ABC News political correspondent and best-selling author Cokie Roberts continues the story of early America's influential women that she began in "Founding Mothers" (2004). In her new book. "Ladies of Liberty," she draws on personal correspondence, private journals and many previously unpublished primary sources to capture the lives of extraordinary women, including Abigail Adams, Martha Jefferson, Dolley Maddison, Elizabeth Monroe, Eliza Hamilton, Theodosia Burr, Louisa Livingston, Rosalie Calvert, Rebecca Gratz, Louise Catherien Admas, Margaret Bayard Smith, Sacajawea and others.
Roberts is also the author of the national best-seller "We Are Our Mother's Daughters."
Read the introduction to Cokie Robert's "Ladies of Liberty" below or click here to browse inside the book and find several of the chapters in full.
The new American nation bristled with expectation and exploration at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. But the Old World looked with such skepticism at the upstart across the sea that the country was forced to fight what amounted to a second war of in dependence. In this unsettled, still self-defining time women were in the middle of everything—contributing to the culture as writers and educators, shaping the society as reformers and religious, expanding the nation as settlers and seekers. And though they possessed no official power—not only were women denied the right to vote, married women could not even own property—their considerable political influence is evident in their own words and those of the men in their lives. Take, for example, the great trader John Jacob Astor's letter to Dolley Madison in 1812, after war had been declared, thanking her for following through on a promise: "He well remembers Mrs. Madison's assurances that all Mr. Astor's ships should arrive and he is happy to say that they have arrived from Canton with valuable cargos." The First Lady had been the one to guarantee his ships' safe passage. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that these elite women would be called upon to play essential parts. Soon after Elizabeth Pinckney married William Lowndes, her father, statesman and General Thomas Pinckney, charged her with studying her husband's plantation books because public life would soon call him: "Lowndes cannot escape it, for the country will demand it, and you must learn to manage his business for him."
As central as they were to the survival of the country, the women have been almost completely obscured by America's best- known politicians—the men we call the Founding Fathers. Not only have there been countless volumes analyzing their actions, they remain a daily part of American political life, invoked in legislative chambers, consulted in courtrooms, lauded in political campaigns. I have written about politics and Congress for more than three decades, and the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have become my close acquaintances. That's one of the reasons why I wrote Founding Mothers a few years ago. I wanted to know what the women were up to while the men were thinking their great thoughts. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the women were heroic in a time when heroic acts were called for in resisting the British, enforcing boycotts, enduring war, sacrificing for the cause. I had expected that book to end with the election of John Quincy Adams—when the torch of the American presidency passed to a new generation. But it was getting to be much too big a book, and I would never have made the deadline. I stopped with the inauguration of his father instead, after the first contested presidential election testing the new Constitution.
Now that I've learned about the women of this next period—from Adams to Adams—I'm so glad I didn't give them short shrift by jamming them into the end of that book. The years from the presidency of John Adams to the election of his son are not as dramatic as the Revolutionary period, but in many ways they're more important. It's much easier to band together, as the Founding Fathers did, to fight against an outside enemy than to hold together while differing philosophically and politically on ends as well as means—on what kind of country would and should emerge from this American experiment. At various points over these years fierce partisanship and regional jealousies threatened our nationhood when it was too young and fragile to withstand the blows easily. But even as the men were literally ready to kill each other, to fight duels over political arguments—the women continually tried to provide wise counsel and cool the passions. Exception: Abigail Adams, who was considerably more partisan than her husband. But she is the exception who proves the rule—with her intemperate advice and her failure to act as an ameliorator, her husband lost reelection.
Washington women used the world of society, from formal receptions to casual card parties, to bring men together to effect political ends. In the fledgling federal city everything was still evolving in terms of who played what role. In that fluid situation, the worlds of state and society overlapped so thoroughly that it was impossible to tell where one left off and the other began. As a reporter, I went digging for the best sources on all of this activity and found them to be the women themselves plus their friends and relatives. With only a handful of exceptions, every quotation in this book is either written by a woman, to a woman, or about a woman. It turns out that the men consulted the women constantly. Aaron Burr sought his daughter's guidance about his amours; Rosalie Calvert's father needed her business acumen for his investments. In fact, the way fathers benefited from their daughters' wisdom turned out to be one of the many happy surprises of this book.
Surprises, because history looks very different when seen through the eyes of women. I would argue that the view is much broader, not only because it includes the other half of the human race but also because the men become more three- dimensional when they correspond with women, and especially when women correspond about them. The marble and bronze deities we know as the Founding Fathers become flesh- and- blood fathers, husbands, lovers, sons, and friends with all the passion and playfulness, flaws and feelings that go with those roles. When these men addressed each other it was usually with great seriousness (often well over the line into pomposity); they assumed their correspondence would be preserved and with all probability published and pored over. Those letters carry the weight of posterity. When the same men wrote to women, they showed much more of themselves. Even the dour John Quincy Adams could be delightful when writing to his wife. On his way to Ghent to negotiate the treaty ending the War of 1812, he gave a running commentary to Louisa back in St. Petersburg on the people and places along the way: "There is so much gossiping in my letters to you, that if the inspectors of the post office at the Capital take the trouble of opening and reporting them to the government, my diplomatic gravity and dignity will be 'furiousemant ompromise.'
