March Highlight: Remembering the Ladies

Research HighlightsOn March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams implored her husband John to "Remember the Ladies" when it came time to create a set of laws for an independent United States. Last March, we profiled Mary Katherine Goddard, the postmaster and printer of Baltimore whose broadside of the Declaration of Independence made known the names of the signers. This month, we highlight just a handful of the remarkable ladies whose stories are connected to our research on the Declaration of Independence.

 

Abigail Adams

Portrait of Abigail Adams, 17661744 - 1818
Married to John Adams from 1764-1818 (her death)
Connection to Declaration of Independence: Her husband, John, was a member of the Committee of Five and a signer.

"I Really think it A Great tryal of patience and philosophy to be so Long seperated from the Companion of Your Heart and from the Father of your Little Flock. But the High Enthusiasm of a truly patriotic Lady will Cary Her through Every Difficulty, and Lead Her to Every Exertion. Patience, Fortitude, Public Spirit, Magnanimity and self Denial are the Virtues she Boasts." - Letter from Mercy Otis Warren to Abigail Adams, 15 October 1776

Abigail made no secret of her feelings in her letters to John, particularly in 1776. She was overwhelmed by caring for their four children and their home and desperately missing her husband. But, living just outside of Boston, she was also acutely aware of the war, and the necessity of John's efforts in Philadelphia to push the colonies towards unanimous support of independence. She also frequently and eloquently spoke her mind on issues related to independence and a new government. Abigail's famous quote, cited above, begins, "I long to hear that you have declared an independency". Her letter of March 31st continues, "in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to forment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."

John Adams response on April 14th began, "As to Declarations of Independency, be patient." He then addressed her request for representation in the new code of laws, saying, "I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out. Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects."

Abigail wrote back to John on May 7th. First, she laments the absence of the love of her life: "How many are the solitary hours I spend, ruminating upon the past, and anticipating the future, whilst you overwhelmd with the cares of State, have but few moments you can devote to any individual. ... Thus do I supress every wish, and silence every Murmer, acquiescing in a painfull Seperation from the companion of my youth, and the Friend of my Heart." Then, she fires back on representation for women: "I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to be free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence [sic] throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet—'Charm by accepting, by submitting sway / Yet have our Humour most when we obey.'" 

Throughout the months leading up to and following the Declaration of Independence, Abigail kept John apprised of the situation in Boston and the health and activities of their children, and he sent her newspapers from Philadelphia. She was among the first in Boston to receive a copy of the Declaration of Independence (the Pennsylvania Evening Post printing of July 6th). In fact, John likely also shared a draft of the Declaration with her, because on July 14th she wrote, "I cannot but feel sorry that some of the most Manly Sentiments in the Declaration are Expunged from the printed coppy. Perhaps wise reasons induced it." And just as Abigail supported her husband's service to the Continental Congress, John praised Abigail's service:

"Your Sentiments of the Duties We owe to our Country, are such as become the best of Women, and the best of Men. Among all the Disappointments, and Perplexities, which have fallen to my share in Life, nothing has contributed so much to support my Mind, as the choice Blessing of a Wife, whose Capacity enabled her to comprehend, and whose pure Virtue obliged her to approve the Views of her Husband. This has been the cheering Consolation of my Heart, in my most solitary, gloomy and disconsolate Hours."

 

Hannah Lee Corbin

1728-1782
Older sister of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee
Connection to Declaration of Independence: Her brother Richard Henry presented the Continental Congress with a resolution to declare independence; he and another brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, were both signers.

"You complain that widows are not represented, and that being temporary possessors of their estates ought not to be liable to the tax. The doctrine of representation is a large subject, and it is certain that it ought to be extended as far as wisdom and policy can allow; nor do I see that either of these forbid widows having property from voting, notwithstanding it has never been the practice either here or in England. Perhaps 'twas thought rather out of character for women to press into those tumultuous assemblages of men where the business of choosing representatives is conducted. And it might also have been considered as not so necessary, seeing that the representatives themselves, as their immediate constituents, must suffer the tax imposed in exact proportion as does all other property taxed, and that, therefore, it could not be supposed that taxes would be laid where the public good did not demand it. This, then, is the widow's security as well as that of the never married women, who have lands in their own right, for both of whom I have the highest respect, and would at any time give my consent to establish their right of voting. I am persuaded that it would not give them greater security, nor alter the mode of taxation you complain of; because the tax idea does not go to the consideration of perpetual property, but is accommodated to the high prices given for the annual profits. ... When we complained of British taxation we did so with much reason, and there is great difference between our case and that of the unrepresented in this country. The English Parliament nor their representatives would pay a farthing of the tax they imposed on us but quite otherwise. Their property would have been exonerated in exact proportion to the burthens they laid on ours. Oppressions, therefore, without end and taxes without reason or public necessity would have been our fate had we submitted to British usurpation. For my part I had much rather leave my children free than in possession of great nominal wealth, which would infallibly have been the case with all American possessions had our property been subject to the arbitrary taxation of a British Parliament." - Letter from Richard Henry Lee to Hannah Lee Corbin, 17 March 1778

