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American Literature: Colonial  

Knowledge of what we might now call homosexuality in early British America comes to us--through court documents, letters, sermons, travel narratives--in the frequently reticent languages of and love, of act and affect. What we (often rightly) interpret as a reluctance in these texts to name or specify sanctioned behaviors is, in many cases, an effect of a need to read these texts in a certain way, to find in them evidence of connection to contemporary behavior and identity.

There are in fact many texts--ranging in tone from scandalized to exuberant--that engage in frank descriptions of what was done and what was felt by these earlier Americans. The reasons for that frankness (and that scandal and exuberance) are perhaps what is underarticulated.

In the British colonies, certain kinds of nonprocreative sexual activity were not only recognized, but common enough to warrant the severest sanctions. Many courts shied away from describing fully such acts, even as they pronounced their terrible sentences. Others were more forthcoming.

For example, the Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia record the 1625 testimony against Richard Cornish, which accuses him of luring another man (here, the "examinee") into his bed:

Cornish went into the bed to him, and there lay upon him, and kissed him and hugged him, saying that he would love this examinee if he would now and then come and lay with him, and so by force he turned this examinee upon his belly, and so did put this examinee to pain in the fundament, and did wet him, and after did call for a napkin which this examinee did bring unto him. . . .

This kind of elaboration, however, is more often reserved for the ways in which crimes "not to be named" were dealt with. Though he "forbear[s] particulars" in his description of a case of "" (bestiality) and certain "sodomitical attempts," William Bradford's account, in Of Plymouth Plantation (first published in 1856), of the resulting 1642 execution is served up in grotesque detail:

first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus xx.15; and then he himself was executed. The cattle were all cast into a great and large pit that was digged of purpose for them, and no use made of any part of them.

Such appeals to biblical authority were of course common (and may help explain the near absence of references to sexual activity between women in colonial texts). This is true with respect to tropes for friendship as well as to legal and ecclesiastical sanctions.

The story of David and Jonathan, for instance, is a locus classicus for the discourse of love in Puritan texts like John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. Social, spiritual, and affectional bonds seem to blur together in such texts, making the language of love, like the language of sodomy, difficult to read if we are reading for evidence of sexualities akin to our own.

This is true of more clearly secular texts as well. In his General History of Virginia (1624), for example, John Smith describes some curious trading practices in which members of his company barter with some sailors for food, using "Saxefras, furres, or love" as currency. Despite the general randiness of sailors in narratives by Smith and others (Bradford describes, with unchristian relish, the death from illness of "a proud and very profane young man, one of the seamen, of a lusty, able body, which made him the more haughty"), "love" here may not refer to sexual favors. Yet it seems even less likely that strong affectional ties are indicated.

Such ties, however, are very much the subject of the letter (reproduced in The Saltonstall Papers, 1607-1815 [1972-1974]) Richard Saltonstall, Jr., wrote to his friend John Winthrop, Jr., on June 22, 1632:

My dear brother, I am everry way bound unto you; and for ever: and it is my rejoicing that I am bound unto you for your love; in the bond of love. I remember your unfayned love; in much love; and I love you againe; and I confesse my selfe indebted to you for your love, and will laboure to requite your love, with love. And now (my deare brother,) although I want time to expresse my love, in this letter; yet (you know) I love you never the lesse for that; and therfore judge not of my love, by my letter: but of my letter by my love.

Saltonstall's exuberance here (at age twenty-two) may have more to do with letters than with love, though the injunction with which this passage ends wittily reveals a Puritan's awareness of the extent to which language conditions social bonds. Whatever delights the letter may have held for young Winthrop, it is Saltonstall's rhetorical flourish that strikes us most forcibly, and it is to his language--his "letter"--that we must appeal for any conclusions we might form.

Almost 150 years after Saltonstall addressed his love to his friend, Alexander Hamilton (also at age twenty-two) did the same in a letter to John Laurens: "Cold in my professions, warm in my friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you."

From 1779 to 1782, Hamilton and Laurens developed an affectional language in a series of letters--reproduced in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (1961)--that are almost too easy to read as the record of an affair.

The words that, for Hamilton, take the place of actions assume, in one way of reading, the status of actions themselves. Yet conclusions about the nature of Hamilton's relationship with Laurens, or Saltonstall's with Winthrop, are ultimately less interesting than the claims we make on the texts of these lives as part of a heritage more or less our own.

Max Cavitch


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Alexander Hamilton (above) maintained a loving correspondence with his friend John Laurens that indicates a powerful same-sex attraction.
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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

social sciences >> Hamilton, Alexander

American Revolutionary War hero and statesman Alexander Hamilton exchanged a series of passionate love letters with a young man, John Laurens, who was killed in 1782.


Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Hughes, Walter. "'Meat Out of the Eater': Panic and Desire in American Puritan Poetry." Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden, eds. New York: Routledge, 1990. 102-121.

Katz, Jonathan. "The Age of Sodomitical Sin, 1607-1740." Reclaiming Sodom. Jonathan Goldberg, ed. New York: Routledge, 1994. 43-58.

_____. Gay American History. New York: Harper & Collins, 1976.

Oaks, Robert. "'Things Fearful to Name': Sodomy and Buggery in Seventeenth-Century New England." Journal of Social History 12 (1978): 268-281. Rpt. The American Man. Elizabeth H. Pleck and Joseph H. Pleck, eds. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. 53-76.

Warner, Michael. "New English Sodom." American Literature 64 (1992): 19-47.


    Citation Information
    Author: Cavitch, Max  
    Entry Title: American Literature: Colonial  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 1, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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