ABC News political commentator
and NPR news analyst Roberts didn't
intend this as a general history
of women's lives in early America
- she just wanted to collect some
great "stories of the women who influenced the Founding Fathers." For while
we know the names of at least some of these women (Martha Washington, Abigail
Adams, Eliza Pinckney), we know little about their roles in the Revolutionary
War, the writing of the Constitution, or the politics of our early republic.
In rough chronological order, Roberts introduces a variety of women, mostly wives,
sisters or mothers of key men, exploring how they used their wit, wealth or connections
to influence the men who made policy. As high-profile players married into each
other's families, as wives died in childbirth and husbands remarried, it seems
as if early America - or at least its upper crust - was indeed a very small world.
Roberts's style is delightfully intimate and confiding: on the debate over Mrs.
Benedict Arnold's infamy, she proclaims, "Peggy was in it from the beginning." Roberts
also has an ear for juicy quotes; she recounts Aaron Burr's mother, Esther, bemoaning
that when talking to a man with "mean thoughts of women," her tongue "hangs pretty
loose," so she "talked him quite silent." In addition to telling wonderful stories,
Roberts also presents a very readable, serviceable account of politics - male
and female - in early America. If only our standard history textbooks were written
with such flair! 7 illus. not seen by PW .
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All rights reserved.
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
history is making a big comeback. Cokie
Roberts joins a steady stream of authors
stoking the fires of patriotism. To
the "Let us now praise
famous men" refrain, she has countered
with praise for their wives, sisters
Most professional historians during
the past four decades have turned from
lauding the great events and men in the
American past to reconstructing the neglected
lives of ordinary people. There's a story
behind this shift that helps explain
the current outpouring of tributes to
the country's Revolutionary leaders.
After World War II, American universities
opened wide their doors to veterans whose
education was funded by the G.I. Bill.
African Americans and descendants of
the immigrants from Italy, Greece, Poland,
the Balkans and Germany who flooded into
the United States at the turn of the
20th century entered college, usually
the first in their families to do so.
Many went on to get advanced degrees
in history, as did lots of women.
newcomers to higher education brought
fresh questions to their calling. They
wanted to know about ordinary people
and sought to locate their own forbears
in the American past, rather than study
the WASP gentlemen and Midwestern radicals
whose exploits filled the history books.
Their rallying cry became "History from
the bottom up."
inquiries "from the bottom
up" couldn't be answered in the traditional
way. Ordinary people by definition didn't
sit in Congress or the Oval Office, didn't
lead armies or head diplomatic missions.
So these newly minted historians turned
to long-term data in local records offices
and used computers and social scientific
hypotheses to analyze their findings.
Those who wrote dissertations in the
1960s and '70s churned out questions
about undistinguished Americans with
great gusto, investigating such topics
as their average age at marriage; the
mortality and fertility rates that determined
the growth and decline of population;
the workday routines of the immigrant,
the slave, the laboring man and woman;
and patterns of inheritance and mobility.
Not the stuff of celebratory history,
but vastly important to understanding
how past generations have dealt with
the challenges and limitations they found
in the United States. In 1960 there were
only a handful of books on African Americans
or women; today the volumes number in
the tens of thousands.
these studies were often quite dry,
with tables and graphs gracing pages
that earlier would have contained evocative
photos and pictures of paintings, the
public knew little about this work. Not
until parents discovered Harriet Tubman
in their children's textbooks did they
tumble to the fact that fife-and-drum
history had been replaced by tales of
hard times, disappointments, even failures
experienced by those at the bottom. Rather
than respond positively, many people
labeled the new history "revisionism," a
pejorative term that suggested the manipulation
of sources rather than the acquisition
of new knowledge.
grumblings about the neglect of "dead white men" have
prompted some non-academic historians
and professional writers to go back
to the heroes of the revolutionary
era. One of the most popular books
-- David McCullough's John Adams --
has sold almost 2 million copies, an
unheard-of record for a work of history.
Now every season brings still more publications
on the founding era.
