Nancy Rubin Stuart is an award-winning author, journalist and writer-producer who specializes in women and social history. Her next book, Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary–Era Women and the Radical Men They Married, examines the lives of Lucy Knox (wife of Revolutinary War hero General Henry Knox) and Peggy Shippen Arnold (wife of the infamous turncoat Benedict Arnold). It will be published by Beacon Press in 2013.
We asked Stuart for her thoughts on what she'll be celebrating this July 4th, and she offered this response:
"At the time of the American Revolution, nearly two hundred and forty years ago, women were expected to remain mute about worldly affairs. While seldom punished as severely as are foreign political activists today, any woman who publicly expressed her views about politics was considered an outrage. Thankfully, American women have long since been granted the vote, they now openly write about politics, and today hold key positions in government. As fireworks cascade overhead on July 4th both women and men have just cause to celebrate our nation’s birthday. "
Nancy Rubin Stuart is an award-winning author, journalist and writer-producer who specializes in women and social history. Her previous books include The Reluctant Spiritualist, American Empress, and Isabella of Castile. In connection with her work she has appeared on several national television series and on NPR's "Morning Edition." Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many national magazines. She currently serves as one of the directors of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Traditionally, we celebrate our nation's birthday on July 4th with parades, fireworks and tributes to the Founding Fathers. Rarely do we recall the women who supported our patriots, those forgotten Founding Mothers who watched their men march off to fight for American independence, leaving them to struggle to support children, homes and farms.
Silence surrounds the lives of those nurturers. While we recall the names of "celebrity women" of that era-- Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams; Mercy Otis Warren, author of anti-British propaganda plays and historian of the American Revolution; Betsy Ross, who stitched the American flag; Deborah Sampson, disguised as a soldier who fought against the British, and Margaret Corbin, who loaded cannons on the battlefield-- we know relatively little about their personal sacrifices and those of their peers.
Before the Revolution, Abigail Adams and her historian friend, Mercy Otis Warren, shunned tea and proudly wore homespun garments in lieu of British finery. Living miles apart south of Boston with their children, the two friends spun dozens of skeins of wool which they collectively donated to the poor. So, too, did countless other women who gathered in private homes for spinning parties or participated in public spinning contests. To stir patriotic sentiment even hotter, patriotic newspapers offered suggestions about North American substitutes for imported teas, among them sassafras, raspberry and mint.
While patriotism required sacrifice, American women still needed certain manufactured goods and fabrics for their households. Since Abigail's husband, John, and Mercy's son, Winslow, lived in Europe during the last years of the Revolution, those matrons sent for certain household goods and fabrics which they sold or traded to friends and neighbors.
Many women and their children, however, no longer lived in old neighborhoods. Among those who fled from Boston during the British occupation was Abigail and Mercy's friend, Betsy Adams, wife of Samuel Adams, who hid in a humble cottage far from the city.
No less unnerving was the April 1775 flight of their friends, Hannah and Professor John Winthrop of Harvard College, as British soldiers stormed through Cambridge. After securing lodging in a "safe house," Hannah wrote about harrowing scenes of bloodshed in nearby fields and nights spent with weeping women and children crowded into a temporary shelter. Later, the Winthrops were transported in a rough wagon to rustic Andover. There, John Winthrop, 61, fell desperately ill from one of the epidemics then raging across Massachusetts emanating from the unsanitary conditions of the British soldiers in Boston. Months later, after Hannah finally called upon the Warrens to help her get him to Watertown, John recovered, but never fully regained his health.
That same April of 1775, Hannah's kindly sister and brother-in-law of Charlestown dressed wounds and provided food for British soldiers fleeing from Lexington and Concord. In June 1775 that couple was stunned to watch their home go up in flames when the British burnt Charlestown. As the Revolution moved to New York and the South, still other women wrote letters or left diary accounts of British and Hessian soldiers who broke into their homes, plundered their valuables, raped them and set their homes on fire.
Even those who escaped such a fate were plagued by loneliness. By the summer of 1775, Mercy's long absence from her husband, James Warren, the first Quartermaster General of the Continental Army and president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, finally impelled her to leave her young sons with servants in Plymouth and ride thirty-five miles over rough roads to Revolutionary headquarters in Watertown. Shocked by James's harried and overwrought condition, Mercy made five solo trips that summer and fall to Watertown to serve as his private secretary and to write reports to their friend John Adams in Philadelphia.
In Braintree, meanwhile, Abigail not only skimped and schemed to maintain her home, children and family finances, but became an astute manager of the Adams's farm. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Revolutionary-era women, whose husbands left home either to fight or serve in Congress, were similarly compelled to assume their husband's former responsibilities.
Among them was Mary Bartlett, wife of a New Hampshire Congressman, who initially balked at running her husband's farm but later became so adept at it that she regarded it as "our farm." A still more famous and lonely "war widow" was Deborah Read, wife of statesmen Ben Franklin, who spent most of the Revolution abroad in his diplomatic duties, leaving her to live and die alone in Philadelphia.