And who else but his wife would learn that the great jurist John Marshall went riding the circuit without any breeches! When Marshall discovered his predicament "I immediately set out to get a pair made. I thought I should be a sans-culotte only one day," but he found all the tailors in the town of Raleigh, North Carolina, too busy to help him, and "I have the extreme mortification to pass the whole term without that important article of dress I have mentioned." What a mental image!
When writing to women the men were not just less guarded about their personal foibles, they were also more honest about their political judgments. In 1814, Congressman William Lowndes believed that the peace negotiators would soon end the War of 1812 but he wouldn't say so in public: "It is indeed, very important that our exertions should not be weakened by the opinion that they may be unnecessary. Yet the hope in which I sometimes indulge myself I cannot refuse to communicate to you." That communication assumed discretion on the part of Elizabeth Lowndes and, in fact, she was so discreet that her friends thought her husband refused to share confidences with her. She finally asked him to tell her when "facts or opinions were to be kept to her." Hannah Gallatin, on the other hand, almost wrecked the country's borrowing ability because she couldn't keep her mouth shut. Her husband, longtime Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, was one of the commissioners negotiating an end to the War of 1812. When she spread it about that he had written a gloomy assessment of the peace prospects, the news came close to causing a calamity. Her friend Dolley Madison warned Hannah that her reports "had a distressing effect on our loan & threw many into consternation for a while but we were able to contradict and soften consequences." Message delivered, Dolley then went on to talk about mutual friends.
And that's the way it works with these women's letters. What a treat! In one often dashed- off page we find out about the issues of the day, and how the writer thinks they should be handled; who is having babies, and all too often losing them; what business transactions she's conducted; what's in fashion, who's in town, and just generally good gossip. Most are lively and fun and, especially, frank. We hear from these women on everything from politics to pregnancy and we see this period of history from their perspective.
My interest in the power of political wives comes from my own experiences growing up in politics. My own mother, Lindy Boggs, whose family was always in public office, found herself a congressional wife at the age of twenty- four, a Member of Congress herself at the age of fifty- seven, and ambassador to the Vatican at the age of eighty- one. She would be the first to say that a woman should be in any room where powerful decisions are made, but she is very interested about power behind-the-scenes versus the onstage role. Her decades of backstage experience swaying extremely powerful men—congressional leaders and presidents—made her much more successful once she was the player on the scene. Her biggest problem when she was actually elected to Congress, as my politician sister had warned her, was that she had to vote—to say yes or no—instead of seeming to side with everyone, cajoling them until they came to the conclusion she wanted. She was in a direct line of descendants from Dolley Madison, a brilliant people- person. When Dolley's husband was running for reelection, a member of the opposition party complimented the First Lady: "By her deportment in her own house you cannot discover who is her husband's friends or foes."
In the 1950s and '60s I watched my mother and the other political wives, along with the local African- American women who were their allies, run all the social ser vices in Washington—family and child ser vices homes for unwed mothers, for the homeless, for victims of domestic violence hospitals food banks you name it. They also ran their husbands' campaigns, the national political conventions, the voter registration drives, the presidential inaugurations, and all of the social events where many of the deals were struck that later became law. And of course they managed us kids as well, as we moved back and forth from our fathers' states to the federal city.
With my mother in mind, much seemed familiar to me as I learned about the women of the earliest days of Washington. Take the question of where to live—congressional families constantly struggle with the choice of settling in the District of Columbia or staying in the home district, and now I know they've always struggled with that question. As little children, our family lived in Washington when Congress was in session, in Louisiana when it was not. My sister and brother and I went to school half- year in each place. As we grew older and started going to school year-round in Washington, spending the summers and Christmas in Louisiana, we were often separated from our father—there was never a perfect solution to the two-city problem. When Senator John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa, tried moving their small boys back and forth between Washington and Boston, they found it expensive and difficult. Much to Louisa's dismay her husband sided with his mother, Abigail Adams, and left the children with her in Massachusetts when they went to Washington for the congressional term in 1805. Louisa's complaints about the situation elicited a sharp rebuke from her mother- in- law: "There cannot be anything more disagreeable than transporting young children twice a year, either by water, or in crowded stages at such a distance, and however reluctant you might feel, at being separated from them, I should suppose that your own judgment, experience and good sense would have convinced you of the propriety of the mea sure."
