Review by John Augustine
Television is so overloaded with ranting propagandists masquerading as news commentators that the occasional courteous and thoughtful voice is a treasure. Such a voice belongs to Cokie Roberts, for many years a political analyst for ABC News and one of the most perceptive observers of the Washington scene. Lucky for us, she is also an author and has written a fine book about America's revolutionary era, but not on the usual suspects. The book is called Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (William Morrow).
What were the women up to during our nation's birth pangs? Indeed, what could they do? Wives could not own property or hold office. No woman signed the Declaration of Independence. And life was hard, even for women of privilege. Children died young. Husbands died young. Picture the situation of Kitty Green, whose husband had moved the household south to a Georgia plantation shortly after the war. One night, he complained of a headache. A week later, he was dead. There was Kitty, a debt-ridden 32-year-old widow with five children, a thousand miles from her home with no family living anywhere nearby.
Roberts' stories move from woman to woman as events unfold, winding around like a sea serpent. Famous figures like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams get special attention, but a second tier of familiar names—Mrs. Jay, Mrs. Pinckney, Mrs. Randolph—are recognized as well. But there's also room for lesser known women, like Nancy Hart,
a sturdy frontierswoman in Georgia, [who] helped a patriot escape from his loyalist neighbors and then tricked his pursuers into searching in the wrong place. When the Tories came to confront her about aiding their enemy, she shot a couple of them, killing one and wounding the other, and held the rest at gunpoint until her husband arrived with reinforcements. Then, with the assistance of the men, she took the Tories outside and hung them.
The leading men were often away for years in Europe or on the battlefield. It was left to their wives to run the household or the farm, or the family business, often with a large number of children underfoot. Some accompanied their husbands to the war, most notably Martha Washington, her husband's strongest ally. Townspeople often resented the American soldiers occupying their towns, so she took action.
To help the soldiers, she started sewing shirts and knitting socks out of the materials she had brought from home. As for the townspeople, they were invited to call on the famous general's wife, and when they did, Martha sent them a not-so-subtle message. One prominent woman from the town described the visit where she found her hostess knitting with a speckled apron on!
Many of the women, some still fresh from England, were fervently patriotic. We're not surprised by Abigail Adams' strength. One Sunday, when her pastor prayed for reconciliation with the British, she bristled and later wrote to a friend: "Let us separate. They are unworthy to be our brethren. Let us rather beseech the Almighty to blast their counsels." But consider the patriotism of the recently arrived Esther Reed, with no family in America except her husband. When the war began, she wrote to her brother in England: "Every heart and every hand, almost, is warm and active in the cause; certainly my dear brother it is a glorious one. You see every person willing to sacrifice his private interest." She might meaningfully have added, "HER private interest."
The book is full of wonderful moments. Susan Livingston saved her family's home twice during the war. The second time, Hessian soldiers invaded the house and headed for the second floor, ready to rape and pillage, when a bolt of lightning illuminated the intrepid Susan, who had posted herself at the head of the stairs. When the soldiers saw this apparition, dressed in a white nightgown, they took off out of the house, thinking they had seen a ghost.
After the war, when James Madison was posted as envoy to France, he took his wife Elizabeth with him. These were the dangerous days of the Terror following the French Revolution, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American war, was in exile. Not so his wife, who was in prison awaiting the guillotine. James Monroe, as a diplomat, knew he couldn't interfere in French domestic affairs, but his wife could. Elizabeth Monroe, in the official American carriage, went to the prison where Adrienne Lafayette was held and asked to speak to her. That show of interest resulted in her release.
Then there's my favorite Martha Washington insight. Alexander Hamilton could never run for elective office for he had compromised his reputation with a scandalous affair. Years earlier, when he was merely a juvenile lothario, Martha read his character and named her pet tomcat "Hamilton."
Let's finish with the testimonials of our first two presidents. John Adams, writing to his daughter from Europe during the war, told her: "You have reason for a taste of history, which is as entertaining and instructive to the female as to the male sex. It is by the female world that the greatest and best characters among men are formed. When I hear of an extraordinary man, good or bad, I naturally inquire, `Who was his mother?'"
Late in George Washington's life, he wrote to Annis Stockton, whose popular poetry had urged the revolutionary spirit at the start of it all. "Nor would I rob the fairer sex of their share in the glory of a revolution so honorable to human nature, for indeed, I think you ladies are in the number of the best patriots America can boast."
© John Augustine, 2011