While Abigail's plea to "remember the ladies" fell on deaf ears during the Revolution, her vision has gradually, if grudgingly, become a reality. Nearly ninety years ago women achieved suffrage. Today, more than half of America's college students are women. Now too, in the midst of the Great Recession, women comprise nearly half of the work force.
Nevertheless, women, especially single mothers with children, remain our most impoverished citizens— a condition strikingly similar to that suffered by women of the American Revolution.
As we sing "Happy Birthday America" today, let us remember that women quietly baked the nation's cake. They did so with rationed flour and bartered candles, whose light has burned brighter and stronger through the centuries than have muskets, firearms and bombs.
Should we think that our current problems as a nation—the falling value of the dollar, a perilous dependence upon overseas products, an administration that favors the wealthy over the ordinary man, and an edgy attitude towards women in politics—are unique to 2008, they also worried a nearly forgotten Founding Mother over two hundred and twenty years ago.
Her name was Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), America's first female playwright and historian, fervent patriot and close friend of John and Abigail Adams. Years before the Democratic presidential primary that brought Hillary Rodham Clinton to the brink of nomination this spring, I was intrigued by Mercy Otis Warren's spunk, her close association with leaders of the American Revolution and her determination to promote core patriotic values. That woman's voice in politics was forbidden—indeed, considered a scandal—Mercy refused to accept, exemplified by her popular and prolific, anonymously bylined plays, poems and essays.
Like many successful career women today, Mercy had a father who encouraged her to excel, which in colonial America meant she was tutored alongside her Harvard-bound brother James "the Patriot" Otis. Alas, for the brainy, literary Mercy a college education was impossible. Instead, she was expected to spend her life as a conventional colonial woman, cooking, sewing, making soap and candles, and eventually to marry and bear children.
Her husband, James Warren, apparently understood the "inner" Mercy from the start for he filled their Plymouth, Massachusetts home with books and encouraged her to read and write. Especially the latter. During the tense pre-Revolutionary years, in between birthing and raising five sons, Mercy began by writing poetry. In that, the first outpouring of her heart about the joys of nature, family events and musings upon human destiny, Mercy revealed herself in the full flower of womanhood, grateful for her sons, her husband, domestic felicity and the warmth of friends.
Historians have written little about that young, womanly Mercy. Today she is largely celebrated for her anti-British and anti-Tory plays, essays and especially her life's work, the 1805, three-volume, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution which extolled the patriotic values that spawned that extraordinary democratic experiment. While long encouraged to that task by her old mentor, John Adams, it was, ironically, the only Jeffersonian interpretation of the Revolution published in that era.
Those who read Mercy Otis Warren's works often struggle with her high-toned style, but as I studied her life I became impressed with her tender, feminine side. As she witnessed the outbreak of violence in 1775 in Massachusetts and the subsequent hardships the British occupation caused its residents, that womanly side grew increasingly protective, hidden under a steely insistence upon the democratic principles of the early patriots. By then, Mercy had already begun to speak out in a series of popular, widely published, often plagiarized anti-British and anti-Tory propaganda plays. To protect her both from British persecution and colonial mockery as a woman writer, her identity was kept secret.
Mercy's primary concern in 1775-1776, as she often wrote to her husband James, then President of the Provincial Congress, was his safety and that of her sons. Nevertheless, a future where her family and fellow citizens' "natural rights" would be compromised was equally unthinkable. Self-sacrifice was imperative if the patriots were to triumph over oppression.
Later, during the heady, materialistic days of the new republic, Mercy continued to remind her fellow Americans of the dangers of forgetting the core values that sparked the Revolution –fair play, honesty, thrift and national self-sufficiency.
By the late 1780s, Mercy's tolling messages in print became a reality for, by then, the young republic was mired in an economic depression. Faced with a towering national debt, a falling currency system, swamped with imported luxuries and lacking many basic commodities, America was veering towards the type of disaster, Mercy, her husband James and other "old-fashioned patriots" of the Revolution had repeatedly predicted.
Could Mercy return to the United States today, she would doubtless feel dismayed once again, especially since many of those excesses she lamented in the early Federal era were seemingly resolved before her death in 1814.
Nor did the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in late 1787 relieve Mercy's anxieties. Admittedly, the young nation stood "in need of a strong federal government that would support the prosperity and union of the colonies," but, as Mercy wrote, had not the first patriots "struggled for liberty" for all men?
In reaction, Mercy published (once again anonymously) an influential treatise in May 1788 entitled "Observations on the New Constitution," arguing for the necessity of a list of "natural rights" to protect the ordinary man. Among the key rights Mercy advocated were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, trial by jury in civil cases, and restrictions on the power of the executive branch of government by the judicial and legislative bodies—points which, eighteen months later, became part of the Bill of Rights.
This Fourth of July is also celebrated as Mercy Otis Warren Day at the Barnstable County Courthouse in Massachusetts, where a statue of Mercy Otis Warren stands with one arm raised holding up the Bill of Rights to which she was an unsung, but recently discovered, contributor.
For me, as for any student of American history, that statue is a powerful reminder of a Founding Mother's immortal warning about the human tendency to abuse power, but also the potential we have as individuals to make our voices heard.