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.

“I suppose thare will be a change soon”

As there are so few letters from the correspondence between Martha and George Washington—only three letters from George survive; two were discovered in the personal desk she left to her granddaughter Martha Custis Peter; she destroyed the others—I thought I would post this letter written from Boston by Martha to her sister.

Cambridge January the 31, 1776My dear Sister
I have wrote to you several times, in hopes it would put you in mind of me, but I find it has not had its intended affect. I am really very uneasy at not hearing from you and have made all the excuses for you that I can think of but it will not doe much longer. If I doe not get a letter by this nights post I shall think myself quite forgot by all my Freinds. The distance is long yet the post comes in regularly every week—
The General, myself, and Jack are very well. Nelly Custis is I hope getting well again, and I beleive is with child. I hope noe accident will happen to her in going back [to Virginia]. I have not thought much about it yet god know whare we shall be; I suppose thare will be a change soon but how I cannot pretend to say—A few days agoe Gen [Henry] Clinton, with several companyes Sailed out of Boston Harbor to what place distant for, we cannot find out. Some think it is to Virginia he is gon, others to New York—they have been keept in Boston so long that I suppose they will be glad to seek for a place where they may have more room as they cannot get out anywhere here but by water—our navey has been very successful in taking thair vessels; two was taken last week loded with coles and potatoes wines & several other articles for the use of the troops—If General Clinton is gon to New York,—General Lee is there before him and I hope will give him a very warm reception,—he was sent thare some time a goe to have matters put in proper order in case any disturbances should happen, as thare are many Tories in that part of the world, or at least many are susspected thare to be unfreindly to our cause at this time—winter hear has been so remarkable mild the Rivers has never been frozen hard enough to walk upon the Ice since I came heer. My Dear sister be so good as to remember me to all enquireing friends. . . .
I am my Dear Nancy your ever effectionate sister
Martha Washington

John Parke Custis was the son of Martha Washington by her first husband Daniel Custis. Jacky, as he was called when he was young, and his sister Patsy were adopted by George Washington when he married Martha. It’s fair to say that Jacky was a disappointment to his mother and stepfather. He resisted all attempts to acquire the classical education necessary for college entrance and was disinclined to acquire the skills necessary to manage the plantation which he would inherit if Martha and George had no children of their own. Washington remarked to Jacky’s schoolmaster that he was interested in “Dogs Horses & Guns.” Briefly enrolled in King’s College (now Columbia), Jack dropped out to marry Elizabeth Calvert of Maryland in 1774. His stepfather disapproved of the marriage because he thought Jack too young and ill-equipped to support a family. Jack and his wife, had four children in quick succession. Sensing that a decisive battle was about to take place in 1781 at Yorktown, Jacky had himself appointed civilian aide-de-camp to General Washington in order to participate. Unfortunately he contracted “camp fever” (epidemic typhus) and died in November. A sad blow for the Washingtons as they had lost Patsy to a seizure in 1773 at the age of 17. Martha and George adopted Jacky’s two youngest children while their mother raised the older two. The families remained close and visited often.

The letter appears on pages 41-42 of In the Words of Women.

“as if I had been a very great some body”

When George Washington was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and sent to Boston in 1775 to organize the resistance to the British, Martha determined to accompany him. She left Mount Vernon on November 16 in the company of her son Jack and his wife Elizabeth “Nelly” Calvert Custis. Traveling via Philadelphia, she arrived in Cambridge a month later. She described what she found in a letter to a young friend, Elizabeth Ramsay, in Alexandria, Virginia.

