Women and Gender Seminar: Thomas A. Foster, DePaul University

Women and Gender Seminar
Friday, September 25, 2009

3:00 pm to 5:00 pm

“John Adams and Masculine Sexual Identity
Thomas A. Foster, DePaul University
Commentator: John D’Emilio, University of Illinois at Chicago

In August 1776 John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that he had proposed that the image for the seal of the new nation be the “Choice of Hercules.” Referencing the classical allegory of choosing virtue over vice, Adams selected a particularly masculine, heroic figure to represent public and private virtue. For him, the image captured both the heart of the nation and also, as we shall see, his view of manhood. That Adams chose a decidedly manly figure to illustrate what was increasingly becoming associated with womanhood, private virtue, indicates his view that manliness included so-called feminine traits, including chastity and self-restraint.

Relatively few early modern American men left sustained commentary about their sexual behaviors and identities, and John Adams is no exception. Yet his voluminous surviving letters, personal diaries, and autobiography reveal glimpses of his views of masculine sexual identity – much of which was articulated both explicitly and implicitly via the figure of Hercules. Like most eighteenth-century Americans, Adams did not view self-retrained manliness as weak or effeminate. This essay demonstrates that Adams utilized the mythic figure of Hercules to embody his notion of masculine virtue, paying close attention to the sexual component of Adams’s beliefs.