Power Behind the Throne

Reviewed by Charlotte Hays
Sunday, May 11, 2008


The Women Who Shaped Our Nation

By Cokie Roberts

Morrow. 481 pp. $26.95

As we consider who will be our next first lady (or first laddie), Cokie Roberts introduces us to the women who pioneered this most ill-defined of jobs. Ladies of Liberty also portrays a bevy of bluestockings, educators, explorers and even a few intrepid nuns, but it is the first ladies -- especially the affable and politically astute Dolley Madison -- who steal the show. This might be a good Mother's Day gift for Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain or even Bill Clinton because the role has evolved surprisingly little.

Although one can imagine Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison having her own political career at a later time in our nation's history, the first ladies chronicled here overwhelmingly saw their jobs solely in terms of what they could do for their husbands. For Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, being married to an ambitious man meant long and painful separations from her children. When John Quincy was sent as minister to the czar's court at St. Petersburg, Louisa didn't see her two older sons for years on end, a separation she felt keenly. But it wasn't a dull life: Louisa was a favorite with the czar in a glittering court, and she made a hair-raising trip across Europe to join her husband in Paris, while Napoleon, having escaped from Elba, was on the loose, causing her servants to fear they would be conscripted. Back in Washington, she entertained in a way that foreshadowed Washington's great political hostesses of a later day, a breed that began to vanish after the Reagan administration. She once gave what she called a "snarling dinner" -- rivals Henry Clay and John Calhoun were present and unable to resist "sharp speeches."

Although opinionated -- she refused to sit on the dais with the Czar Alexander and, when he complained that nobody ever refused to do his bidding, bragged that she was "a republican" -- Louisa was content with the secondary role. On the other hand, Abigail Adams, her mother-in-law, carried on an at times contentious correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and constantly intrigued behind the scenes for jobs for her son. Sometimes she went too far, as with her loathing of the press and support for the Alien and Sedition Acts (she wanted harsher measures), which in the end harmed her husband's hopes for reelection.

Many of the women portrayed here were intensely interested in politics -- there's an account of lawyers before the Supreme Court trying to be wittier than usual because a large number of women had come to hear the arguments -- but all women in high places had to practice dinner-table diplomacy. Nobody performed this better than "Queen Dolla lolla," as Dolley Madison was dubbed. She dominates much of this book in the same way that she dominated Washington in her day -- by force of personality. You can imagine her stepping forward, a la Hillary Clinton before the health care debacle; what you can't imagine is Dolley making a mistake. She held formal "drawing rooms" and less formal Wednesday night "squeezes," at which anybody was welcome -- invitations were printed in the newspaper! -- as long as they were properly attired. A few critics fretted that this was not dignified enough for the White House, but almost nobody refused to attend. Presaging Jacqueline Kennedy, Dolley instituted the first White House beautification projects, working with the famed architect Benjamin Latrobe, and, as every school child used to know, saved the portrait of George Washington, along with various presidential papers, when the British came to burn the executive mansion in the War of 1812.

Everybody wrote her for favors and jobs. One of the few favor seekers she could not help was Theodosia Burr Alston, the devoted daughter of Aaron Burr, a touching figure in this book. Theodosia begged Dolley to intervene so that her exiled father could return to America. The saga of this father-daughter duo is fascinatingly told. Aaron Burr had read Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," and it inspired him to provide for Theodosia an excellent education, with emphasis on Latin and Greek. Theodosia didn't help "shape our nation" (despite Roberts's subtitle), and we should be glad -- she would have been a major player in her father's treasonous attempt to detach the western part of the United States. She even thought of the people of Mexico, included in Burr's dreams of empire, as "my subjects!"

Charmingly, Roberts includes some contemporary medical remedies (if your children have worms, Mrs. Washington had just the thing) and recipes. It's not surprising that the Madison White House had high food bills, but Dolley's cake sounds delicious.

What women these were! Not only was the Republic blessed with Founding Fathers, it was also blessed on the distaff side. And it's not just the very famous ones: Rose Philippine Duchesne, a French nun, established a school in a log cabin in St. Charles, Mo.; Mercy Otis Warren, whose three-volume history of the United States appeared in 1805, temporarily alienated her friends John and Abigail Adams because Warren felt they had developed monarchical sympathies.

Roberts, a veteran Washington journalist and the daughter of former representative Lindy Boggs and the late Hale Boggs, the powerful congressman from Louisiana, is perfectly placed to observe the ins and outs of Washington women. But a note of caution: If you expect a feminist "herstory" with an ideological bent, you'll be disappointed. However, if you love gossipy history, with lively quotes from primary sources (these ladies were fabulous correspondents!), then you'll enjoy this book. ยท

Charlotte Hays is a Washington writer and editor of In Character magazine.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company