In our era of political “bromances” between leaders who value aggression and belittle sensitivity, it’s easy to forget that expectations as to how men should interact with other men are always changing. In the 1820s, President Andrew Jackson, whose legacy Donald Trump has embraced, fashioned himself as one of the most virile men of his era. His campaign biographies described Jackson’s gallant protection of defenseless white women and children from Indigenous warriors. The biographies also assured readers that only Jackson could save the virtuous American citizenry from the moneyed, eastern elite.
But Jackson’s masculinity also embraced sentimentality from other men. Indeed, in the first few months of his presidency, Jackson received letters from a devoted admirer named Ezra Stiles Ely. Ely declared his love for Jackson and stressed the overwhelming “attachment” that he felt to the new president.
Ely was a minister and theologian from New England. In 1814, he had married Mary Ann Carswell, whose father knew Jackson well. When Jackson ran for the presidency in 1828, Ely supported him at a time when most ministers sought political neutrality. Ely hoped that Jackson would resuscitate America’s Christian spirit and he was thrilled when Jackson defeated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams.
“You will impute, I hope, the liberty which I take in writing to you, to my strong attachment to you, and the earnest desire of my heart that you may prove the best President who ever acted as Chief Magistrate of our nation,” Ely wrote in January 1829.1
Two months later, Ely wrote again. This time, he offered his opinion on a sex scandal that threatened to destroy Jackson’s cabinet.2 Hoping to save Jackson, Ely prefaced his thoughts by assuring him, “I dread the thought of giving you pain: judge whether I do not love you.”3
By the spring, Ely’s “attachment” to Jackson had intensified. In late April, he sent Jackson a lithographic print of himself. Ely’s wife encouraged her husband to send a note, explaining why he thought the President of the United States would want his picture. Ely told Jackson that Mary Ann “would suggest that it was procured to be executed as a charity to the industrious and worthy American artist who had lived on bread and molasses for a week, and who wrought every part of it, with his own hands.”4
But this story, Ely admitted, was a lie.
“I must honestly say,” he explained, “that I sent it to your Excellency from what some would call a romantic, but what I trust is a truly christian attachment to you; for I wish to visit you, by letter, and otherwise, in your own chamber as a friend.”5
Ely even demanded that Jackson place the lithograph next to his bed. “I should be sorry to see it any where else,” he maintained. Ely knew that “Kings, Emperors, Presidents, and Generals, and prints of coronations and battle may occupy your dining halls with propriety.” But “my shadow,” Ely asserted, belonged in Jackson’s “bed chamber,” where he could watch over Jackson, engulf him in his love, and remind him of how to live as a Christian.6
From our perspective, Ely’s declarations are bizarre, and even a tad creepy. But this kind of effusive emotion, from men to men, was not out of the ordinary in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In 1779, Alexander Hamilton gushed to his friend, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, “Cold in my professions, warm in [my] friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power, by action, rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ‘till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you.”7 Before he married Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln shared a bed and home with his lifelong friend, Joshua Speed.
These relationships embody what scholars call a “romantic friendship,” whereby men and women maintained non-sexual, highly intimate relationships with same-sex friends, whom they saw as emotional, and in Ely’s case, spiritual, partners.8
Ely’s romantic “Christian” attachment to Jackson also reflected how many Americans had started ascribing feminine traits to male ministers. Before the Revolution, several states, including Virginia and Massachusetts, sponsored specific churches. This meant that taxpayers funded these churches, regardless of attendance. Church “establishment” gave ministers tremendous political leverage in their communities.
But the Revolution’s emphasis on the separation of church and state led to the “disestablishment” of state-sponsored churches. By the time Ely wrote Jackson, most states had disestablished religion. As a result, ministers lost state sponsorship and with it, their political influence.
“Disestablishment” led Americans to see religion more in terms of culture than politics. As a result, they started imagining ministers as people who occupied the same spheres of influence as women. Ministers could offer advice on religion, family, morality, and emotions, but not war, politics, economics, or diplomacy.9
For Ely, the culture of “romantic friendships” and his status as a minister gave him license to gush to Jackson about how much he loved him. And initially, Jackson did not seem to mind, even though Ely’s declarations of love went unrequited. Jackson referred to Ely as “my dear and esteemed friend” and recognized the benefits of having the admiration of a prominent and influential pastor.10
But just a few months later, Ely angered Jackson when he criticized John Henry Eaton, Jackson’s close friend and Secretary of War. In a scandal now known as the “Peggy Eaton Affair,” Eaton was accused of conducting an illicit affair with his wife, Peggy, prior to their marriage. Although Jackson maintained a diplomatic front as Ely offered his unsolicited advice, he never acknowledged the lithograph that Ely sent. Soon afterwards, the two fell out of touch.
We’ve come a long way from Ely’s love letters to Jackson. In the twentieth century, an aggressive masculinity took root that cast suspicion over men who were close with other men. By the post WWII-era, “the strong, silent” type became an impossible but sought after masculine ideal. Within a couple of generations, it had become taboo for a man to tell a male friend how much he loved him. But over 150 years ago, powerful political figures like Andrew Jackson, Ezra Stiles Ely, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln saw no shame in telling a friend, “I love you, man.”
- Ezra Stiles Ely to Andrew Jackson, January 28, 1829, The Papers of Andrew Jackson, Digital Edition, ed. Daniel Feller (Charlottesville, VA, 2015), hereafter PAJDE. Return to text.
- For the Peggy Eaton or “Petticoat” Affair, see Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Charlottesville, 2000), 190-238; Kirsten E. Wood, “One Woman So Dangerous to Public Morals’: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair,” Journal of the Early Republic, no. 17 (Summer 1997), 238-275. Return to text.
- Ezra Stiles Ely to Andrew Jackson, March 18, 1829, PAJDE. Return to text.
- Ezra Stiles Ely to Andrew Jackson, May 2, 1829, PAJDE. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Alexander Hamilton to Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, April 1779, Founders Online, US National Archives. Return to text.
- See, for instance, Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York, 1998); Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” Signs 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975), 1-29; Axel Nissen, The Romantic Friendship Reader: Love Stories Between Men in Victorian America (Boston, 2003). Return to text.
- Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977). Return to text.
- See Andrew Jackson to Ezra Stiles Ely, December 10, 1828 and March 23, 1829, PAJDE. Return to text.