WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

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.

“the Tumults in my Native state”

In 1787, Abigail Adams was in London with her husband John who was the American minister there. She often corresponded with Thomas Jefferson who was representing the United States in France. In the following letter Abigail shares the information she has received about the so-called Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. This event caused many, including Abigail and John, to believe that a stronger national government was needed.

London Janry. 29th 1787My dear sir
I received by Col. Franks your obliging favour and am very sorry to find your wrist Still continues lame. I have known very salutary effects produced by the use of British oil upon a spraind joint. I have Sent a Servant to See if I can procure some. You may rest assured that if it does no good: it will not do any injury.
With regard to the Tumults in my Native state which you inquire about, I wish I could say that report had exagerated them. It is too true Sir that they have been carried to so allarming a Height as to stop the Courts of justice in several Counties. Ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievences which have no existance but in their immaginations. Some of them were crying out for a paper currency, some for an equal distribution of property, some were for annihilating all debts, others complaning that the Senate was a useless Branch of Government, that the Court of common Pleas was unnecessary, and that the sitting of the General Court in Boston was a grieveince. By this list you will see the materials which compose this Rebellion, and the necessity there is of the wisest and most vigorous measures to quell and suppress it. Instead of that laudible Spirit which you approve, which makes a people watchfull over their Liberties and alert in the defence of them, these Mobish insurgents are for sapping the foundation, and distroying the whole fabrick at once. But as these people make only a small part of the State, when compared to the more Sensible and judicious, and altho they create a just allarm, and give much trouble and uneasiness, I cannot help flattering myself that they will prove sallutary to the state at large, by leading to an investigation of the causes which have produced these commotions. Luxery and extravagance both in furniture and dress had pervaded all orders of our Countrymen and women, and was hastning fast to Sap their independance by involving every class of citizens in distress, and accumulating debts upon them which they were unable to discharge. Vanity was becoming a more powerfull principal than Patriotism. The lower order of the community were prest for taxes, and tho possest of landed property they were unable to answer the Demand. Whilst those who possesst money were fearfull of lending, least the mad cry of the Mob should force the Legislature upon a measure very different from the touch of Midas.
By the papers I send you, you will see the beneficial effects already produced, an act of the Legislature laying duties of 15 per cent upon many articles of British manufacture and totally prohibiting others. A Number of Vollunteers Lawyers Physicians and Merchants from Boston made up a party of Light horse commanded by col Hitchbourn Leit. col. Jackson and Higgonson, and went out in persuit of the insurgents and were fortunate enough to take 3 of their Principal Leaders, Shattucks Parker and Page. Shattucks defended himself and was wounded in his knee with a broadsword. He is in Jail in Boston and will no doubt be made an example of.
Your request my dear sir with respect to your Daughter shall be punctually attended to, and you may be assured of every attention in my power towards her.
You will be so kind as to present my Love to Miss Jefferson, compliments to the Marquiss and his Lady. I am really conscience Smitten that I have never written to that amiable Lady, whose politeness and attention to me deserved my acknowledgment.
The little balance which you Stated in a former Letter in my favour, when an opportunity offers I should like to have in Black Lace at about 8 or 9 Livres pr Ell. Tho late in the Month, I hope it will not be thought out of season to offer my best wishes for the Health Long Life and prosperity of yourself and family, or to assure you of the Sincere Esteem & Friendship with which I am Your’s &c &c
A Adams

In the first paragraph Abigail is referring to a broken or sprained wrist that Jefferson sustained the previous autumn by attempting to leap over a wall in a park to impress Maria Cosway with whom he was having a relationship. See post.

Abigail, albeit gently, challenges Jefferson’s faith in the ability of ordinary citizens to govern themselves and defend their liberties: “Instead of that laudible Spirit which you approve, which makes a people watchfull over their Liberties and alert in the defence of them . . . ”

In regard to Jefferson’s daughter, Abigail had been asked to take Polly under her wing when she arrived from the United States, and to send her on to Paris to her father. See post on this subject.

It is interesting to note that Abigail regularly requested Jefferson to make purchases for her and maintained an account with him for that purpose. One always needs a length of black lace.

Abigail Adams’s letter to Thomas Jefferson can be found online at Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2015. Here is the LINK to the website.

posted March 30th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail, Americans Abroad, Jefferson, Thomas, New England, Shays's Rebellion

“Favorable . . . that you can forgit you are grown old”

In the last post Jane Mecom mentions that her brother, Benjamin Franklin, was building a new house. Benjamin Franklin expected to retire upon his return from Europe in 1785, but he was drawn into politics and elected “president” of Pennsylvania, in effect the governor, the following year. In this letter Jane rather playfully remarks that the construction will give his life a focus and make him forget that he is getting old. Jane is such a character, lively and witty, always fun to read.