Hannah married Gawen Corbin and the couple had a daughter, Martha. But when Gawen died in 1759, Hannah became a widow, and his will he forbade Hannah from remarrying under penalty of losing two-thirds of Corbin's estate. Though Hannah lived with Dr. Richard Hall after her husband's death, and though the couple had two children, it appears that they never legally married. In 1778, she wrote to her brother Richard Henry Lee, and though her letter has been lost, we can ascertain the subject based on his response (above): Hannah wanted her brother to find a way for widows to have a vote, in order to have a say in taxes assessed on their property.

 

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

1748-1782
Married to Thomas Jefferson from 1772-1782 (her death)
Connection to Declaration of Independence: Her husband, Thomas, was the principal author and a signer.

"Mrs. Washington has done me the honor of communicating the inclosed proposition of our sisters of Pennsylvania and of informing me that the same grateful sentiments are displaying themselves in Maryland. Justified by the sanction of her letter in handing forward the scheme I undertake with chearfulness the duty of furnishing to my country women an opportunity of proving that they also participate of those virtuous feelings which gave birth to it." - Letter from Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson to Eleanor Conway Madison, 8 August 1780

In 1776, Martha Jefferson suffered a miscarriage and was quite ill while her husband was working on the Declaration. In fact, Thomas wrote to Richard Henry Lee on July 16th: "I am sorry the Convention of Virginia did not accept of my resignation here. The state of Mrs. Jefferson's health obliges me to persist in it."

When Martha died seven years later, a few months after the birth of their youngest child, Thomas Jefferson likely destroyed all of her correspondence. A rare surviving example of Martha's own writing is the above letter to Eleanor Madison (mother of future President James Madison). Martha died two decades before her husband became President of the United States, but here, we see a glimpse of her as First Lady of Virginia during Jefferson's term as governor (1779-1781). The Ladies Association, first launched in Philadelphia by Esther de Berdt Reed, provided aid for the Continental Army. The August 9, 1780 issue of the Virginia Gazette printed Reed's essay on "The Sentiments of an American Woman" on the front page, followed by the following request, addressed to "Virginia""THE sister state of Pennsylvania had the honour of giving birth to the foregoing ... The Ladies of that state have shown their gratitude by ample donations to those brave men who are shielding us from the sword of the one, and scalping knife of the other. Our sisters of Maryland are following the fair example, and it is not doubted but those of this state will give equal proofs of gratitude and patriotism." All told, the Ladies Association collected over $300,000, which went towards much-needed supplies and clothing for the Continental Army. 

 

Annis Boudinot Stockton and her daughter, Julia Stockton Rush (pictured)

Mrs. Benjamin Rush, Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1776Annis: 1736-1801; Married to Richard Stockton from about 1757-1781 (his death)
Julia: 1759-1848; Married to Benjamin Rush from 1776-1813 (his death)
Connection to the Declaration of Independence: Annis's husband and Julia's father, Richard, and Julia's husband, Benjamin, were both signers.

"The women of America have at last become principals in the glorious American Controversy. Their opinions alone and their transcendent influence in Society and families must lead us on to Success and victory. My dear wife who You know in the beginning of the war had all the timidity of her Sex as to the issue of the war, and the fate of her husband, was One of the ladies employed to sollitit benefactions for the Army. She distinguished herself by her Zeal and Address in this business, and is now so thouroughly enlisted in the cause of her country, that She reproaches me with lukewarmness." - Letter from Benjamin Rush to John Adams, 13 July 1780

Annis Boudinot Stockton was a noteworthy poet, and one of the first female poets to be published in the thirteen colonies. Here is an excerpt of Annis Boudinot Stockton's poem "On the death of General Montgomery" (for more, see Only for the Eye of a Friend: The Poems of Annis Boudinot Stockton, edited by Carla Mulford, 1995):

For him great Cato must the palm resign,
And greater Scipio haste his brows t'entwine;
They fought and bled to save their native land
From bowing to a tyrant's stern command.
But he, unbiass'd by a partial name,
Of Friends, of country, family or fame;
When Liberty oppress'd his aid implor'd,
Strung every nerve and drew the martial sword.
To her relief he flew with eager haste,
Trod down her foes and laid their bulwarks waste;
On foreign shores upheld her injur'd laws, 
And fell a martyr in her righteous cause.
But ah! too soon his race of glory's o'er,
His sun has set at noon to rise no more:
The Goddess Freedom o'er his urn reclin'd,
Mourns her lov'd patriot to the grave resign'd.

