John Adams’ Son’s ‘Unsavory’ Relationship with the Baron
Von Steuben and with whom he slept was long a matter of discussion — from Prussia to France to the United States. Yet he never publicly denied it. The closest he came was to ask Washington to speak on behalf of his morals in a letter to Congress so he could get his pension. And why did he ask Washington?
Since his arrival in Philadelphia to assist the Revolution, von Steuben had financial issues caused by a Continental Congress that often didn’t keep its funding promises, a challenge compounded by his own personality: Von Steuben at times could be cold and aloof, which was problematic when diplomacy was needed with an important member of Congress. He also had a tendency to live and spend extravagantly, especially on his uniforms, which were often emblazoned with epaulettes and medals of his own design.
Adding to that were the constant rumors about his sexuality, which by 1790, reached one of the revolution’s first families, the Adamses of Massachusetts.
Charles, the son of John and Abigail Adams — the second president and first lady of the new union — was what today would be called the black sheep of the family. Early on, Abigail considered him “not at peace within himself.” His biggest problem was alcoholism but, as revealed in letters among the various members of the family, the Adamses had other concerns.
As John Ferling wrote in the biography John Adams: A Life, “There are references to [Charles’] alleged proclivity for consorting with men whom his parents regarded as unsavory.” One of these men was von Steuben, who, as Ferling writes, many at the time considered homosexual.
Charles had become infatuated with and adored Von Steuben. It is clear from the family letters that the Adamses were concerned about a relationship between Charles and the baron. Von Steuben’s sexuality was an open secret, one that he himself never challenged, other than to ask Washington to defend his moral character.
The Nation’s First Underwear Party
The baron is a puzzle. At first, I really didn’t like him: The man himself was pompous, cold and theatrical, and his uniforms and title were stage props for an officer who didn’t even speak English when he got to Valley Forge. But I respected him for what he did to help Washington’s rag-tag army to defeat the British, eventually leading to the creation of our country. His knowledge created the first sense of military discipline in the colonies. My appreciation for him came from his most recent biographer, Lockhart, whose book The Drillmaster of Valley Forge offers a complete look at von Steuben’s work.
There is one story in the book that could be considered rather scandalous in today’s terms: Von Steuben most likely threw the first underwear party in the United States military, at his house in Valley Forge.
As Lockhart writes, “The Baron hosted a party exclusively for their lower-ranking friends. He insisted, though, that ‘none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches,’ making light of the shortages that affected the junior officers as they did the enlisted men.”
Apart from this humorous anecdote, it’s hard to question von Steuben’s importance — especially as Washington’s last official act as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was to write a letter to the baron.