'Ladies of Liberty' tell another side of history

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 4, 2008

“Ladies of Liberty,” by Cokie Roberts. William Morrow. 2008. 512 pp. $26.95.
By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
American history is often taught as a dull blend of important dates and facts, but it doesn’t have to be.
While the founding fathers were busy building the government, their wives and daughters were busy doing everything else. Make no mistake, life revolved around politics for the women, as well. It shaped both the major and minor events of their lives. However, politics was only one important area of interest. Running the household, entertaining and local gossip were also of great importance. Such activities may not sound terribly important to some historians, but the stories behind the major events are often much more interesting.
In “Ladies of Liberty,” Cokie Roberts continues her look at the other side of American history during the late 18th and early 19th century.
“Ladies of Liberty” starts with the presidency of John Adams and ends with the election of his son, John Quincy Adams. This period includes the first presidency in the new capital of Washington, D.C., the War of 1812, and one highly contested election. Roberts tells her stories through the use of letters and journals from the major players (such as Abigail Adams).
The correspondence between Abigail Adams and her daughter-in-law, Louisa, reveals both the usual conflict in such a relationship and a battle over patriotism. Louisa recounts meeting her famous in-laws for the first time and being “gazed at with surprise, if not contempt.”
Because Louisa was half-British, her mother-in-law challenged her devotion to the United States on more than one occasion. The battle continued until Louisa proved her mettle when John Quincy was appointed to a diplomatic post in Russia. Fortunately, both women could agree that John Quincy Adams was a rising star in American politics. Louisa also found an unlikely ally in the elder John Adams. He liked his daughter-in-law’s spunk. The bickering between Abigail and Louisa subsided as John Quincy Adams gained power, but there was always a bit of tension between the two.
The relationship between the Adams women represents only one facet of Roberts’ work. The frequent letters between Rosalie Calvert and her family in Belgium provide another interesting glimpse of life in the newly formed nation. Her letters reveal that women were just as interested in politics as the men in their lives, but they had numerous social concerns.
Calvert’s letters show a growing love for her adopted country, but she was disappointed in the options available for educating her daughter. Her disappointment was shared by numerous mothers. Eventually, such discontent led to action by others. There are several accounts of women taking matters into their own hands in order to create social change. Unfortunately, these are the stories that are often left out of textbooks.
There is also a great deal of humor in “Ladies of Liberty.” The etiquette war that developed when Thomas Jefferson snubbed the British ambassador and his wife seems absurd by today’s standards, but the social battle was the talk of the town. The local gossip actually led to an uncomfortable political situation for Jefferson. He later made sure to have either his daughter or Dolley Madison on hand for official functions.
Some of the details revealed to the women by their husbands are just plain funny. When John Marshall wrote to his wife that he forgot his breeches when he packed for the circuit, the image of the great jurist “a sans culotte” is one of a very real person that you don’t find in any standard history book. In fact, this view of history makes the early political leaders of America seem more human.
“Ladies of Liberty” covers all of the major and minor political events of the era. However, the events seem different when viewed through female eyes. For example, Dolley Madison’s actions during the War of 1812 seem more stubborn than heroic in this account, but the story seems much more realistic.
The events of the war are recounted by various women throughout the book, but they are generally described in relation to the women’s lives. Such an account of history shows what the people, rather than the leaders, were discussing.
Cokie Roberts makes American history very accessible. Her storytelling style is conversational and very descriptive. “Ladies of Liberty” offers a fresh perspective on our nation’s history. It is a funny, witty and fascinating look at the women who shaped the early days of the United States.
Cynthia Murphy reads and lives in Salisbury.