With Founding Mothers, Roberts fills
a gap in our coverage of the era without
straying far from the familiar story
of colonial resistance, the struggle
for independence and the climactic writing
of the U.S. Constitution. We don't lose
sight of the white male titans who built
the nation; we just see them from the
vantage point of the women they wooed
and the families they worried about --
usually at a distance -- during America's
Husbands were separated from wives,
sisters and brothers from each other,
parents from their children. Almost all
the relatives in this select, upper-class
group bridged their separations by writing
long letters filled with pithy descriptions
of troop movements, laments about deaths
and pleadings for reunions. Roberts has
uncovered hundreds of personal anecdotes
and woven them together in a single,
suspenseful narrative with great skill.
While she's out to demonstrate that the
wives of America's heroes were a mighty
force for independence, her storyteller's
instincts generally win out over patriotic
Founding Mothers has something of the
tone of a book for young adults with
its chatty commentary and references
to the present. Many of Roberts's heroines
are familiar to us. We find Eliza Pinckney,
Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy
Warren and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
in these pages, but Roberts's exhaustive
canvassing of the correspondence of these
notable wives introduces us to dozens
of new people.
These doyennes of American society kept
running into each other during the war
and its aftermath. Many of them were
related, and others became so as the
war expanded their social circle. Roberts
artfully stitches together their separate
and overlapping experiences, reminding
us that in war as in peace, men and women
go on courting, conceiving children,
consoling the sick and mourning the dead.
These domestic details quicken our sympathy
for a cohort of women who faced a relentless
succession of pregnancies -- each one
a risk -- as well as virulent diseases
that threatened their lives and those
of their husbands and children.
the trauma of a war fought close to
home, Roberts details how Gen. Nathaniel
Greene kept his wife informed of atrocities
committed by the British Army. "Even the spirited Kitty was understandably
terrified when the British landed in
Newport, Rhode Island, and took the town
without a struggle," Roberts reports. "She
was pregnant again and afraid she had
nowhere to hide." The reading public
obviously craves stories of bravery,
sacrifice and wisdom and rightly turns
to the nation-building decades for models
of conduct. But celebration has its pitfalls.
In earlier times, the discounted story
of Jessica Lynch raining bullets on her
Iraqi attackers might have lived on --
as did the tale of Davy Crockett fighting
to his last breath at the Alamo, when
in fact he was overpowered and captured
and then summarily executed by Santa
Anna's men. Roberts, like those earlier
historians, chooses to take the inspiring
tales she tells at face value.
histories give debunkers their work
just as scholarly tomes create an appetite
for suspenseful narratives. Rather
than try to reconcile these differing
stances towards the past, it's probably
better to accept that our past is a rich
reservoir for reconstructing structures,
processes and patterns as well as mythic
sagas. Where a professional historian
would have analyzed the accounts Roberts
gleaned from her research, she has invited
us to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy
her skill as a chronicler.
Reviewed by Joyce Appleby
2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights
Political correspondent Roberts has deep roots in American political families--her
mother was a U.S. congresswoman from Louisiana, and an ancestor, William Claiborne,
was a U.S. congressman from Tennessee in the 1790s. Here she offers a look
at the women--mostly wives and mothers--who supported the men credited with
creating the U.S. Lamenting the dearth of history about these women, Roberts
primarily draws on letters and diaries to document their significant contributions.
Among her subjects is Deborah Read Franklin, who was virtually abandoned for
16 of the last 17 years of her marriage to Benjamin, who held a post in England
and left her to manage the home and businesses. She was forced to protect their
home from a mob angry at her husband's position on the Stamp Act. Also among
those profiled are Martha Washington, who used her considerable wealth to help
finance the revolution; Abigail Adams, whose famous remark to her husband,
John, to "remember the ladies" was thought to be a reference to women's rights;
and Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave who earned the admiration of George Washington
with her poetry. Roberts offers a much-needed look at the unheralded sacrifices
and heroism of colonial women. Vanessa Bush
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