History is littered with private indiscretions made public—some have just been more public than others:

  • It is believed the Leonardo da Vinci was a passionate instructor to his students; one in particular remained in da Vinci’s favor for 26 years.
  • Cleopatra made no secret of the nature of her political alliances, which included a close friendship with the notable Marc Antony.
  • Alexander the Great’s conquests included two wives, a mistress, and possibly his life-long friend Hephaestion.
  • Catherine the Great masterfully orchestrated a series of lovers, one of whom may have had a hand in the death of her ill-fated husband, Peter.
  • Letters revealed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt got quite friendly with his wife’s social secretary Lucy Mercer.

The ranks of political figures whose extramarital pursuits have been made available for public scrutiny are ever-growing. However, unlike George Washington (a purported womanizer), Thomas Jefferson (who fathered several children by Sally Hemings), Warren Harding (had trysts in a White House closet), or even John F. Kennedy (“Happy Birthday, Mr. President”—though that relationship has never been confirmed), indiscretions in today's world will not be whispered about.

In the age of media, the details of our lives, already public, can be collected and shared at the push of a button not just by newspersons but by regular folk too. As an audience we’ve been here many times, and we're likely to be here again if Anthony Weiner's recurring media appearance are an indication of the times. Yet each time it happens, it seems to come as a surprise—mores than when it happens with celebrity couples. We are at once irate and nonplussed. “How dare he in power betray our trust?” we ask even as we turn a blind eye at the fissures in our own social circles. What’s the real reason behind our moral outrage? And what role does technology play in it?

Murmurs of a mistress

Consort. Courtesan. Royal Mistress. However you choose to name the position, it is not a new one. From Anne Boleyn to Barbara Palmer to Jeanne Antoinette Poisson right down to Camilla Parker Bowles, the role of royal paramour has been well documented from the 14th-century onward in European history. These women were not merely pleasant diversions—they were companions. Often smart, witty, and sometimes beautiful, they were choices in a time when political alliances often drove marital arrangements. Her role was to present a distraction to the tedium of court life, to keep the king amused and perhaps to offer a bit of authenticity, real or perceived, in a world mapped by deceit and pettiness. But as an unofficial member of court, the royal mistress herself was no less political or powerful a figure—after all, she had the King’s attention at his most unguarded moments. For example, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, more commonly known as the Marquise de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, played a role in the rise and fall of France as a colonial power by exerting her influence to support French involvement in several conflicts.

It was often no secret that the king sought companionship away from the queen’s bedchambers, and in several cases, these forays threatened the court itself—Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn, which resulted in the severing of ties between the Catholic Church and England in the 16th-century, is one of the more notable examples of the conflict these relationships could generate. Still, court life seemed to flow around this particular role. There was occasionally grumbling when the woman selected for this position lacked a noble title, but that was easy enough to fix with a pronouncement from His Majesty: Poisson had no title at the moment of her introduction to court, but upon her installment in the apartments under Louis XV’s chambers, he gave her the estate of Pompadour along with its coat of arms and the title of Marquise.

Discussions about the royal mistress were largely local ones. There were limited means by which to share domestic opinions, much less international ones. Whispers at court and rumors were common, as was commentary by the populace—again, it was generally no secret whom the king pursued on a regular basis—but these critiques had less of an impact than those made today.

The spirit of capitalism and the demand for discretion

The prominence of the role of royal mistress faded from view with the rise of new democratic orders. That is not to say that the role of political consort disappeared; rather, it became a more clandestine affair. As the United States took shape around the notion of the Spirit of Capitalism, it also rallied behind a very particular ethic:

The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor makes him easy six months long; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day; demands it, before he can receive it, in a lump.


It shows, besides, that you are mindful of what you owe; it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest man, and that still increases your credit (1).

Benjamin Franklin’s use of the word credit here makes reference to the importance of reputation, particularly in business. In a departure from the European monarchies, the shift to more democratic governing bodies meant that politics was less of a lifestyle and more of a business endeavor. Franklin emphasized honesty and commitment to one’s pursuits—the individual must be diligent in his assignments because, as Weber writes, “the earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling” (2,3). This extended to political life as well. Within an elected system, an individual serving as a member of the governing body needs to show attentiveness to the business at hand. That means there will be little tolerance for public dalliances. Political officials are representatives of the populace, governing by their permission not divine right. Credit in terms of reputation becomes integral to the construction of political character, which is a currency that can be wielded in favor of the populace represented by the elected official.

