Now I know why high school American History classes were such a snore. Up until now, history books have largely been written by men about only the men who founded our proud nation. Abbreviated, often sanitized versions of how events came to pass seem created to portray the good guys and the bad guys in ways that prove who was right or wrong. They were often dull and statistical, sweeping any nuance or thrills tidily under the rug.
One could not finish the course without knowing that Martha Washington was our first First Lady and that Abigail Adams was a strong woman who helped her husband John, our second president, throughout his career. Dolley Madison may be more famous for the lunchbox sweet cakes named after her than for her powerful influence on our nation’s capital for over two decades both as the wife of the unpopular fourth president, James Madison, and as the Grande Dame pillar of society as his widow. Did we know that Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, was perhaps the first American political wife who would stand, looking adoringly at a philandering husband as he admitted adultery? Not likely. What we think of as heated debate and political mudslinging today would pale compared to the harsh words in the press or uttered during debate that too often led to duels in misty meadows and murder on the steps of Congress.
As Cokie Roberts neared the publication deadline for her first book, FOUNDING MOTHERS, it became clear that there was a vast, unplumbed treasure trove of historical information in the form of personal correspondence by and about the strong women of the new nation. These letters from and to the women who shared the dangers and privations of disease, separation, lethal epidemics and often near-starvation as one war moved into another crackled with never-before published descriptions, facts and insights into the momentous events that formed our new nation.
Researchers had no problem finding copies of treaties and legislation, even rough drafts of such treasures as the Articles of Confederation and the Bill of Rights. But these had been, for the most part, carefully written, edited and preserved in formal language --- the meatless bones of a new democracy. When these same brilliant men, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, corresponded with their wives and friends, the true picture of the times flowed from the pages.
In LADIES OF LIBERTY, we learn firsthand, in their own words, of the devastating effects of measles, dysentery, yellow fever and childbirth complications. These famous and very capable women were pregnant most of the time, often losing at least half of their children to one constant threat after another. Many were pregnant nearly a dozen times, perhaps seeing only three or four or fewer children grow to maturity. If they themselves survived all these pregnancies, they often moved across country or sailed to foreign lands as their husbands served as ambassadors or emissaries, enduring months of seasickness or bone-rattling stagecoach rides.
In one vivid chapter, Louise Catherine Adams --- who, with her husband, John Quincy Adams, had spent six years in the court of Czar Alexander of Russia --- is summoned to Paris by her husband, who is there on business at the end of his term in Russia. She packs their belongings into a sleigh along with their seven-year-old son, a nanny and two men of dubious background to travel across Europe in the dead of winter. The trip took two months at a time when Napoleon had escaped Elba and returned to France, turning Europe upside down in a new war. Her husband awaited her in Paris, completely unaware of the dangers she was facing and was in fact attending a theatrical production the night she finally arrived after a journey that would have killed a lesser woman. Mr. Adams’s account of this incident is a brief footnote, including a review of the play as he acknowledges the arrival of his wife and son. Louise’s vivid description of the freezing conditions, crude accommodations along the road and their terror at swordpoint of marauding soldiers brings to life what life was really like in 1816 Europe.
Would we have learned that Theodosia Burr, daughter of the infamous Aaron Burr, would play such an important role in our nation? That the Ursaline nuns of New Orleans were invaluable help in nursing the wounded and taking in orphans during the famous battle of the War of 1812, but had been educating women, slaves and native Americans in their schools --- unheard of anywhere else in the country --- since 1727? Sacajawea, the famous Shoshone Indian teenager who gave birth to a baby while serving as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark on their Northwest exploration, could neither read nor write. But Lewis and Clark did, describing in ever-growing admiration the skill and importance of her presence to their mission.
A favorite chapter is Dolley Madison’s account, through letters to friends and her husband, of the attack and burning of Washington and the President’s house during the War of 1812. What? The British came back and burned down Washington after the Revolutionary War? Where was I the day they covered that in class? And did I ever hear about Dolley Madison delaying her flight to safety as the British arrived at the door to rescue the portrait of George Washington and see that it was spirited out of town under cover of darkness?
The only criticism I can aim at this fascinating account of these exciting historical events is that I sometimes became a little lost in the timeline. I did a fair amount of glancing back to orient myself to locations and dates as each absorbing tale unfolded surrounding the dozen or so women covered in the story.
But LADIES OF LIBERTY brings stuffy old American History crackling to life through these priceless correspondences. Cokie Roberts modestly states that all she did was find them and pull them together into a book. For this we are grateful, Ms. Roberts.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on April 8, 2008