Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

“How shall we be governd so as to retain our Liberties?”

In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Parliament had passed the Coercive Acts or, as they were referred to by Americans, the Intolerable Acts, by which the British closed the port of Boston, dissolved the provincial assembly, and sent additional troops to occupy the city and quell unrest. The British forays into Lexington and Concord in April to seize stores of ammunition and their confrontation with local militias resulted in a widespread call to arms. Converging on Boston, militiamen began digging trenches and redoubts virtually surrounding Boston. Although the British won the day at the battle of Bunker Hill in June, their losses were so great they could not afford another such “victory.” From that time, the British army was in effect besieged in Boston.

In November 1775, members of the Second Continental Congress, John Adams among them, were meeting in Philadelphia. After having named George Washington to raise a Continental Army for the defense of the American cause and proceed to the Boston area, they were considering what should be done in light of what were viewed as unconstitutional acts on the part of the British Parliament and the rejection of conciliatory petitions from the colonists. Should the colonies separate from Britain or not? And what ought to be the form of government should that separation take place? Abigail Adams poses the latter question to her husband in a letter she wrote on November 27, 1775.

Tis a fortnight to Night since I wrote you a line during which, I have been confined with the Jaundice, Rhumatism and a most voilent cold; I yesterday took a puke which has releived me and I feel much better to day. . . .

I was pleasing myself with the thoughts that you would soon be upon your return. Tis in vain to repine. I hope the publick will reap what I sacrifice.

I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating. If a form of Goverment is to be Established here what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to chuse one? and will not many men have many minds? and shall we not run into Dissentions among ourselves?

I am more & more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, & that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, & like the grave cries give, give. The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the perogatives of Goverment. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, & I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

The Building up a Great Empire, which was only hinted at by my correspondent may now I suppose be realized even by the unbelievers. Yet will not ten thousand Difficulties arise in the formation of it? The Reigns of Goverment have been so long slakned, that I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restraints which are necessary for the peace, & security, of the community; if we seperate from Brittain, what Code of Laws will be established. How shall we be governd so as to retain our Liberties? Can any government be free which is not adminstred by general stated Laws? Who shall frame these Laws? Who will give them force & energy? Tis true your Resolutions as a Body have heithertoo had the force of Laws. But will they continue to have?

When I consider these things and the prejudices of people in favour of Ancient customs & Regulations, I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice & righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience & perseverance.

I believe I have tired you with politicks. . . . All Letters I believe have come safe to hand. I have Sixteen from you, & wish I had as many more.
Adieu. Yours.

There will be no post on November 27, Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday and consider what Abigail pondered on the same date in 1775. Posts will resume on December 1.

Abigail’s letter appears on pages 46-47 of In the Words of Women. It appears in the electronic edition of the Adams Family Papers: Electronic Archives, which can be found HERE.

posted November 27th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, Boston, George Washington, John Adams, Philadelphia, Resistance to British

“it is truly distressing . . . to beg”

Wives who lose their soldier-husbands during a war are not usually considered casualties. But in a real sense they are and ought to be, especially during the American Revolution. American battle casualties in that war range from 4,435 to 6,824, some 90% from the Continental Army.* The ratio of American deaths to the free white male population (aged sixteen to 45) who served in the war is approximately 1 in 20 (this would be the equivalent of about 3 million people today).** Furthermore battle casualties did not include the wounded, those who died from disease (many more than those killed in action), or those who died in British prisons. Many war widows with children to support and without families to rely on existed in virtual poverty. Mary Cox was one of these, and in 1779, she filed a petition for relief directed to the governor of the state of Maryland Thomas Johnson. While the outcome of her suit is not known, she had a better chance of success than most widows because her husband was an officer.