Personal credit then was a thing to be preserved. And the media as it existed—primarily in newsprint, and later in radio and television—worked to preserve this credit. The private lives of elected officials were more-or-less off limits to public scrutiny; the public discussions concerned the efficiency of the public servant as a public servant. The public record was a carefully orchestrated thing: Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a paralytic illness later in life, however as President, both he and the press took pains to present a picture of health to the larger stage. Though he often made use of a wheelchair, he took steps to assure that he was never seen in public in that state, and very few individuals at the time knew the extent of his illness.

Nothing is off the record

Today nothing is off the record. The prevalence of social media channels means that very little can be overlooked, and that is primarily because we as the public are engaged in the act of sharing the most minute details of our lives. And we’ve come to expect that others will do the same. Social media channels make individuals accessible to us whom we have previously regarded at a distance.

The issue at hand is that the public record is the means by which we are judged as a society. For a long time, these records were carefully managed. After all, the written word has long been the means of establishing the consensus upon which society is based. However, thanks in part to tools like Twitter and Facebook, the public record is more than just the written word—it includes photos and videos as well what can be conveyed in 140-characters or less. And anyone can contribute and comment. We are actively engaged in noting what ideas and behaviors we want associated with our social order.

The extramarital affairs of Roosevelt—and Washington and Jefferson—were not a part of their tenure in office. They often only came to light after the fact, and then only after careful scrutiny of their private records. Roosevelt’s affair with Mercer was discovered by his wife Eleanor when she found letters detailing the relationship. Though he promised to stop seeing Mercer, the two continued to have a very close friendship until his death in 1945, and she was reportedly with him when he died. The American public remained largely unaware of this relationship until the 1960s—likely because he wasn’t Tweeting about where he and Mercer were going to meet, but also because there was a concerted effort to preserve the credit of this man who represented an entire nation. Nonetheless, it bears noting that even in the absence of widespread sharing, Roosevelt’s network—his physical one, in this case—seemed to be fairly informed about of his behavior.

While public figures have long struggled with maintaining private and public boundaries, even in the case of the royal court, the individual’s network has often been aware of the individual’s activities. Social media tools expand this information beyond just the individual’s immediate network, and shares it with anyone who may have an interest in the matter. Discussions are no longer simply a local affair. While social media tools allow for more voices to contribute to the public record, they also allow those voices to share concerns and question social membership.

The revolution will be transparent

The United States is a leading adopter of social media tools (4). These channels allow us to assess the state of our society and call for change or commend what works. The affairs of political figures—while not altogether unheard of—are occurring at a time when we have the means at our disposal to engage in public discussion about their fitness for their roles. The American response has largely followed the trajectory of early American politics where every attempt was made to manage the distribution of this type of information by the media. However, as noted previously with Roosevelt, and certainly in the case of the royal courts, it is extremely likely that the networks of the individual in question were aware of controversial behavior to some degree. For this reason it seems that the larger issue is not that these official stray, but that they initially lied about their behavior. Honesty assures credit—especially in an age when it is so easy to verify the information being shared (2).

These cases demonstrate the ways in which technology can actively engage the social network, and allow the participating public to negotiate the boundaries of their society. It seems to be a slightly less violent means of doing so than the course followed by French revolutionaries in 1789 when they stormed the Bastille. With the growing prominence of the public format of the private record, it is likely that the social order will increasingly be judged by the population to which it is assigned. As we grow increasingly comfortable with this degree of intimacy, we'll probably be more inclined to let them keep their heads.

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1. Weber, Max (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Dover Publications: New York. P49

2. Weber: 52

3. Weber: 53

4. NielsenWire (2010). Led by Facebook, Twitter, Global Time Spent on Social Media Sites up 82% Year over Year. Accessed 11 June 2011.

Note: A version of this article appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on June 13th, 2011.