Friday, August 22, 2008

Ladies of Liberty; Cokie Roberts

Written by the inimitable Cokie Roberts, Ladies of Liberty was published this year by William Morrow. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not to be missed. Factual and backed up by extensive primary sources,the ladies' own words via letters, journals and diaries, Ladies of Liberty feels informative and upbeat while giving readers a sense that you are hearing the truth behind the scenes played out by prominent politicians of the era. Ms. Roberts has a deft, light touch and the book is engrossing. It's relatively quick to read; although I went back and reread it when I had undisturbed time so I could better absorb what happened.

Ms. Roberts mentions early on that (and I’m paraphrasing here) while the men upon the political stage may have edited their words for posterity, i.e.: assuming someone would collect and read their words later, the women wrote to each other about the difficulties of traveling back and forth between the capitol and their home states, the heartache of leaving children behind when necessary, the gowns and jewels and entertainments that, even to this day, grease the wheels of politics. The ladies wrote of patronage ‘gifts’, the lack of adequate shopping in the scantily settled outback of Washington DC, they ranted about how the press was biased and similar issues. All of this benefits us with a fuller picture of how events unfolded, a more authentic, less posed image of what transpired in the early days of our country.

Ladies of Liberty takes place between 1797 and 1825, the terms of Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson (twice), James Madison (twice), and cumulating with President James Monroe. The events of the day are matched with correspondence by relevant ladies: their wives, their daughters and well known hostesses of the day. Women who had strong opinions and some influence. These are not your stereotypical wilting wallflowers, preoccupied with feminine fripperies and child rearing. Oh no. Even the quieter ladies, the ones overshadowed by other prominent women or those whose male relatives try to stifle or try to ignore them, they too are shown to be influential and having a deft hand juggling familial obligations and political aspirations.

My eyes were opened significantly specifically in reference to President Thomas Jefferson and the role his daughters played in his life, as well as Sally Hemmings’ connection to Jefferson’s deceased wife. Previous to reading this book I often thought Jefferson’s role in shaping early American politics was painted in too rosy a light, but even so after finishing his sections I was more than a little astonished at my negative reactions to his attitudes and actions towards the women in his life. I’m not an especially deep scholar of American history and I was surprised by some of the things I learned.

Aaron Burr (and his daughter) was also given dimension and depth. Offspring used as political pawns is nothing new, I realize, but the extent to which some parents are willing to use their children and in laws to further their own purposes fascinated me. Alexander Hamilton’s widow was left penniless with a houseful of (10!!)children. Thus an activist and an advocate was made and Ms. Roberts details how ladies’ societies came into being, how they slowly became a source of power and influence for positive social change. President John Adams' wife Abigail was opinionated and, IMO, more than a little overbearing and tended to be meddlesome in the life of her son John Quincy and his wife. I doubt I'd like her as a MIL, TBH.

Excellent reading, highly recommended especially for those who don’t especially like history or those who slept through class. The book assumes a certain level of familiarity with early American history, to best appreciate Ladies of Liberty, a quick brush up might be in order. A quick zoom through an online timeline of the relevant historical period will help, but may not be strictly necessary.

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