Sex in the 1790s

In this period, the elites in the principal cities of the United States considered sex one of their inalienable rights. As Peter Porcupine put it, "in this enlightened age, the work of generation goes hummingly on, whether people are married or not." During the Revolutionary Era there was much public profession of the need for virtue public and private. After the war, especially with the stability brought about by the adoption of the Constitution, which put the elites well in control of society, there was a public embrace of the libertine values that were the hallmark of late Enlightenment high society in Western Europe. "Freedom of sexual expression was one of the many by-products of the eighteenth century pursuit of happiness," wrote Lawrence Stone in his Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. In America, the sumptuary laws of the Revolutionary Era were repealed or ignored. Theater with its attendant whores returned to American cities.

Historians of the modern era have been obsessed with Thomas Jefferson's having a slave mistress. As interesting as that is, it was a private passion that became the stuff of political gossip. Jefferson made no public display of his liaison.  Perhaps a more important master/slave relationship is that perpetrated by the French aristocrat Talleyrand during his brief residence in Philadelphia. He publicly consorted with his black mistress at a time when sexual intermixing of the races in public was confined to the lower classes. Yet while that perhaps pushed the boundaries of accepted morality, it hardly defines the era.

In the writings of Benjamin Rush, and in speculating on writings of his that were destroyed by his sons, we can see how the sex act was considered as necessary and beyond time worn moral injunctions. While the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s came after the crisis over L'Enfant, the manner in which they tore apart the morality of the day - in all classes, though especially the elite, reveals proclivities that must have been just below the surface of society earlier in the decade.

More definitive than Jefferson's use of his slave, I think, is a riot by sailors and their lower class allies against certain whore houses in New York City in late 1793. The mayor of the city rallied his fellow members of the elite to physically defend the whore houses. Of course the sexual adventures of the elite were not confined to the whore house. Wives too joined in this quest for health and liberation. This being America, there were countless exhortations to morality in this period directed to probity in the basic heterosexual relations. We search in vain for public attacks on homosexuality or homosexuals.

by Bob Arnebeck

Theater in the 1790s

Talleyrand in America

L'Enfant and Charles Adams

Politicians and sex

The 1793 whore house riot

Homosexuality in the 1790s

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