Right now, on Tumblr, the founding fathers are flirting.
Alexander Hamilton — you know, from the musical — is telling his real-life confidante John Laurens to “Draw me like one of your North American softshell turtles.” George Washington is busting James Madison and Thomas Jefferson for their ineptly hidden office romance. And Hamilton and Jefferson are competing to see which founding father can turn the other on more, in the middle of a meeting with Washington.
There is a lot of crap history on the internet, and at first glance the Tumblr founding-father fandom could seem to be another haven for quick-hit decontextualization and erroneous virality. (Founding father material on Tumblr is, quite often, not accurate; it’s not even meant to be. See above. See below.) But this little fandom is taking a much-canonized era in American history and forcefully ripping it open, sending exploding bits flying all over the place; for that, it should be praised.
Users running blogs like foundingfatherfest, kneebreeches, allexanderhamilton, publius-esquire, john-laurens, fuck-off-jefferson, hamilton-shitpost, hamiltonshorn, live-love-laurens, radhamilton, and nerdlaurens are sharing quotes, making memes, and shipping pairings. Bloggers are finding emotional connections between their own experiences and the founding fathers’. They’re translating everything into internet-speak, willfully extracting the founders’ words from their 18th-century contexts. And most of all, they’re arguing for hidden queer histories living at the heart of the most sacred era of American politics. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the founding-father fandom on Tumblr audaciously takes a history that’s felt staid and old reimagines it as something funny and contemporary and vital.
This is a fandom, with all the creativity, humor, and fervent arguing and agreeing that goes on in all other fandoms. Check out some sample fan art: A group of “Founding Father Pin-Ups” features a truly grotesque Ben Franklin, and an “Ultimate User’s Guide to How to Hug James Madison” advises that the hugger to “withhold from coughing, sneezing, and heavy breathing” and to “plant feet to avoid stepping on” the diminutive founder. Mash-ups proliferate: itsalwayssunnyin1776 inserts founding fathers’ faces into scenes from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And text posts imagine moments of … connection between favorite fathers. (Popular “ships,” Tumblrspeak for imagined relationships between objects of a fandom, are “lams” — John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton — and “jamilton” — Jefferson and Hamilton.)
Just because Hamilton features prominently doesn’t mean that the fandom is the fault of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical: Most of its most prominent blogs have existed for years. But it’s certainly expanded since Hamilton started winning every prize and accolade there is to win. Yelyzaveta, or hamiltonshorn, who posts founders-inspired art, told me they started their blog “over a year ago, I’m pretty sure, back when there were only a handful of people and a shoelace to be found in the founding father/history tag that shared my interest.” (That’s a metaphorical shoelace. There was no actual shoelace.) “This was before the Hamilton musical went to Broadway and U.S. history gained so much attention. It was a very tight-knit and cozy little community that I on occasion miss now that it’s become so big.”
Not quite big enough to have reached the academy: I showed some of my favorite founding-fandom posts to a few (frankly bewildered) historians who write about the American affection for the founding fathers, and asked them how they thought this new fandom fit into a longer tradition of founders worship. The fact that many of these bloggers are trying to know the founders as people — to unearth something of their essence, whether that essence be bisexuality or shortness or irascibility — reminded David Sehat, author of The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible, of the intense personal interest in the founders that blossomed when the group started dying off in the early 19th century.
“Almost immediately after the founders died, people wanted some physical connection to them,” Sehat told me. “So Washington, for example, had this elaborate archive, and he kept all his letters, and he evidently had it beautifully organized … But when people would write to his literary executor, [the executor] took letters and he would just cut them up and send examples of Washington’s handwriting to basically whoever asked.” Right after Washington’s death, the author Mason Locke “Parson” Weems wrote a quickie biography of him, which was so fanciful that it could be considered fanfiction. (That’s where the cherry-tree story comes from.)
But the kind of playfulness around the founders’ sexuality that these posts represent is pretty new. While some political opponents and radical abolitionists might have whispered about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings in the 19th century, the topic was fairly taboo. Historian Andrew Schocket, author of Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, told me we didn’t start full-on speculating and making jokes about the founders’ sex lives until after the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The musical 1776, which poked gentle fun at the founders, debuted on Broadway in 1969; in the 1970s, when the country celebrated the bicentennial, Playboy ran two cartoons featuring an amorous George Washington. In an amazingly titled 2011 journal article “The Erotic Charisma of Alexander Hamilton” (which, by the way, I found out about on Tumblr), scholar Caroline V. Hamilton describes a fascination with Hamilton’s attractiveness that goes back decades, but has greatly expanded in recent years.
The internet has really helped this process along, giving like-minded people a place to meet and amplify their affection for historical figures. These Tumblr bloggers are the pop-cultural progeny of those first years of fun founders. Jaclyn, 21, who runs john-laurens, told me she first got interested in the topic because of 1776. And Schocket told me that students in his classes often invoke the early-2000s children’s TV show Liberty’s Kids.
On Tumblr, the founders’ sexuality is front and center. The idea that such famous and influential people might have been queer, and that historians might have erased that queerness, intrigues Tumblrers. “In my Googling of [Hamilton], I found out that he may have been bisexual, which, as a fellow bisexual person, sparked my interest that has lasted me these years,” wrote Yelyzaveta. Jaclyn engaged in a Tumblr exchange with Gregory Massey, a biographer of Laurens, in which the two challenged each other on the matter of Laurens’s relationship with Hamilton. And the blogger publius-esquire mused on historians’ perspectives on gayness, challenging the expert view, which holds that late-18th-century male friendships were more inherently romantic, so the sweet and longing words that Hamilton and Laurens wrote to each other in letters would not have been unusual. This topic taps both the platform’s interest in accepting and celebrating the varieties of human sexuality, and its distrust of much older, often white and male, experts.
What separates the kind of interest an academic historian has in a historical figure from the fervent attention a fan pays? Some of the feelings these bloggers have for their favorite founders are very familiar to me. What’s the difference between someone who runs a john-laurens fan blog and someone who (let’s just say, hypothetically) spent a semester in 2007 writing a masters’ thesis about the celebrity sled dogs of the early 20th century? Whether you’re accumulating Tumblr posts or citations, that feeling of greedy immersion and magpie curiosity is addictive.
Some Tumblrers might, as a few bloggers I interviewed worried, overcelebrate the founders, forgetting that they were multidimensional people. Others might, as one historian I interviewed fretted, be losing all sense of historical context in their relentless focus on one person or group of people. But in a social-media landscape where the charlatan @HistoryInPics account now has 2.86 million followers, the historical fandom on Tumblr — active, participatory, and self-policing — gives hope to this historian’s heart.