In 1952 the New-York Historical Society purchased at auction a full-figure portrait, identified as Lord Cornbury, royal governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708. The only remarkable thing about the portrait is that his lordship is dressed in women’s clothing; and for this reason the painting has enjoyed a certain notoriety from the time it was first exhibited at London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) in 1867. The identification of the sitter may have been made as early as 1796 and is rendered plausible by reports from New York in 1707 that Cornbury “rarely fails of being dresst in Women’s Cloaths every day” and in 1709 that “My Lord Cornbury has and dos still make use of an unfortunate Custom of dressing himself in Womens Cloaths and of exposing himself in that Garb upon the Ramparts to the view of the public; in that dress he draws a World of Spectators about him and consequently as many Censures.”

Although these reports were contained in letters not readily available until the present century, William Smith, the first historian of New York, repeated the substance of them in 1757, and they endure to the present. A recent history of attitudes toward sex in Britain reproduces the portrait, identifying Cornbury as the “first-known English transvestite.”1 The best history of colonial New York by a modern scholar has Cornbury making “public appearances in the elegant costumes of his cousin, Queen Anne.”2 Another professional historian has characterized Cornbury as “the most exalted personage in America—but withal a drunkard, a spendthrift, a sexual pervert, a grafter, and a vain fool.”3

The painting has nailed down Cornbury’s reputation and established him as the very model of the dissolute, corrupt aristocrat that England sent to govern her long-suffering colonists. A transvestite royal governor? Why not? As Benjamin Franklin put it in 1768, the governors sent from England to the colonies “come only to make money as fast as they can; are sometimes men of vicious characters and broken fortunes, sent by a Minister merely to get them out of the way.”4 Does not Cornbury fit that picture as it was fastened on the whole tribe of royal governors during the Revolution, a revolution that their misdeeds helped to provoke? Cornbury was not merely a vicious character, attested by his cross-dressing (pace Mayor Rudolph Giuliani), but a man of broken fortune, an embarrassment to the royal family, who rescued him from bankruptcy by sending him to the colonies, where his efforts to make money as fast as he could resulted in public charges of bribery and peculation and successful demands for his recall.

Cornbury indeed seems to fit the picture, fits it a little too well. Patricia Bonomi, a historian well versed in the Byzantine complexity of New York and New Jersey colonial politics, became a little surprised when she encountered glowing accounts of Cornbury’s character and achievements in British archives. Taking a new look at the familiar painting, she felt compelled to ask what no one else had thought to: Was this really a painting of Cornbury? The figure is not only in women’s clothes but looks like a woman. Bonomi set about finding out whether he or she could be established as Cornbury. The painter and date are unknown, and the attribution was first made long after Cornbury’s death by people who never knew him. The provenance can be traced to the Pakington family of Worcestershire, who had no known connection to the Hyde family. Cornbury was the grandson of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon (Cornbury inherited the title in 1709), which made both Queen Mary and Queen Anne his cousins, but there are no Pakingtons in his family tree. Radiography and pigment analysis offered no clues; and when Bonomi consulted Robin Gibson of the National Portrait Gallery of London, an authority on Hyde family portraits, Gibson assured her “that the so-called portrait of Lord Cornbury is a perfectly straightforward British provincial portrait of a rather plain woman c. 1710.” There is no certain way to prove that Cornbury was not the subject of the painting, but neither is there any way to prove that he was, and all the evidence apart from the label attached in 1867 points the other way.

If we put the portrait aside, there remain the contemporary allegations of Cornbury’s cross-dressing and of his peculations as governor. In a model of historical investigation Bonomi examines all the charges and the contexts in which they were made. The descriptions of his cross-dressing, though made by three people who were his contemporaries (and his political enemies) in New York and New Jersey, are not declarations of what any one of them claimed to have seen with his own eyes. They state that hundreds of people did see what they describe as fact, but no one of the hundreds ever mentioned it, let alone censured it, in surviving letters or papers. If the accusations of Cornbury’s flaunting himself in female costume before hundreds of spectators were true, it would be strange if there had not been a public notice and denunciation of it, for the charges were made at a time when cross-dressing had become as never before in English society a badge of homosexuality, and homosexuality was more and more under censure.


