Read an Excerpt of Cokie Roberts' New Book

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.

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