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An excerpt from "Founding Mothers"

An excerpt from Cokie Roberts' "Founding Mothers"
/ Source: MSNBC TV

An excerpt from Cokie Roberts' "Founding Mothers"


When I was in school, I learned a lot about the men we call the Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others. But aside from a story about Martha Washington spending a freezing winter at Valley Forge with the American army during the Revolutionary War, I don’t remember ever being taught anything about the women who lived at the time the thirteen American colonies decided to break from Britain and build a country. I knew nothing of the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and female friends of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, fought in the revolution, created the Constitution, and formed our first government. I would have read books about the women if they had been available. History always interested me, and of course reading about women made tales from the past more real to me.

My interest in history led me to my job as a news reporter writing about politics and government. To do my job well, I needed to understand better what the men who wrote our country’s charters were thinking when they crafted those documents. As I learned more about the men, I wondered more about the women. What were they doing while their husbands, sons, brothers, friends, and fathers were off serving the country? I suspected that they had wonderful stories to tell if I could only hear them. And now I know they did.

The way we learn about the past is through letters and diaries, plus books written in earlier times and objects like clothes and cooking tools that tell us what people wore and how they lived. The Founding Fathers wrote hundreds of letters and articles that have been preserved and published over the centuries. But because women weren’t considered important, their letters were often destroyed or stuffed in a box somewhere and lost for years. But I was able to find enough traces of our country’s female forebears to piece together their very interesting lives.

Some women went off to war with the men; some served as spies; some wrote political poems and plays; some ran businesses and farms; many lived very difficult lives as the men were gone for months, sometimes years at a time. The eight long years of the Revolutionary War required many women to show incredible bravery in the face of danger to themselves and their children. By keeping everything together on the home front, the women made it possible for the men to go off to battle, or to congress, or on diplomatic missions. Without the women doing what they did, it would have been very hard for the men to “found” a nation. That’s why I call them the Founding Mothers, and I know you will enjoy getting to know them.

These women were feisty and funny and flirty. And they were great Patriots—completely devoted to the American cause. As the British general Lord Cornwallis wrote during the war, “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

Deborah Read Franklin

Though Deborah ReadandBenjamin Franklin metin Philadelphia when they were teenagers, Ben soon went off to England. Years later they got back together and Deborah’s mother let Ben open a printing shop in the back of her own variety store. Deborah worked in both shops, quickly becoming an accomplished businesswoman.

Ben started writing a newspaper and experimenting with inventions, and grew so well known that he was called to public service. Deborah worked to expand the printing enterprise into a series of shops along what was then the frontier—western Pennsylvania. And when Ben accepted the title of postmaster, it was Deborah who ran the postal service.

She had to take charge because Ben was out of the country for years at a time. He represented the Pennsylvania colony in England and thought it important for him to stay there to argue against laws like the Stamp Act that the Americans thought were unfair. Deborah was left to run everything, and Ben thought she did an excellent job of managing money, saying she was “a fortune” to him. But she missed him and wanted him home. Though she begged him to come back, Ben didn’t return to America until after Deborah died. Many years later he had a dream that he met his wife in heaven and tried to renew the marriage. But in the dream Deborah wouldn’t have him, telling him that she had been his wife for almost fifty years: “Be content with that.”

Ben was in England when the hated Stamp Act became law, and his Philadelphia neighbors thought he hadn’t fought hard enough against it. Furious, they decided to tear down his house. Instead of hiding, Deborah asked a couple of relatives to bring guns, and when the angry mob arrived she scared away the crowd. When Ben heard the story he praised her “spirit and courage.” But he still didn’t come home like Deborah wanted him to do.

After Ben was named first postmaster general for the colonies, Deborah was left to make sure the mail was delivered. When Lord Loudon, the Englishman in charge of the postal service, tried to fire one of her workers, Deborah stood up to him—accusing his men of treating her “very unpolitely” and complaining that he was slowing down the mail system.  So much for Lord Loudon.

Phillis Wheatley

While George Washington was campedin Cambridge, he invited a truly remarkable woman to pay him a visit. Phillis Wheatley had been raised as a slave, but by the time she met General Washington she was an internationally celebrated poet.

No one knew how old the little girl was when she was snatched from her parents in Africa and stashed aboard the slave ship Phillis, but the Wheatleys guessed she was probably seven or eight because she still had some of her baby teeth. Susannah Wheatley, the mother of the family, bought Phillis to help her with household chores.

Soon eighteen-year-old Mary Wheatley, who taught Phillis English and Bible studies, realized how smart her student was, and by age twelve Phillis was writing poetry and living more like a family member than a servant. Eventually the Wheatleys freed her.

When newspapers printed her poems, no one could believe that a young slave was the author; people were even more amazed when a book of her poetry was published in England. After General Washington read Phillis’s poem praising him, he wrote to her saying he wanted to meet someone “so favored by the muses.”

It might surprise you that Phillis Wheatley lived in Boston, since we think of slavery as Southern. But before the Revolution, slavery was legal in all of the American colonies. Many slaves suffered under harsh conditions and few enjoyed the treatment Phillis received. Another Massachusetts slave, Elizabeth Freeman—called Mumbet—won her freedom in a lawsuit against her owners that helped lead to the abolition of slavery in the state.

Here’s one of Phillis Wheatley’s poems where she wrote about slavery as the reason she so loved freedom:

Whence flow these wishes for the common good,

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrow labor in my parents’ breast.

Abigail Adams

“You are really brave, my dear, you are an heroine,” wrote John Adams to his wife, Abigail. The man who would become our second president was then at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia while his wife and four children were home in Massachusetts in daily danger from the British.

Abigail strongly believed in American independence, so supported her husband’s political activities, but she had to keep the farm going by herself, always worrying where the British would strike next. John wrote that if it got really dangerous she should “fly to the woods with our children.” Think how alone she must have felt!

Abigail, who sent John constant advice about the new government and current updates about politics, kept her letters coming when he went to Europe on diplomatic missions. Finally, after he had been gone for six years, she joined John in England.

In the first nationwide election, John Adams won as George Washington’s vice president. Abigail moved to New York, the temporary capital city, and then to Philadelphia, where she assumed the job of First Lady once John was elected president. Then it was on to the brand-new city of Washington and the unfinished White House, which was so cold it took fires in thirteen chimneys to keep it warm.

John lost reelection to Thomas Jefferson, and the Adams couple retired to Massachusetts. Abigail lived to see her son, John Quincy Adams, become secretary of state, but she died before he was elected as the country’s sixth president.

After he grew up, John Quincy Adams described the terrifying time of the Revolution in Massachusetts: “For the space of twelve months my mother with her infant children dwelt, liable every hour of the day and night to be butchered in cold blood, or taken and carried to Boston as hostages.” But at the time Abigail bravely wrote, “Danger they say makes people valiant.”

When Abigail advised John to “remember the ladies,” she was eager to improve the lives of American women. She was especially interested in education, feeling that too many women were deprived of decent schooling. Even though she and her sisters had been taught well by their preacher father and his students, Abigail never thought her education was good enough. After the Revolution many women’s schools were established so that educated mothers could raise sons to be good citizens.

FOUNDING MOTHERS:  Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts Published by HarperChildrens