The Revolution of 1688, despite being bloodless, brought with it the wave of moral righteousness that revolutions seem to generate. Reform societies sprang up to dictate proper male and female behavior. Men and boys stopped playing female parts in the theater. Heterosexual promiscuity and male homosexuality took refuge in underground clubs and masquerades where disguises hid identities. William and Mary and Queen Anne held their courts to standards of morality that made an appropriate contrast to their predecessors’. The nobility thus lost for a time its accustomed exemption from the sexual propriety expected of the rest of the population. In these circumstances, if Cornbury had actually defied his royal cousin’s standards as blatantly as he was said to have done, his enemies should have made much more of it than they did.

Bonomi’s account of Cornbury’s life before and after his stint as governor shows him to have been a man of courage and integrity, with no hint of effeminacy or exhibitionism in his makeup. He earned military honors commanding a troop of dragoons both on the Continent and in Monmouth’s rebellion in England. His whole demeanor was that of a highly placed nobleman, with a nobleman’s concern for honor that would have placed strong internal constraints against his playing the fool in any situation. It is true that he was badly in debt (a circumstance aristocrats have never considered dishonorable) at the time of his appointment as governor, but he did have good qualifications to lead a province that occupied a crucial strategic position for England’s control of North America. He lived up to expectations by cementing relations with the Iroquois and fortifying New York Harbor. He can probably be given credit for the fact that in the years of his governorship the French in Canada chose to direct their warfare against New England rather than New York.

If he lived beyond his means he did so no more spectacularly than others of his rank, or even of avowed democrats like Thomas Jefferson a century later. After examining each of the charges that he accepted bribes and made off with public funds, Bonomi finds them without foundation and no more than the standard fare of politics in “an age of scurrility.” Other royal governors got the same treatment, though probably not in such large measure or so unfairly. Behold, then, a royal governor who was not so bad after all.

But Bonomi’s book is more than an exoneration of Cornbury. It is a case history of what she aptly calls the politics of reputation. Cornbury, like other royal governors, gained his appointment nominally from the King or Queen, but actually from the ministry that enjoyed power at the time. And the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century saw a dizzying succession of contests for power in England, carried on in a flood of slander, satire, and gossip. Politics in a royal colony offered a slightly delayed repetition of what went on in the mother country. Colonial politicians and place hunters allied themselves with whatever English faction was “in” at the moment and mounted attacks on the character of anyone favored by the “outs.” Cornbury, as a Tory associated with the “court,” became fair game when the Whigs or “country” faction gained the ascendancy in England. And because the factions had not yet solidified into parties with some pretense at least to ideological differences, opposition to whoever was in power consisted largely of personal defamation. The label “country” at this time, Bonomi points out, “was little more than a vast, vague umbrella for any kind of gross political attack.” The politics of reputation was a politics of scandal and vituperation. And, as Bonomi also shows, accusations of unacceptable sexual appetites or activity were already a favored mode of attack.

Bonomi is doubtless right in stressing the free play given to the politics of reputation in the absence of developed parties, but there is something all too familiar in her depiction of defamation as a political tool. One is reminded of the dictum of David Hume, writing after Sir Robert Walpole had put an end to the chaotic factional contests of Cornbury’s time, that “governors have nothing to support them but Opinion. ‘Tis therefore, on Opinion only that Government is founded; and this Maxim extends to the most despotic and most military Governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.” 5 Government doubtless depends on a variety of opinions, such as “any government is better than none,” but the reputation of governors has always had much to do with people’s willingness to obey them. The politics of reputation did not end with the rise of organized politics, nor has it languished under hereditary monarchs or absolute dictators. What is perhaps more puzzling, sexual reputation seems to have been a constant ingredient of political reputation and thus of the power to govern.


