Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts, William Morrow, 512 pp., $26.95
After his hair-thin victory in the 1796 presidential election, John Adams sent his wife Abigail near-daily missives beseeching her to abandon the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, and come to Philadelphia to be by his side. “I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life,” he wrote a fortnight after his inauguration. “I must entreat you to come on as soon as you can,” he added several days later, and then, after learning that his own mother was sick and required his wife’s care, wrote, “It seems to me that the Mother and the Daughter ought to think a little of the President as well as the Husband. His cares! His Anxieties! His Health! Don’t Laugh.”
Adams’ independent-minded spouse politely refused to leave her meticulously tended farm until she had found a caretaker. Indeed, she continued to manage the farm’s finances even after John Adams lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and returned to Quincy, where he took to reading romance novels. An indomitable woman, Abigail Adams was her husband’s closest adviser, ran his campaigns, kept him apprised of political intrigues, bore six children, took care of elderly relatives and “militated mightily” for women’s rights and education. All this at a time when women could not vote, hold political office or even own property if married.
Nevertheless, they were far from silent or passive, as ABC News political commentator Cokie Roberts describes so vividly in Ladies of Liberty. By combing troves of correspondence and culling quotes from hundreds of letters and journals, Roberts has painted a brilliant portrait of founding mothers, educators, explorers, free-thinkers, early feminists and reformers in the tumultuous period stretching from the inauguration of John Adams in 1797 to that of his son John Quincy Adams in 1825. Her subjects include: Katy Ferguson, a former African American slave who, though illiterate herself, set up a School for the Poor in New York City, supporting herself by baking cakes for fashionable weddings; Mary Billings, an Englishwoman who opened an integrated school in Georgetown in 1810 (although the immediate outcry forced her to close it); Judith Sargent Murray, who published a three-volume treatise on the rights of women in 1798, endorsed by none other than George Washington; and Rebecca Gratz, a Philadelphia Jewish philanthropist who in 1819 founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and later the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum and the first Hebrew Sunday School in America.
Organizing widows’ and orphans’ societies was a popular endeavor among the moneyed classes—and necessary too. After one congressional session ended in 1821, “the fathers of the nation had left forty cases to be provided for by the public,” John Quincy Adams’ wife Louisa wrote indignantly, adding that her Orphan Asylum “was the most likely to be called upon to maintain this illicit progeny.” Then as now, scandal obsessed society gossips, as Roberts relates in delicious detail, recounting tales of women who leapt out of windows to elope with their lovers, bore children out of wedlock or shocked society with their scanty dress, as did Betsy Bonaparte, who married (and was swiftly abandoned by) Napoleon’s brother Jerome, and who showed up at a Washington ball wearing a muslin dress “dampened so that it would cling to her shapely, underwear-free body revealing all.”
But it is Roberts’ accounts of quiet heroism that prove most moving. In an era ravaged by war, rebellion and piracy, women braved British army attacks, violent sea voyages and the perpetual threat of infectious diseases, not to speak of repeated miscarriages, the deaths of young children and, for Abigail Adams’ daughter Nabby, a 25-minute mastectomy without anesthesia. (She died of breast cancer anyway.) One young American Indian woman, 16-year-old Sacagawea, sustained Lewis and Clark on their trek toward the Pacific by supplying them with roots and berries, all the while carrying her own baby on her back. No less heroic was President James Madison’s ebullient wife Dolley, who spent more than eight years helping to build the capital city, leaving off entertaining only long enough to rescue priceless state papers and a portrait of George Washington from the rampages of the British army, who burned the White House in 1814. So powerful was her reach, and so lasting her tenure, that Daniel Webster declared her “the only permanent power in Washington— all others are transient.”
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.