Baron von Steuben
Charles Adams, 2nd son of John and Abigail Adam
Homosexuality in the 1790s
To link homosexuality with the 1790s is dangerous. Not because there were no homosexuals, but because the word "homosexual" had not been coined. In the eyes of historians there is uncertainty as to how sexual relations between men were defined at that period. In the American context there is even more confusion. In Europe there had been previous periods when homsexuality was defined (with other words) and was widely condemned. America did not have that background. So while we might trace our liberties back to England, there was no historic event previous to 1790 which forces us to trace society's reaction to homosexual proclivities back to England.
However, the state of affairs in Europe certainly pertains to a discussion of homosexuality in America and how it might have affected perceptions of L'Enfant. The same year, 1791, when L'Enfant began his work designing Washington, homosexuality was decriminalized in France. To my knowledge, which is sketchy in this regard, that outgrowth of the French Revolution escaped newspaper commentary in the United States, which is not surprising because so much else was going on. Michael D. Sibalis agrees with that noting that "decriminalization was never explicit,... there was actually no debate on the subject in the French Constituent Assembly." In an essay on French homosexuality of the period, Sibalis write: "In his presentation of the newly drafted penal code to the Constituent Assembly, Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau commented that it outlawed only 'true crimes' and not 'those phony offenses created by superstition, feudalism, the tax system and despotism.' Although he did not list the crimes 'created by superstition' -- meaning the Christian religion -- they undoubtedly included blasphemy, heresy, sacrilee, and witchcraft, and also quite probably bestiality, incest, pederasty and sodomy. By dropping any mention of these former offenses, Revolutionary legislation simply passed over in silence acts that had once, at least in theory, merited the most severe penalties [including death]." ("The Regulation of Male Homosexuality in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, 1789-1815," in Homosexuality in Modern France, edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. p. 82)
In Philadelphia the newspaper editor William Cobbett, alias Peter Porcupine, poked fun at the lavish reception of the French minister, Citizen Genet: "It is beyond the power of figures or words to express the hugs and kisses that were lavished on Citizen Genet.... Such was their eagerness to obtain precedence on this joyful occasion, that very few parts, if any, of the Citizen;s body, escaped a salute; and before he arrives safe at the 'Capitol' of some places, he was licked as clean as a bear at three hours after being whelped." Cobbett also ridiculed the pro-French Democratic Society where there were, gander-frolicks, and... squeezing, and hugging, and kissing one another.
In Britain one well known aristocratic homosexual did have connections with America. Lord George Germain who became Viscount Sackville (1716-85) was British Secretary of State during the American Revolution. He gained wide noteriety when court marshalled for cowardice while a British general serving under Prince Ferdinand at the Battle of Minden in Germany during the Seven Years War. One of his modern biographer's, Piers Mackesy, comments on Sackville's sexuality might well be applied to L'Enfant: I have dwelt on Sackville's homosexual reputation in the belief that it was his Achilles' heel. It may help to explain the strangely hostile reaction which he aroused in many people - a hostility which seems to go beyond what his reserve and arrogance could account for in themselves. It may explain his difficulty in forming happy working relationships with some of his colleagues, and the recurring hints of instability which flit through his life. It may shed some light on the web of passions in which the Minden affair is tangled.
Sackville has another American connection. One of his young partners was Benjamin Thompson, a New England born inventor, who was made the Count von Rumford by the Elector of Bavaria. One supposes that in letters sent to America comments about Germain and Rumford must have been made, and that there was comment in return. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, in England after fleeing Massachusetts, noticed the affair when another Lord spoke of Sackville, Thompson and "what it's shocking to think of." There certainly was bolder comment in Britain. One aristocratic lady referred to "Sir Sodom Thompson, Lord Sackville's under Secretary."
To the degree that Americans in the 1790s were beholding to European fashions, we might expect homosexuality to be tolerated. But as Tim Hitchcock write apropos English homonsexuals in the 18th century, "of course, to be tolerated is not to be liked. The lack of a consistent or effective prosecution of London's homosexuals does not suggest that popular attitudes towards these men were any less vitriolic than they had been in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." (English Sexualities, 1700-1800, pp 72-3.) Lawrence Stone quotes a Mrs. Thrale's observations: "In 1781 she described it as 'now so modish' and in 1790 remarked that 'there is a strange propensity in England for these unspeakable crimes.'" (Family, Sex and Marriage, p 541).
Americans aimed toward moral perfection beyond that achieved by the Old World. Certainly during the Revolution there was stern warnings against European vices, but sermons in the 1790s seemed to no longer blame luxury and lasciviousness on Europe. America recognized its vices as its own, but to my knowledge sermons did not allude to sodomy as one of them. This could reflect two possible situations: homosexuality existed but it was deemed impolitic to refer to it, or that there was so little of it that preachers did not know it existed.
by Bob Arnebeck
Letters exhibiting the dangerous ground of male friendship
Go to Introduction: Swamp1800