Abigail Adams's letter points up both the similarities and the differences between the women in this book and the ones I grew up with. My mother and her cohorts had much in common with Louisa Adams and Dolley Madison and the rest. The men of both eras used the women as gatherers and disseminators of information, as softeners of blows, as intermediaries between factions, as the diplomats they themselves often were not. And periodically some long- suffering wife, like Eliza Hamilton, would be called on to stand by, or slightly behind her man, smile fixed firmly on her face, trying to salvage his political career as he confessed to some scandalous behavior. But as Abigail's curt missive makes clear, the times were also very different. Though my mother would probably agree that it was "disagreeable to transport young children," at least we weren't going by stagecoach. And the rotten two- lane state roads we traveled between New Orleans and Washington were good enough that we weren't forced to take to the waterways for transportation. Our separations were for days, or at most weeks, at a time, not the years these women sometimes went without seeing their husbands or children or parents.
Those are just small examples of how much harder life was in this period, even for wealthy women who hired servants or, sadly, owned slaves. Just getting through the day at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century could be challenging. Death was everywhere. The losses these women suffered are almost overwhelming. Every illness, every pregnancy—and they were perennially pregnant—every journey held the prospect of disaster. Still these ladies soldiered on with remarkable resiliency.
To understand just how remarkable, take a look at what life was like for women at the time this book begins. The first census in 1790 put the population at close to four million people. With immigrants trickling in from Europe and American women producing large families, the nation was rapidly growing. About fifty white babies were born for every thousand people before 1800 (the number was just over fourteen in 2000), but those babies' mothers could only expect to live to age forty, half as long as white women today. Only about one- fifth of the house holds were without children according to the first census, more than two- thirds were childless in the last one. The average house hold held seven people then, now it's less than three. In 2000, more than twenty- five percent of Americans lived alone, compared to fewer than four percent in 1790. And the first accounting of the nation revealed that almost one- quarter of the population—twenty- four percent—was held in bondage.
With all those people crowding the house and all those children to care for, most women were probably much too busy to worry about the fact that they held no legal or political rights. Not only were married women barred from owning property, the very clothes and jewelry on their bodies belonged to their husbands, and only property owners could vote. But even as the franchise spread to non-property holding white men, women weren't on the political radar screen. The one exception: New Jersey, where unmarried women briefly could cast ballots, along with free blacks, until the powers- that- were decided they didn't like the way politicians were appealing to the women's vote, so passed a law revoking their franchise. When the New Jersey women did go to the polls they were ridiculed for taking on a man's role:
To Congress, lo! Widows shall go,
Like metamorphosed witches!
Clothed in the dignity of state,
And eke! In coat and breeches!
New Jersey legislators revoked free blacks' right to vote at the same time they disenfranchised women. The numbers of free blacks in the North kept growing during the years after the Revolutionary War when states above the Mason- Dixon line passed laws abolishing slavery. In the South too the "peculiar institution" was dwindling until after 1793, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (with the help of Catherine Littlefield Greene, but that's another story). With a free labor pool, the planting of short- staple cotton became enormously profitable, leading to a giant leap in the numbers of slaves.
Other inventions also affected the economy and the way families lived their lives. Almost all Americans—ninety percent—worked on farms in 1790. But that was changing rapidly. Sam Slater's water- powered textile mill opened in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1793, essentially starting the Industrial Revolution in this country. It wouldn't take long before men and women no longer worked together at home manufacturing goods. Men went out to work, so did many single women. Married women, still burdened with onerous house hold duties, lost the help of the men and sometimes of their older daughters as well. These overworked "Republican mothers" were also assigned the task of raising virtuous citizens to rule the new republic.
And that republic was ever expanding. From the first census in 1790 to the last census in this time frame, in 1820, the population had more than doubled to more than nine and a half million. The center of population had moved from the Atlantic seaboard, around Chestertown, Mary land, to what's now West Virginia. Over horrible roads and in dreadful conditions the westward movement over those thirty years was about the same as it has been in the thirty years between the 1970 and 2000 head counts. And as the country moved, bursting with basically unfettered capitalism, it was the women who realized that there were some people left out of this energetic expansion. So women set up the social- ser vice networks to protect the less fortunate. And as they came to understand the conditions of the poor, the women became reformers. The benevolent societies started in the early nineteenth century turned in many cases into associations arguing for the abolition of slavery and then, eventually, to expanding the suffrage. Women ever so slowly came to understand that they needed the power of the vote in order to achieve their social ends.
How could it have taken so long? It's almost impossible for me to wrap my mind around the fact that my mother was born before women had the right to vote. And it's almost equally impossible for my daughter, despite her well- internalized indoctrination by her foremothers, to comprehend completely that I had graduated from college before employment discrimination against women was outlawed. And I am confident that my granddaughters will be amazed that their mother was a grown woman before America elected a female president. There are generations of women, and their male champions, to thank for those changes, starting with these ladies of liberty who truly did shape our nation.