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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Founding Mothers, The Women Who Raised Our Nation

Updated: Jun 23, 2019

By Cokie Roberts

Mercy Otis Warren, circa 1763, oil on canvas, by John Singleton Copley.

I was looking for something on Mercy Otis Warren and came across another wonderful book by Cokie Roberts. In-depth and personal, this account details the story of the women behind the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, framed the Constitution and battled the British while doing so.

A period of time not overly familiar to me (and yes, I live and work near many of the revolutionary war battle sites, go figure), this book was a delightful surprise, filled with correspondence, private journals, and even a few favorite recipes. Many of the names are familiar; Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Mercy Otis Warren. Several, like Deborah Read Franklin, Eliza Pinckney, Catherine Littlefield Green, Betsy Loring and Esther DeBerdt Reed, were not.

These women were nothing short of amazing. While their men went off to war or Congress, or on overseas diplomatic missions, they managed the family businesses, gave birth and raised their children (scary during the late 18th century), offered up political advice, and inadvertently saved the Continental Army, all while dodging the British army.

Let’s begin, shall we?

First, to Martha, because, as the first First Lady, that’s where we should begin.

Martha was a great heroine, especially to her husband, George. As the ‘Widow Custis,’ she brought enormous wealth to their marriage (marryingGeorge on January 6, 1759), and much more. During the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, soldiers were fleeing in scores. She rallied the troops, tended their wounds, and kept them from deserting. Martha’s presence also shielded her husband from scandal, like dancing the evening away with Catharine Greene, the wife of Nathanael Greene, a fellow general. Martha followed George to eight winter encampments during the war.

Abigail Adams was self-educated; a voracious reader and lifelong writer, often corresponding with her husband, John, about political matters, women’s rights, and family matters. During his frequent absences as a delegate to the Continental Congresses and other wartime posts, Abigail ran the family farm, raised their four children, purchased land, dealt with tenants and stayed a step ahead of the British army. When she wrote to John detailing the British preparations for war, he replied that if it became dangerous, she should “fly to the woods with our children.” I imagine she wanted to let something fly when she read his letter. Abigail became First Lady when John was elected President in 1797.

Perhaps we should be thankful for Betsey Loring. While not nearly the caliber of Martha or Abigail, she is probably the real heroine during that terrible winter at Valley Forge (December 1777.) Betsey kept British general Sir William Howe carnally ‘occupied’ in Philadelphia when he could have trooped toward Valley Forge and decimated the disheveled Continental army. Their affair was notorious, and one would like to think her intentions were patriotic, but she traded her favors in exchange for her husband’s advantageous position within the British army.

Back to Catharine Greene. Her husband, Nathanael, died at the age of forty-three in 1786, shortly after the war. She petitioned Congress for repayment of her husband’s war expenses, eventually indemnifying Greene’s estate, ensuring the courage of the young widow with five children. Seeking a tutor, she ultimately came upon Eli Whitney. With her friend, Phineas Miller, and cash at hand, Catherine and Eli invented the machine we would come to know at the Cotton Gin, a revolutionary device that removed seeds while harvesting cotton.

Eliza Pinckney was a dynamo. Born in Antiqua, her father moved the family to South Carolina, where he had inherited three plantations. When her father returned to Antiqua to deal with political strife between England and Spain, Eliza, at the tender age of sixteen, was put in charge. Her mother had passed away shortly after the move. Looking to supplement their cultivation of rice, she experimented with other types of crops, eventually landing on indigo. Through her perseverance, and due to her eventual success, the volume of indigo dye exported from South Carolina increased dramatically and became second only to rice as the colony’s commodity cash crop. Eliza married a neighboring widower and plantation owner and became the mother of two noteworthy leaders, Charles Cotesworth Pickney and Thomas Pinckney. When Eliza died in 1793, George Washington insisted on being a pallbearer at her funeral.

Deborah Read Franklin, Ben Franklin’s wife, drew the short straw. He virtually abandoned her for the charm of Europe. While Ben was sought after overseas for his ‘wit and wisdom,’ Deborah, fearful of ocean travel, remained in Philadelphia, managing the postal service and real estate ventures, supplying the funds for him to enjoy his stay. Ben was absent for sixteen of the last seventeen years of their marriage.

Esther DeBerdt Reed helped organize the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Encouraging women to “wear clothing more simple, hair dressed less elegantly,” and give the money saved to the troops to help bolster morale. They eventually raised $7,000. The funds were used to purchase linen, which the ladies used to sew shirts for the soldiers.

Lastly, there is Mercy Otis Warren. Looking upon her portrait by John Singleton Copley, there is a steely grace to her eyes. A glance that says, “Don’t even think about it.” Mercy was a propagandist, a political writer whose published poems and plays attacked British authority and urged her fellow colonists to rebuke the infringements on their rights and liberties. A real ass-kicker. She eventually published one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution, ‘History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution,’ the first authored by a woman. A die-hard patriot, she inspired others to follow her example, earning praise from both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

Several of the recipes sound appealing, especially Martha Washington’s Crab Soup and Harty Choke Pie (aka artichoke pie.) I decided to pass on the How to Dress a Calves Head recipe.

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