Cambridge December the 30th 1775Dear miss
I now set down to tell you that I arrived hear safe, and our party all well—we were fortunate in our time of setting out as the weather proved fine all the time we were on the road—I did not reach Philad till the tuesday after I left home, we were so attended and the gentlemen so kind, that I am lade under obligations to them that I shall not for get soon. I don’t doubt but you have seen the Figuer our arrival made in the Philadelphia paper—and I left it in as great pomp as if I had been a very great some body.
I have waited some days to collect some thing to tell, but allas there is nothing but what you will find in the papers—every person seems to be cheerfull and happy hear,—some days we have a number of cannon and shells from Boston and Bunkers Hill, but it does not seem to surprise any one but me; I confess I shuder every time I hear the sound of a gun—I have been to dinner with two of the Generals, [Charles] Lee & [Israel] Putnam and I just took a look at pore Boston & Charls town—from prospect Hill Charlestown has only a few chimneys standing in it, thare seems to be a number of very fine Buildings in Boston but god knows how long they will stand; they are pulling up all the warfs for fire wood—to me that never see any thing of war, the preperations, are very terable indeed, but I endevor to keep my fears to my self as well as I can. . . .
This is a beautyfull Country, and we had a very plasent journey through new england, and had the plasure to find the General very well we came within the month from home to Camp.
I am Dear miss your most affectionate Friend . . . Martha Washington

“where Virtue reigns”

Charity Clarke (1747-1838) was the daughter of Thomas Clarke and Mary Stillwell of New York City. See posts here and here. Her father was a retired major in the British army who had served in the French and Indian War. He had an estate in lower Manhattan named Chelsea, which Charity inherited. Despite her Loyalist roots, Charity was early disposed to the Patriot cause and carried on a lively exchange of letters with her cousin in England, Joseph Jekyll, on the events surrounding the American Revolution. In 1778, she married the Right Reverend Benjamin Moore who was the Episcopal Bishop of New York, the Rector of Trinity Church, and the President of Columbia College. They had one child, Clement Clarke Moore, who was a prominent biblical scholar and is thought to be the author of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas.

You smile at our Routs & talk of Strange matamorpheses, but they are only supposed ones, yes the Rigid Beauties of N York frequent assemblies, where inocent amusement promotes good humour, where modesty may appear without a Blush, where Inocence has no foe, & where Virtue reigns; are the assemblies of Great Britain such? If they are, unjustly do we condemn them, as Fashion is an Usurper submitted to in most part of the Globe. America is not free from her Governmint, but then it is only the Habit she takes directions of; our manners are Governed by Reason, and Religion forms our principles—
That Spirit which led Americans to their distress, & made them clad themselves in Homespun, is not fled, & when cause is given will exert itself with double vigor, while we can with Honor wear the soft & ornamental Garbs which Britain furnishes us with, we will repay her for them,—But no sooner do they appear the Badges of disgrace & the marks of true submission to unjustifiable exertions of power than with disdain we will cast them from us, & shew you we can do without them.
[W]hen americans marry[,] affection founded on esteem unites them, Truth & Virtue their choice—Love & Constancy their reward; they marry not Gold nor form Alliances with Titles—so need not fear divorce. Coteries we know not the meaning of—affective patriotism & True Virtue will I trust distinguish America in every Age; and among every nation. —So my Dear Coz you see your fears are grownd[l]ess, America still practices the long (though unboasted) list of Virtues which the Generality of English men have scarce an Idea of. . . .
Many thanks for your care in having my orders (as you call them) so well executed, it will be the highest pleasure to me to have it in my power to execute any you may have in America—I wish you was near enough to mend my pen it has almost exhausted my patience, least it should have the same effect on you, I will hasten to conclude, with my best love to your Sister, Mr. & Mrs. Jekyll, & your uncle my best wishes always attend them & you, that you may long enjoy every blessing of Heaven, & obtain every wish of your [hear]t is the most earnest wish of your affectionate
your affectionat Cousin & friend
Cha Clarke
[New] York Octr 28 1771

The first part of the letter can be found on pages 9-10 of In the Words of Women, the latter part at the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbiana Ms. 2, Moore Family Papers. The illustration of the mansion house of the Chelsea estate was made by Clement Clarke Moore’s daughter Mary C. Ogden for the first color edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1855. It appears HERE.

posted May 21st, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Clarke, Charity, New York, Patriots, Resistance to British

“the best and truest kind of breeding”

Mary Cary Ambler kept a diary during her trip to Baltimore to have herself and her children inoculated against smallpox. Her stay at Mrs. Chilton’s turned out to be longer than expected. She would have been bored had Mrs. Chilton not given her access to the family library. “A Rainy Day (very dull) if it were not for Books & knitting . . . would be at a great loss how to fill up the Day.” One of the books she read was James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765)—it was one of the most popular books at that time on women’s conduct. She was so struck by a passage that she copied it into her diary, noting that it was “transcribed for the use of the Copi[e]st & She begs her Daug[hter] to observe it well all her Life.”