I am the unhappy widow of Major James Cox who fell in his country’s cause at German Town on 4 October 1777. By industry we lived comfortably. His spare cash he laid out in lands from which now I can reap no benefit. His own cash he left with me did not exceed £50 and the public money which he had to pay off his company was lost at his death which I have since refunded. I have five small children to maintain. I expected the benefit of the law in that case provided. Consequently six months after my husband’s death I applied to the Orphan’s Court. They put me off to the next session [?]. I applied again [and] they granted me half pay for eight months in which time I sold all my spare furniture and part of my stock raised a little cash and went to shop-keeping. I found I could not keep my stock good which I began with; I again applied to the Court their reply was you are making money fast and we don’t think you are entitled to the benefit of that law. Sir, it is truly distressing to a mind not entirely depraved to beg and to dig I am not ashamed though my natural strength will not admit of it.

Now sir, as you are the guardian of this state and more especially of the widow and fatherless I will expect a few lines from you informing me whether I may expect the benefit of the law or not—I have three sons and two daughters, all promising children, would be glad they might be properly educated and instructed to get a living in a genteel way which cannot be the case without assistance. Now Sir when you consider the irreparable loss I have sustained by the death of the best of husbands, the weak infirm state of my body and numerous helpless family to provide for and the [amazing?] prices of the necessaries of life, I say when you consider these things I doubt not but you will do everything in your power to alievate such distresses and as in duty bound I will for your welfare ever pray.
Mary Cox * Howard H. Peckham, ed., The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), page 76.
** Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), page 160.

Of note is the fact that the money Major Cox had in his possession to pay his troops was lost at his death. His wife made good on that amount. It is also interesting that Cox was enterprising enough to set up shop to support herself although she failed, not making enough money to replenish her stock. She found herself in dire straits and was not ashamed to beg for assistance.

The petition is included in New World, New Roles: A Documentary History of Women in Pre-industrial America by Sylvia R. Frey and Marian J. Morton (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Imprint, 1986), pages 150-51, taken from Maryland state Papers, The Red Books, XXV, page 80. The information footnoted in the introductory section came from this SOURCE.

posted November 20th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Military Service, Poverty, Widows

“American Cookery”

The first cookbook written by an American was published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. The work of Amelia Simmons, its complete title was American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. On the title page Simmons identifies herself as an American Orphan. She apparently worked as a domestic. In the preface she writes:

As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country, who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society. The orphan, tho’ left to the care of virtuous guardians, will find it essentially necessary to have an opinion and determination of her own. The world, and the fashion thereof, is so variable, that old people cannot accommodate themselves to the various changes and fashions which daily occur; they will adhere to the fashion of their day, and will not surrender their attachments to the good old way—while the young and the gay, bend and conform readily to the taste of the times, and fancy of the hour. By having an opinion and determination, I would not be understood to mean an obstinate perseverance in trifles, which borders on obstinacy—by no means, but only an adherence to those rules and maxims which have flood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character, a virtuous character—altho’ they conform to the ruling taste of the age in cookery, dress, language, manners, &c.

It must ever remain a check upon the poor solitary orphan, that while those females who have parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions, that the orphan must depend solely upon character. How immensely important, therefore, that every action, every word, every thought, be regulated by the strictest purity, and that every movement meet the approbation of the good and wise.

The introductory section provides information on how to procure and choose the best viands, fish, etc. Here is what Simmons wrote about butter:

Butter—Tight, waxy, yellow Butter is better than white or crumbly, which soon becomes rancid and frowy. Go into the centre of balls or rolls to prove and judge it; if in ferkin, the middle is to be preferred, as the sides are frequently distasted by the wood of the firkin—altho’ oak and used for years. New pine tubs are ruinous to the butter. To have sweet butter in dog days, and thro’ the vegetable seasons, send stone pots to honest, neat, and trusty dairy people, and procure it pack’d down in May, and let them be brought in in the night, or cool rainy morning, covered with a clean cloth wet in cold water, and partake of no heat from the horse, and set the pots in the coldest part of your cellar, or in the ice house.—Some say that May butter thus preserved, will go into the winter use, better than fall made butter.