The relation between the two is complex. It is not clear why people think a person’s sexual habits or appetites constitute either a qualification or a disqualification for public office. But that people do think so and have long thought so is indisputable. Charles II probably enjoyed as much power as any English monarch ever has, and the opposition to him was accordingly expressed in satirical accounts of his excessive sexual prowess or lack of it. A century after Charles’s death, when the king was no longer the center of power and political opposition could find highly respectable expression in Parliament, the politics of reputation continued in elections to that body, with sexual slanders still an active element. By this time women, though barred from office, were active campaigners, whose solicitation of votes gave new opportunities for sexual defamation as a political tool. When Charles James Fox, already a force in the House of Commons, stood for reelection in 1784, it was not enough to portray him as “singing and drinking with forty half-naked whores”; his supporter, the Duchess of Devonshire, had to be shown “squeezing and fingering the butchers” of Westminster to buy their votes.6 One could go on with examples in many times and places, from Thomas Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings to Bill Clinton’s alleged pursuit of Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.

The role of sex in the politics of reputation, then and now, has a prurient element that is not easy to distinguish from its political one. Sex has a dynamic of its own that can not only reach into politics but submerge whatever political purpose it may be put to. The satirical attacks on Charles II, which remained mostly in manuscript until after his death, are so salacious, with the King’s scepter continually equated with his indefatigable penis, that it is hard to say whether their purpose was political or pornographic.7 Similarly the cartoons libeling Charles James Fox and the Duchess of Devonshire in 1784 seem to have been designed as much to titillate the viewer with their outrageous and explicit sexual detail as they were to influence votes. In a cartoon captioned “The Dutchess canvassing for her favourite member,” she is depicted with her hand under the apron of a butcher while a chimney sweep lies on the ground looking up her skirts.8 Somehow the political message loses out to the malicious fun of the dirty joke against the Duchess. Incidentally, Fox won the election.

The sexual element in the politics of reputation could not only overshadow but also outlive whatever political usefulness it may have had. The satirical poems that endowed Charles II with a superhuman lust found most of their readers after Charles was in his grave and the Revolution of 1688 had swept away England’s ancien régime. Gossip concerning Jefferson’s supposed affair with Sally Hemings has been more damaging to his reputation since his death than it was among the voters who elected him president. And the number of mistresses with whom John F. Kennedy is credited has grown with each passing year.

Lord Cornbury, we now see, was probably not a transvestite. The charge that he was and that he exhibited his effeminacy to an outraged public was presumably designed to discredit him in England as someone whose behavior was not only unworthy in itself but threatening to his, and thus to the Queen’s, power to govern. Whether the charge played a part in his recall is not apparent, but it did not surface in his dispute with the New Jersey representative assembly that produced the assembly’s demand for his ouster. Nor did it prevent Queen Anne from appointing him to high government office as a member of her privy council after his return to England. The damage it did to his reputation was mainly posthumous. It was enough to attach his name, long after his death, to a third-rate painting of an unknown woman and to give the painting itself a place in history that neither the painter nor his sitter could have dreamed of.

Bonomi has successfully challenged both the bad character and the indifferent portrait so long attributed to Cornbury. The painting in the New-York Historical Society is still labeled as “Edward Hyde (Viscount Cornbury) (1661-1723),” but the label now adds that “recent research on the painting has called the identity of the sitter into question.” Bonomi’s research has done more than that. It comes as close as any historian can to showing that whoever the sitter may have been, it was probably not Cornbury. Henceforth no serious historian is likely to contend that it was. But sexual reputation, however acquired, dies hard. A transvestite Cornbury has to be more fun than an anonymous portrait of a properly dressed woman. Don’t count on not seeing her likeness reproduced again somewhere with Cornbury’s name slyly attached.

This Issue

March 5, 1998