Read an Excerpt of Cokie Roberts' New Book

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.

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