knew Franklin liked to combine pleasure with diplomatic business. As an ambassador to London in the late 1750s he frequented the infamous Hellfire Club, which gathered members of parliament and influential aristocrats for sacrilegious rituals and orgies featuring prostitutes dressed as nuns. Participating in Hellfire high jinks enabled Franklin to win the trust of powerful club members who slipped him secret information on British negotiations with the colonies. There was rampant gossip in London that the 51-year-old diplomat was having an affair with his solicitous landlady, Margaret Stevenson. Franklin might have also been carrying on with her 18-year-old daughter, Polly. One day a friend, famed artist Charles Wilson Peale, arrived unannounced at the Stevenson house and found "the Doctor ... seated with a young lady on his knee." Peale recorded the scene with a sketch of the two engaged in a lip-lock, while Franklin "cops a feel" and Polly plunges her hand into Ben's middle-aged crotch.
Far from disqualifying Franklin as an ambassador to France, his irrepressible sex drive, unconventional personal history and raunchy public writings made him the perfect choice.
Although he was 70 years old when he embarked on his mission to Paris, age had not withered his passion for the ladies. "I have marked him particularly in the company of women where he loses all power over himself and becomes almost frenzied," an amazed Thomas Jefferson wrote. "This is in some measure the vice of his age, but it seems to be increased also by his peculiar constitution." Of all the Founders, only Ben Franklin could party and gossip with even the naughtiest French nobles and ladies. And so the Continental Congress placed the fate of the Revolution in the hands of a paunchy, five-foot-nine colonial Casanova.
Franklin's way with women was on display as soon as he arrived in France on December 21, 1776. His fellow envoy John Adams observed, "My venerable colleague enjoys a privilege here that is much to be envied. Being 70 years of age, the ladies not only allow him to embrace them as often as he pleases, but they are perpetually embracing him." One of the objects of Franklin's attention attributed the American ambassador's popularity to "that gaiety and that gallantry that cause all women to love you, because you love them all." Franklin was a master of what the French called amitié amoureuse, or amorous friendship—a playful seduction involving teasing kisses, sly embraces, intimate conversation and rhapsodic love letters.
Soon, stories about the lecherous old lover and his many mistresses spread from the streets of Paris to the colonies. Franklin tried to downplay the rumors in a letter to his niece in Boston: "You mention that kindness of the French ladies to me. I must explain that matter. This is the civilest Nation upon the Earth. Your first acquaintances endeavor to find out what you like, and they tell others. If 'tis understood that you like Mutton, dine where you will, you find Mutton. Somebody it seems gave it out that I loved ladies; then everybody presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embraced, that is to have their necks kissed. The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable." Adams sniped, "All the atheists, deists and libertines, as well as the philosophers and ladies are in his train." What Adams did not understand was that activities and associations that ruined a reputation in Boston earned admiration in Paris. (Continues...)
Excerpted from One Nation Under Sex by Larry Flynt, David Eisenbach. Copyright © 2011 Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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