Boston Oct. 12 1786Dear Brother
I am sorry you are Pesterd with Law disputes in your old Age but as that is the case it is well you have Plenty of Ground to Inlarge your Present Dwelling. It will not only be an Amusement but in all Probebilety a sample of many Ingenious contrivances for others to Profit by in Future. I Imagin Part of your Plan will be to have a Front Dore, Entry and Starecase, to go all the way up to your Lodging Rooms and garretts; besides a Pasage from the mane Hous as I sopose thro won of your best chamber closets which will be saifer in case of Fier. I shall Expect Mrs. Bache to Inform me how it is Decorated when Finished if I live so long which it is Proble Enouf I may not. It is a Favourable circumstance that you can sometimes forgit you are grown old otherwise it might chick you in many Useful Discoveries you are makeing for yer fellow men, I wish our Poor Distracted State would atend to the many good Lesons which have been frequently Publishd for there Instruction, but we seem to want Wisdon to Giued, and honesty to comply with our Duty, and so keep allways in a Flame. . . .
Jane MecomMy love to your children and Grandchildren

Don’t you like the notion of an escape route in case of fire through a door inside a closet?

The letter can be found online in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, The Digital Edition maintained by the The Packard Humanities Institute in the unpublished letters for the years 1786-87.

posted March 26th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Franklin, Benjamin, Mecom, Jane

“we might have been Buried Alive “

I cannot help coming back to Jane Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s sister who lived in Boston. The two corresponded throughout their lives. Jane’s letters are delightful to read, if only to puzzle out what she is trying to say—her spelling was atrocious. Her life was filled with difficulties, but blessed with an optimistic nature, she always seemed to make the best of things. Franklin regularly sent her both practical necessities and thoughtful gifts.

Resuming residence in Philadelphia in 1785 after years abroad, Franklin continued to help his sister. In a letter dated November 5, 1786, Jane thanked him for ten cord of wood “so that we shall have Plenty Should your Prognostications happen to be in the Right.” Benjamin’s prediction of a hard winter proved to have been spot on as the following letter confirms. This past winter in Boston seems to have been a replay of the one Jane describes.

Boston Decr 17 1786
My Dear Brother
Mr. Bradford has Just informed me of his going to Philadelphia to morrow morning. I would not let him go without a Line as I have not yet had opertunity to thank you for the charming Barrill of Flower you sent me. He is to take the Bill you Premited me to Draw, I some times seem to feel giulty at being so Expencive to you, but why should I; when I know it gives you Pleasure to make Every won happy: and I constantly feal the Blesing. Your Predictons concerning a hard winter are begining to be Verified in a formidable maner. The snow has been so Deep and we no man in the House that we might have been Buried Alive were it not for the care of some good Neibours who began to Dig us out before we were up in the morning, and cousen Williams came Puffing and Sweating, as soon as it was Posable to see how we were and if we wanted any thing, but thank God we had no want of any thing Nesesary if we had been shutt up a fortnight. Exept milk.

My Daughters Gout, or Rhumitism or what Ever it is, has not Left her yet; but she can Just hobble about the chamber, she desires her Duty to you.

I want much to know if you were so Luckey as to git your New Apartments covered in before the hard wether [Franklin was building a new house]. . . .

I had Intended to have wrote to my Niece but cannot at this time but Remember my Love to Mr. and Mrs. Bache [Benjamin's daughter Sarah] and all the Dear Children. From your Ever obliged and Affectionat sister
Jane MecomAddressed: His Excellancey Benjamin Franklin Esqr. / Philadelphia / Favrd by Col: Bradford

The letter can be found online in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, The Digital Edition maintained by the The Packard Humanities Institute in the unpublished letters for the years 1786-87.

posted March 23rd, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Boston, Franklin, Benjamin, Mecom, Jane, Weather

“a critical period of Life”

Menopause was not a subject that was discussed in letters, even in those between sisters or close friends. When it was mentioned it was alluded to so circumspectly that it is often easy to miss. Consider this passage written by Abigail Adams to her sister Mary Cranch.

Philadelphia April 20th 1792My dear sister
I have just received your kind Letter as I was about to write to you to inform you that we proposed Sitting out on our journey on monday or twesday next. the weather has been so rainy that I have not been able to ride So often as I wishd in order to prepare myself for my journey, and how I shall stand it, I know not. this everlasting fever still hangs about me & prevents my intire recovery. a critical period of Life Augments my complaints I am far from Health, tho much better than when I wrote you last.

In a letter dated 27 March 1799, Abigail’s sister Elizabeth Shaw Peabody confided to her:

I have contracted a very bad habit. I do not know but it will prove my ruin. . . . It is that of profusely sweating. I find it increasing upon me—for this fortnight past, it will stand in drops all over me, perhaps once an hour or two and sometimes oftener.

