Founding Mommas, July 05 | Multitasking, Colonial Style


Everyone knows that George Washington spent seven wretched winterswith the rag-tag Continental Army at Valley Forge and Morristown. Yet withoutCokie Roberts’s wonderful book, Founding Mothers:The Women Who Raised Our Nation, who would be aware that Martha was freezing right along with them?In addition to daily domestic duties, she organized the other camp wives intosewing circles to make clothes for the soldiers, planned dances and eveningentertainments with no budget, and made do with Liberty Tea of herbs and flowers.Oh, also, it was her money received after her first husband’s death thatfunded Mount Vernon and allowed George to father the country. After the war,so many guests came to visit George that she complained of never being ableto appear “dishabille” at home. Once the inaugural barge crossedthe Hudson, still so clean that porpoises were playful escorts, the entertainingchores for Martha really accelerated. Congress had forbidden the Presidentto dine or sleep in private houses, so everyone came to him. No wonder thereare so many hotels claiming “George Washington slept here.” Shefinally took out an ad—Wanted: Cook for the President of the United States.

Do you know the name of Ben Franklin’s wife? Guess who ran thepostal service, invested the profits in Philadelphia real estate, bought ahouse, and defended it from a mob outraged that Ben supported the Stamp Act?Without the funds Deborah Read Franklin earned, Franklin would not have beenable to keep up appearances in Paris. Without his schmoozing, cunning, anddiplomacy, would France have supported the American cause?

Abigail Adams watched the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, andfor the next 25 years managed the family farm and finances so John couldhelp declare independence, run Congress, negotiate peace with England,contribute to the compromises essential for the passage of the new Constitution,and become Vice-President and President. Separated for months and yearsfrom her husband, with her only contact his letters intentionally cooland circumspect should they be intercepted, Abigail still had the fortitudeto remind him to “remember the ladies” as the Constitutionwas being written. He lamentingly responded that, in addition to the Indians, “anothertribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were [now] discontented.”

Elizabeth Pickney, mother of two signers of the Declaration of Independence,at the age of 16 managed three plantations in South Carolina. Her 1747idea to cultivate indigo was so successful that by the time of the Revolution,over a million pounds a year were being exported from the state. Her daughter,Harriott Horry, was just serving a rare home-cooked meal to the secretiveSwamp Fox, General Francis Marion, when the hated British General Tarletonwas heard approaching her Santee River Plantation. She directed the SwampFox where to hide in a creek, and then entertained Tarleton for hours toallow for the Fox’s safe escape.

The moneybags of the Revolution, Robert Morris, used his own funds tosupply the army and to pay the debts of Congress. As George Washington’shost at the Constitutional Convention, is it a surprise that his wife Mollymight complain of the “perpetual Philadelphia teas”? How aboutCatherine Schuyler of Albany being forced by her husband’s idea ofcivility to entertain British generals who had just burned their countryhome? Catherine’s daughter, Betsey, married Alexander Hamilton, andrecopied all his drafts of the Federalist Papers, as they were nearly illegible.

Colonial women also made intellectual contributions. Poetess AnneStockton, wife of Declaration signer Richard, used her Princeton home,Morven, as a political salon for men and women. As a result, women hadthe vote in New Jersey till 1807. When Cornwallis appropriated Morven forhis headquarters, she smartly burned the records of the Princeton WhigSociety. Mercy Otis Warren published revolutionary pamphlets, while herhusband, James, though a Declaration signer, chose not to participate inthe war. Esther Reed in her “Sentiments of an American Woman” urgedwomen to wear simple garments and give the money saved to the Revolution.Over $300,000 was raised to clothe the troops. Kitty Greene held firm thatCongress cover her late husband’s (General Nathaniel Greene) warexpenses, then staked her children’s tutor from Yale, Eli Whitney,as he perfected his cotton gin.

American history was harmed by the early death of a mother, Esther EdwardsBurr, young widow of Aaron Burr, Sr., first president of Princeton (thenthe College of New Jersey), and daughter of Jonathan Edwards, a well-knownminister and second President of Princeton. Her infamous son, Aaron Burr,Jr., was only 2 when she and his grandfather died of small pox. She hadwritten than he was unruly and “much in need of a governor.” Ifonly.

A quick tidbit from the book for fans of The WestWing: Josiah Bartlett,a New Hampshire physician, was the second signer of the declaration andthe organizing force for New Hampshire’s ratification of the Constitution,the 9th state making it the law of the land.

So, every 4th of July, please set off an extra firecracker to “rememberthe ladies.”