If to Your natural softness You join that christian meekness, which I now preach; both together will not fail, with the assistance of proper reflection and friendly advice, to accomplish you in the best and truest kind of breeding. You will not be in danger of putting yourselves forward in company, of contradicting bluntly, of asserting positively, of debating obstinately, of affecting a superiority to any present, of engrossing the discourse, of listening to yourselves with apparent satisfaction, of neglecting what is advanced by others, or of interrupting them without necessity.

Kevin J. Hayes, the author of A Colonial Woman’s Bookshelf from which the above paragraph is taken, notes that women commonly shared books during that period and among them were likely to be “conduct” books, containing advice on how young women should comport themselves. He adds that diaries many women kept were among the books on the shelf in their homes to be consulted and read by family members, in this case, Mary Ambler’s daughter Sarah.

Kevin J. Hayes, A Colonial Woman’s Bookshelf (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996) pages 58-59.

posted May 18th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Ambler, Mary Cary, Education

“Jack was so scared”

Mary Cary Ambler (1733-1781) was the daughter of Wilson Cary of Virginia. She married Edward Ambler and the couple had two children, John and Sarah. In 1770, Mary traveled from Fauquier County, Virginia, to Baltimore to have herself and her children inoculated against smallpox. She stayed with a Mrs. Chilton and, in the third person, she described the experience in her diary. The first attempts to inoculate failed and the doctor had to send for more serum to Philadelphia.

September 1770

[She] happened to meet with Mrs. Douglas returning from Baltimore in Maryland where She had been with her three children to be Inoculated for the Small Pox. . . . M Ambler inquired how far it was to Baltimore Town . . . she almost determined to carry her Chil[dre]n to that place to be Inoculated by Dr. Stephenson who she was told had Inoc[ulate]d 7000 People with the greatest Success imaginable. . . .

Monday [Sept. 8] This Morng Mrs. Brook, Mr. Lawson, M. Ambler & children went to Balte Town . . . The Dr. came & inoc. M. Ambler & Sally immediat[el]y but Jack was so scared it could not be done effect[ivel]y. . . .

Wednesday [10th] This day Dr. Stephenson came to Examine our arms & found Jacks so little affectd that he Inoculd him again & he manfully bore it. We all still find ourselves very well. . . .

Thursday [11th] This day M Ambler & Sally took Purges which made them very Sick but Jack was at liberty to run about as he took no Pill the preceding night nor any Physick this day. . . .

Sunday [14th] M. Ambler took a purge very sick with it . . . Dear Jack held out his arm for the 3d. Inoculon & never winched. . . .

Wednesday . . . The children very well still & very cheerful. This aftern The Dr. sent his Mr. Hazzlet to inocl us all again. . . .

Monday [Oct 6th]. . . . Jackey had a very high Fever all Night which continues very Smart tho he goes out of one Room into another. . . .

Tuesday [7th] A good day Jackey’s Fever very High . . . his Mother watched him all night. God be thanked several Pocks appears this morning the Fever still High but the greatest Struggle thought to be over. . . .

Saturday [11th] M. Amblers Fever exceedg smart all night but has begun to decline this day a good many Pock out, the pain in the Head has now abated. . . .

Monday [13th] M. Ambler recovers fast has about 25 pock Sally has about 10 & Jack about 17 or 18. Sally and he quite happy & lively.

It took considerable bravery and patience to endure the inoculation procedure as it existed at that time. Happily, the Amblers were counted among the doctor’s successes.

The passage is taken from In the Words of Women, pages 178-79.

posted May 14th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Ambler, Mary Cary, Children, Health, Inoculation

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