Abigail replied to her sister on 9 April.

Your own complaint my sister arrises from your period of Life, you must take Elixer vitrol, the Bark and whatever can invigorate your constitution, I suffer yet from the same cause, and the debilitating sickness which brought me to the brink of the Grave last year. I frequently have Sleepless nights, but not so often, as I had through the fall and Winter.

Abigail’s letter to Mary Cranch can be found in Adams Family Correspondence: January 1790-December 1793, E. Lyman Henry Butterfield and Margaret A. Hogan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) p 277-78. The letters from and to her sister Elizabeth Shaw Peabody can be found on Founders Online, National Archives HERE. and HERE.

posted March 19th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail, Cranch, Mary, Health, Peabody, Elizabeth Shaw

“avoid . . . the bucks, the fops, the idlers of college”

Lest you should be put off completely by Martha Laurens Ramsay, her religious temperament and the self criticism she constantly engaged in, note what her husband in the introduction to her Memoir has to say about her as a mother.

[She] exerted herself to keep [her children] in good humour; gave them every indulgence compatible with their best interests; partook with them in their sports; and in various ways amused their solitary hours so as often to drop the mother in the companion and friend; took a lively interest in all their concerns, and made every practical exertion for their benefit. . . . [A]s a mother [she] was very moderate in urging her parental rights, and avoided, as far as was consistent with a strict education, everything which might provoke her children to anger.”

According to her husband, Martha as a parent felt it wise to “make proper allowance for indiscretions and follies of youth . . . and to behave . . . in the most conciliatory manner, so as to secure their love and affections on the score of gratitude.” It should be noted that “She . . . on proper occasions, used the rod, but always with discretion and judgment, sometimes with prayer, often with tears, but never with anger.”

Martha Ramsay persisted in advising her children on the proper paths they should take and how they should behave. To conclude this series, here are some excerpts from letters she wrote to her son David who was sent to Princeton at a young age.

God has given you an excellent understanding. Oh, make use of it for wise purposes; acknowledge it as his gift; and let it regulate your conduct and harmonize your passions. Be industrious; be amiable. . . . I am glad you like your room-mate. I hope he is one who will set you no bad example, and with whom you may enjoy yourself pleasantly and innocently. . . . From the tenor of your last letter, it may be fairly inferred that you are dissatisfied with the strictness of a collegiate course; and if you should not go through a collegiate course, what then? Can you go through any virtuous course without economy, industry and self-denial? Can you fit yourself for usefulness on earth, or happiness in heaven, in any other way than doing your duty in the station in which God has placed you? And if your chief ambition is, without caring whether you are as wise and good, to wish at least to be richer than your father and mother, will not a diligent attention to collegiate studies and duties be the readiest method to fit you for such eminence in whatever profession you choose, as shall enable you to attain this golden treasure. . . .

Your vacation is now at no great distance. I hope you are not trifling away this prime of your days, content with such attainments as will excuse you from censure; but emulous of ranking with the most studious, most prudent, and most virtuous of your companions. I wish I could inspire you with a laudable ambition, and with feelings that would make you avoid any unnecessary intercourse with the bucks, the fops, the idlers of college; and think that the true intention of going to a seminary of learning is to attain science, and fit you hereafter to rank among men of literary and public consequence. . . . [I]n order to accomplish all, or any of these purposes, you must be frugal, and not attempt to vie in wasting money with the sons of rich planters, who only go to college for fashion’s sake, and whose lives are as useless as their expenses.

David seemed to need/want more money than his parents had agreed to provide. His mother chided him for that

The real expense of boarding and tuition in colleges is a matter well known from printed statements; it is easy, therefore, to calculate what beyond it is necessary for the clothing, pocket money and conveniences of a young man, who does not go to college to be a fashionist, to support various changes of apparel, to drink, to smoke, to game, but to lay in a sufficient stock of knowledge, and to attain such literary honours, as may be the foundation of future usefulness, a fortune to him. . . . Your last letter was written in a strain of affection and good resolution, which gave me great pleasure. . . . May God bless you, my dear son, and make you a son of comfort and honour to your dear father, and your most affectionate mother and friend, Martha Laurens Ramsay

David Ramsay words describing his wife as mother are taken from her Memoir pages 28 and 45-46. Passages from Martha Laurens Ramsay’s letters to her son David can be found in her Memoir on pages 246, 247-48, 251-252, 264, 265, and 266. At the end of the exchange of letters between mother and son, Dr. Ramsay pointed out that the David was never censured by the the college, nor was he ever accused of immoral conduct. His standing in his class remained reputable and his prospects for graduating from college were fair.

posted March 16th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Children, Education, Ramsay, Dr. David, Ramsay, Martha Laurens, Religion

next page

   Copyright © 2015 In the Words of Women.