Donald J. Trump’s penis, size unknown, has reared its head as a political issue. On Thursday night, during yet another GOP presidential primary debate, the party’s leading candidate debated the size of his penis with rival Marco Rubio before an audience of millions. Mainstream media channels such as NBC strained to cover the controversy with a straight face. Loud voices on social media complained that American politics had hit a nadir. “This is an all time low,” complained one twitter-user. “Our founding fathers rolling over in graves.”
Rather than roll over in their graves, our founding fathers would be more likely to roll their eyes at this latest episode of a phallic tradition in American politics with which they were all too familiar. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson got caught up in penis politics not once, but twice, during his storied career. Jefferson entered the lists for the first time in 1785, with the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia, the only full-length book that he produced during his lifetime. The Notes began as a response to a series of questions posed in the midst of the Revolutionary War by François Marbois, Secretary of the French delegation at Philadelphia. Jefferson used the queries as an opportunity to repudiate a leading French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon, and to reassert American virility.
Buffon hypothesized that the American climate had a deleterious effect on fauna and flora, causing Old World transplants to shrink over the generations spent in their new environment. Jefferson countered Buffon’s claims by giving examples of the great sizes that American buffalos and beavers reached. But his most urgent concern was to combat the implications of Buffon’s theory for American masculinity. “Hitherto,” Jefferson explained, “I have considered this hypothesis as applied to brute animals only, and not in its extension to the man of America, whether aboriginal or transplanted.” But, Jefferson noted, Buffon’s theory did not except humankind. It was Buffon’s belief that Native Americans were feeble, and had “small organs of generation.” According to the French naturalist, Native Americans were indifferent to women because “they have little sexual capacity.” Logic dictated that the same would become true for Europeans who made America their home. Not true, Jefferson insisted, declaring that the Native American was “neither more defective in ardor, nor impotent with his female.” Far from being a simple matter of hurt feelings, Jefferson’s defense of American penis size made an important political point: Americans were man enough to fight Great Britain for their independence and succeed. Far from impotent, the national body had a well-endowed member. The new nation deserved French aid to win the war.
The next time Jefferson entered into the penis politics of the founding era, his own reputation was under attack for excessive, not deficient, virility. Following election to the presidency in 1800, Jefferson unwisely chose not to give a job to the scurrilous newspaper editor James T. Callender, whom he had previously hired to besmear his political opponents. Callender retaliated by writing in the Richmond Reporter that the president had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. The resulting scandal generated one of the most scurrilous political cartoons of America’s founding era.
The image, titled “A Philosophic Cock,” pictures Thomas Jefferson’s head attached to a rooster’s erect body, replete with an engorged wattle shaped like a pair of testicles. Beside the Jefferson-cock stands a hen topped by the head of a mixed-race woman, intended to suggest Sally Hemings. Printed by an anti-Jeffersonian publisher, in the Federalist redoubt of Newburyport, Massachusetts, the cartoon sent a political message that Jefferson’s lack of restraint over his penis, expressed in his sexual relations with an enslaved woman, made him unfit for the presidency.
As Jefferson’s own phallic forays prove, Thursday night’s GOP debate was not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last time, that American leaders have taken part in penis politics. Long before the American Revolution, the metaphor of the body politic analogized the health of the state to the health of its leader. Even earlier, the fertility cults of the ancient world idolized the erect penis as a symbol that would bring good harvests. Perhaps the only new aspect to the penis politics of the 2016 presidential campaign is the possibility that a candidate without a penis may win the contest for the first time.
The penis politics of Thursday night’s debate are not a new low in American politics. The ascendant candidacy of Mr. Trump is.
Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She specializes in early American history and has written about the history of same-sex marriage and about American reactions to the French Revolution. Her most recent book is Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014). You can follow her on twitter @RachelCleves.
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