Cassandra Good is the Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. This interview is based on her new book, Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (Oxford University Press, February 2015).
JF: What led you to write Founding Friendships?
CG: As an undergraduate, I came across a letter from Margaret Bayard Smith describing saying goodbye to Thomas Jefferson when he left Washington in 1809. She described her heart beating when she saw Jefferson, then holding hands with him for several minutes at a public reception. I was amazed and asked my advisor whether this was a sign that Smith and Jefferson were having an affair, but she explained that this was how people expressed friendship in that period. Even between men and women, I wondered?
That question really stuck with me, especially since some of my closest friends were (and are) men. It always seemed like there wasn’t good language—written, spoken, or even body language—for expressing friendship for the opposite sex without people assuming the relationship was romantic. How then, in a period when there were greater restrictions on women and far greater risks to their reputation, could men and women have been friends? As it turned out, it wasn’t just possible—it was common among elite Americans in this period.
F: In two sentences, what is the argument of Founding Friendships?
CG: Elite men and women in the early American republic formed loving friendships that exemplified the key values of that period: equality, virtue, freedom, and choice. These friendships were building blocks of new American systems of politics, gender, and power.
JF: Why do we need to read Founding Friendships?
CG: I hope this book will spark new discussions in gender history about widening the possibilities for relationships to study. I’d like readers to think about the many configurations of loving relationships people have formed in the past and can form today.
The film When Harry Met Sally is still a sort of shorthand in American culture today for the idea that men and women cannot be friends. Founding Friendships shows that this idea is rooted in the past and how we have told stories about love and marriage in America. There are real power interests behind constructing those stories both then and today.
Finally, Founding Friendships demonstrates that we have to include both men and women in our accounts of politics in the early republic. There need not be a strict separation between women’s history and political history; the stories of women and politics are closely intertwined. My work is certainly not the first to show this, but it comes at the definition of politics from a different angle and ties intimate personal relationships to power and politics.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CG: In high school I volunteered at my local historical society and transcribed the diaries of a nineteenth-century Quaker woman from my area, which at first I found terribly dull. Then I discovered that her husband also kept diaries, and each of them had about a dozen volumes covering decades of their lives. I created a small exhibit comparing the husband and wife’s perspectives on the same events—their courtship, farming, the Civil War, etc.—and I was hooked on early American history and culture.
I’ve come full circle now because, after working in museums and getting my PhD, I do historical editing and work with transcribing and researching documents for the Papers of James Monroe.
JF: What is your next project?
CG: While working on Founding Friendships, I came across a number of descendants of George and Martha Washington and wondered what role the family had played in the new nation. While George Washington didn’t have any direct descendants, he helped raise his step-grandchildren and a number of nephews and nieces. After his death, these men and women had to shape the face of the family in a culture that idolized Washington but feared inherited power. I’ll be looking at homes, objects, and writings, as well as popular discussions from the time, to tell the story of the family in the nineteenth century and explore how Americans viewed the intersection of politics and family in a republic. It builds on my interest in the close ties between personal relationships and politics in the early republic.