July 5, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
What happened the day after independence? Or the next day, or the day after that? How does one go about constructing a cohesive, yet flexible, democratic society? What is it like to transition from a single goal – defeat the British – to a much more fluid goal of a free society? To better understand some of the history of this period, I have been reading Cokie Roberts’s books Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Roberts includes some amazing research which helps to paint the picture of the day. She worked tirelessly reading through notes, letters, receipts, transactions, logs – basically any existing writing which would offer clues about the time period. With this research, she writes eloquently about the struggles of founding a nation – and also the prominent female voices of this time period. Roberts cautions that these are not books about the common experience of the day, but rather ones focused on those with means and power. Today’s blog will glean a few details about the powers that be in the years that followed the fight for independence. I truly appreciate Roberts’s work and recommend these books to anyone interested in the history of America and/or women’s rights in general.
Ladies of Liberty begins with the death of George Washington, which had the potential to be a truly destabilizing event. Washington was revered by all. He and Martha had long served the country and in his wake, Martha received many visitors long after George was no longer in office. He died during John Adams’s presidency at a time of rising factions in the U.S. and problems with the French. In fact, Washington had warned against both of these things at the end of his presidency. His eloquence did not assist the second president, however. Instead, political rhetoric and vicious party fighting marked the campaign for the second presidency. Roberts writes:
“Political parties emerged in this country soon after the men who had fought together in the Revolution and struggled to ratify the Constitution formed the first federal government. With each side claiming to carry the banner of the Spirit of Seventy-Six, John Adams’s Federalist Party – which advocated a strong central government – was derided as pro-British and monarchical while Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party - more inclined to support states’ rights – was attacked as pro-French and anarchical. Since it was considered unseemly to seek the job of president openly, surrogates waged this first presidential campaign through the bitterly partisan newspapers, with intraparty shenanigans making the outcome unknown. When the ballots were counted the results proved interesting indeed. Under the system at the time, the man with the most Electoral College votes became president, the number two in the tally vice president. As president of the Senate, John Adams announced the totals on February 9, 1797: John Adams 71, Thomas Jefferson 68, Thomas Pinckney (running for vice president as a Federalist) 59, Aaron Burr (running for vice president as a Republican) 30. Not only was it a hair-thin victory for Adams, but the president and vice-president for the first – and last – time would hail from opposing parties.” (8)
In addition to the creation of political parties and state roles such as vice president, the newly born America witnessed the birth of the position of “First Lady.” Both Martha Washington and Abigail Adams worked tirelessly to support their husbands and their country. They viewed civic responsibility with utmost importance and both sacrificed much personal pleasure. Like John Adams, Abigail was in the unique and difficult position of following in Washington’s footsteps. Adams’s presidency also encompassed moves from New York to Philadelphia to D.C., into what would ultimately become the White House. In its initial days, the move was a struggle, making consistency difficult. It also created major problems with entertaining, an important role for any First Lady. Furthermore, the role of entertaining and receiving guests came entirely from the president’s own pockets. Roberts notes, “As the first person to play the role of Second Lady, Abigail enjoyed her time in the temporary capitals – New York, then Philadelphia – but found that the constant entertaining was taking its toll on the family finances, which she had so carefully husbanded for many years” (7).
During John’s reelection bid, Abigail returned to Philadelphia and then to D.C., to no avail. John Adams served only one term before losing to Thomas Jefferson in a bitterly fought battle. During the campaign, Abigail continuously noted the lack of factual information in the papers, which were strongly partisan (something else that Washington had warned about). During the heat of the campaign, John Adams wrote to Abigail from the White House: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof” (42). Roberts notes that today those words are “inscribed above the fireplace of the State Dining Room” (42).
John and Abigail Adams wrote many letters and their correspondence paints a portrait of their characters, strong will, determination and opinions. In fact, Abigail kept up such correspondences that we are blessed to see a rich picture of the day, both in and out of the White House. From these (and other resources), Roberts highlights important American firsts, such as the first American Sunday School set up by Catherine Ferguson in New York City. Her story, like many others in her day, was an unlikely one. Born into slavery, she received freedom only after raising $200 to purchase her independence. It is thought that some of this money came directly from Abigail Adams who opposed slavery. Catherine lamented the numbers of poor children on the streets of New York, and so she “took charge of forty-eight kids, both black and white, either placing them with other people or taking them in herself. In about 1793, when she realized how little the children knew about religion, she set up Katy Ferguson’s School for the Poor in New York City” (53). This school subsequently moved to the Murray Street church which, Roberts tells us, launched the Sunday School movement in New York (53).
Two other exciting finds from Roberts’ research include mentions of female authors at this time. Roberts notes that “Hannah Adams, a distant cousin of John Adams, published a couple of texts about religion in order to earn a living, making her the first woman in the country to live off her writing income” (53). Other writers included Susanna Rowson, who was a school teacher as well, but published one of America’s first popular novels, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. In fact, this time period at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s saw great changes in printed materials. As technology advanced, publications reached new and specialized markets, including women’s magazines. Roberts explains that “More publishing meant not only more bookstores but the birth of lending libraries – making books, newspapers, and, especially, magazines available to all comers” (59). Also during this time, Amelia Simmons published the first American Cookbook.
Looking at the political rhetoric of the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debates - driven largely by media and newspapers, factions and political parties - one realizes that the past is not so distant. On the other hand, education models and recipes evidence a bit more change. Does custom influence one arena more than another? How are customs intertwined with laws? Where do these customs come from and who sets the precedent? This book explores mostly those with money and power, but yet also notes women of small means who took great risks in order to influence higher powers, such as Catherine Ferguson. Certainly their legacy is worth more than a footnote.
America’s founding figures are rich with intrigue, flavor, romance, debate and, of course, politics. I find the reading entirely enlightening, educational, and entertaining.
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