The cookbook is noteworthy because although it utilizes English methods of cooking it is based on American products. Mary Tolford Wilson, who wrote an essay accompanying a facsimile copy of Simmons’ cookbook published in 1958, considers it a historical document. “It reveals the rich variety of food Colonial Americans enjoyed, their tastes, cooking and eating habits, even their colorful language.” It is interesting to note that the cookbook contains the first known printed recipe for turkey (native to America) with cranberries. Happy Thanksgiving.

A complete version of the cookbook which can be found HERE. Additional information as well as the illustration can be found HERE.

posted November 17th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food

Hannah Foster’s “The Coquette”

I came upon Hannah Webster Foster, an American novelist writing toward the end of the 18th century, via Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac of September 10, 2014. I subscribe to this daily newsletter, produced by American Public Media, which features a poem and interesting facts about people born on the particular day. An added attraction: you can listen to Garrison Keillor himself read it in his quite wonderful voice.

Hannah Webster Foster, born in 1758, went to a women’s academy, married a minister and bore six children. In 1797, she published an epistolary novel entitled The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton. A Novel: Founded on Fact. Since it was not seemly for a women to identify herself publicly as a writer the book was attributed to “A Lady of Massachusetts.”

Reading novels had become popular among women in the latter part of the eighteenth century—viz. Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Susanna Rowson—and The Coquette was a huge success. But there was another reason for the book’s success: it was the thinly disguised story of one Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of a prominent minister, who had become pregnant out of wedlock and, abandoned by her lover, died after giving birth to a stillborn child in a tavern. Gossip had it that the father was the son of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards responsible for the “Great Awakening” and noted for the sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Foster knew the story well as Elizabeth Whitman was a distant relative of her husband’s. If you are interested in what titillated women readers of the time you can read the novel yourself as it is available online here.

You can find the Writer’s Almanac of September 10 HERE.

posted November 13th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off, CATEGORIES: Scandal, Women Writers

“History will not produce to us a Parrallel”

An earlier post featured a description by First Lady Abigail Adams to her sister Mary Cranch of a gathering she held to mark the passing of George Washington. In this letter of December 22, 1799 to Mary, Abigail writes of the high opinion she has of the former President, reminding her, however, that he was human and subject to the normal frailties and weaknesses that beset all such beings. She also puts in a plug for Washington’s successor, her husband.

My Dear Sister:
I wrote to you the day after we received the account of the death of Gen’ll Washington. This Event so important to our Country at this period, will be universally deplored. No Man ever lived, more deservedly beloved and Respected. The praise and I may say addulation which followed his administration for several years, never made him forget that he was a Man, subject to the weakness and frailty attached to humane Nature. He never grew giddy, but ever mantaind a modest diffidence of his own talents, and if that was an error, it was of the amiable and engageing kind, tho it might lead sometimes to a want of decisions in some great Emergencys. Possesst of power, posest of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benifit of his Country. Witness his retirement to private Life when Peace closed the scenes of War; When call’d by the unanimous suffrages of the People to the chief Majestracy of the Nation, he acquitted himself to the satisfaction and applause of all Good Men. When assailed by faction, when reviled by Party, he sufferd with dignity, and Retired from his exalted station with a Character which malice could not wound, nor envy tarnish. If we look through the whole tennor of his Life, History will not produce to us a Parrallel. Heaven has seen fit to take him from us. Our Mourning is sincere, in the midst of which, we ought not to lose sight of the Blessings we have enjoy’d and still partake of, that he was spaired to us, untill he saw a successor filling his place, persueing the same system which he had adopted, and that in times which have been equally dangerous and Critical. It becomes not me to say more upon this Head.

Abigail’s letter can be found on page 335 of In the Words of Women and also HERE. The portrait of Abigail is by Gilbert Stuart painted between 1810-1815; it is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

posted November 10th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off, CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, George Washington, John Adams

next page

   Copyright © 2014 In the Words of Women.