Richard and Annis Boudinot Stockton's daughter, Julia, married Benjamin Rush on January 11, 1776. He was thirteen years her senior and a friend of her father. In late June 1776, Richard Stockton was selected as a delegate to represent New Jersey in the Continental Congress; the next month, Benjamin Rush was named to represent Pennsylvania. On July 23rd, Benjamin wrote to his "dearest Jewel": "I am happy in finding that my appointment in Congress gives you so much pleasure. I believe it has operated in the manner You expected upon some of my Old friends."

Both Annis and Julia were dedicated to the cause of independence; see Benjamin Rush's quote above about his wife's patriotism. This dedication persisted through extreme difficulties. Just months after signing the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton was imprisoned by the British, and the family's home "Morven" in Princeton was ransacked, their livestock taken away, and their library burned. Stockton never fully recovered after his parole, dying in 1781 at the age of 51. Annis is credited with burying the family's silver and the papers of the American Whig Society, which had been founded at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1769, before evacuating Morven. In appreciation for saving their valuable records, the American Whig Society named her an honorary member.

 

Mercy Otis Warren

Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley, ca. 17631728-1814
Married to James Warren from 1754-1808 (his death)
Connection to the Declaration: Frequent correspondent of John Adams and other delegates; printed the Declaration in her History...

"By the Declaration of Independence, dreaded by the foes and for a time doubtfully viewed by many of the friends of America, everything stood on a new and more respectable footing, both with regard to the operations of war or negotiations with foreign powers. Americans could now no more be considered as rebels in their proposals for treaties of peace and conciliation with Britain. They were a distinct people, who claimed the rights, the usage, the faith, and the respect of nations, uncontrolled by any foreign power. The colonies thus irretrievably lost to Great Britain, a new face appeared on all affairs both at home and abroad." - Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, 1805

Mercy Otis Warren was an exceptional political writer and supporter of American independence. In 1775, John Adams wrote to Mercy's husband James: "Tell her, that God Almighty... has intrusted her with Powers, for the good of the World, which, in the Course of his Providence he bestows upon very few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them." She produced poems, plays, pamphlets and other writings; even Alexander Hamilton remarked to her, "that in the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the Male." 

In 1805, Mercy Otis Warren published what is arguably her magnum opus: the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. In the introductory note, she explains that she recorded the events and sentiments of the Revolution as they happened, though it took time to arrange them into this History: "With an expanded heart, beating with high hopes of the continued freedom and prosperity of America, the writer indulges a modest expectation that the following pages will be perused with kindness and candor: this she claims both in consideration of her sex, the uprightness of her intentions, and the fervency of her wishes for the happiness of all the human race." Chapter IX of Warren's History recounts the story of the Declaration of Independence, and she included the full text of the Declaration in an endnote. The above and following excerpts shows the emotion and style of her writing:

"Thus was the Continental Congress fully convinced of the impropriety of longer holding themselves in suspense by desultory hopes, or the uncertain termination of their expectations of their fears. They were sensible the step they were about to take would either set their country on the pinnacle of human glory, or plunge it in the abject state into which turbulent and conquered colonies have been generally reduced. Yet they wisely judged that this was a proper period to break the shackles and renounce all political union with the parent state, by a free and bold declaration of the independence of the American States."

 

Elizabeth Jane Lenthall Stone

1804-1892
Married to William J. Stone through 1865 (his death)
Connection to the Declaration: In 1823, her husband, William J. Stone, produced an engraving of the engrossed parchment which has become ubiquitous.

Map of the City of Washington, 1828

Elizabeth was the daughter of John Lenthall, assistant architect of the U.S. Capitol who tragically died in September 1808 when an arch fell after its supports were prematurely removed. On her mother Jane's side of the family, her grandfather and two uncles were surveyors. She married William J. Stone, an engraver, but was also an engraver in her own right. The above map of Washington, D.C., dated to 1828, was engraved by "Mrs. W.I. Stone." 

William J. Stone died in 1865, the same year as Abraham Lincoln. William and Elizabeth's son, Dr. Robert King Stone, was President Lincoln's physician; he was at Lincoln's bedside after he was shot, and performed Lincoln's autopsy. Elizabeth survived her husband by nearly thirty years. In 1883, she gave the estate she had inherited from her father, at the corner of 19th and G Streets in Washington, D.C., as the Lenthall home for widows. In 1888, she donated her husband's personal imprint of the Declaration of Independence on parchment — an extra, beyond the 200 requested by John Quincy Adams — to the Smithsonian.

 

Bonus: Do you know how Betsy Ross got her name?

Elizabeth "Betsy" Griscom eloped with John Ross in 1773, who died just a few years later. He was the nephew of George Ross, delegate from Pennsylvania and signer of the Declaration of Independence. She was technically only "Betsy Ross" from her first marriage in 1773 to her second marriage, to Joseph Ashburn, in June 1777; after Ashburn's death, she would marry John Claypoole.