Ladies of Liberty
The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
HarperCollins Publishers. 481 pp. $26.95
Friday, May 9, 2008
Chapter OneThe Presidency of John and Abigail Adams 1797-1801
For the first time, Americans mourned as one. Again and again over the centuries the country would come together in grief or shock-the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center, the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The first of those nation-binding tragedies rocked the public in the last days of the eighteenth century. On December 14, 1799, George Washington died.
Of course on that day no stentorian-voiced anchormen broke into regular programming to announce the sudden and unexpected death; no dramatic stop-the-presses moment marked the passing of the "Father of the Country." It took some time for the news from Mount Vernon, where Martha Washington had been keeping watch over her husband of almost forty-one years, to reach the rest of the world. First family and friends nearby, then the Congress, still meeting over Christmas in the temporary capital of Philadelphia, received the report of the sudden loss of the sixty-seven-year-old man who had been leader since soon after the first shots of the Revolution were fired almost twenty-five years earlier. Congress set the official memorial service for the day after Christmas. A Philadelphia woman the next day estimated that four thousand people attended that service-led by President John Adams and "his Lady," the indomitable Abigail Adams. Her husband's chief adviser, the First Lady knew that this public display would help John Adams politically, and she was nothing if not politically savvy. An important election was in the offing, or as Abigail Adams put it, "a time for intrigue is approaching," and it couldn't hurt the embattled incumbent president to remind the voters of his ties to the Federalist "fallen hero"-of the fact that Adams had served loyally as vice president to President George Washington-going into a tough campaign against his own vice president, Republican Thomas Jefferson. Abigail, always on the lookout for what she saw as her husband's best interests, would get out front on this tragedy to milk it for all it was worth politically.
And it soon became clear that the political impact could be huge. The demise of Washington seemed to hold the country spellbound; especially affected were the women who documented the death in dire accounts. During the Adams presidency, women were beginning to bring their private political views into the public sphere and to publish under their own names. One of them, Judith Sargent Murray, described the scene when the news of the death reached Boston. "The calamitous tidings reached us this morning," the feminist writer informed her sister on December 23. "The bells commenced their agonizing peels, the theatre, and museum were shut, balls, festive assemblies and amusements of every description are suspended, ships in the harbor display the insignia of mourning, and a day of solemn humiliation, and prayer, in every place of public worship in this Town is contemplated."
Instead of huddling around the television, saddened citizens congregated in churches, paraded in processions, printed poems, offered orations, sought mementos, and fashioned souvenirs of the man who seemed to symbolize the young country. No one was sure that the nation would survive the loss of its first leader. With the perspective of a foreign observer, Henrietta Liston, the wife of the British ambassador, pondered the political repercussions: "It is difficult to say what may be the consequences of his death to this country," she wrote to her uncle. "He stood the barrier betwixt the northernmost and southernmost states, he was the unenvied Head of the Army, and such was the magic of his name that his opinion was a sanction equal to law."
As Henrietta Liston suspected, and as Abigail Adams quickly learned, America found Washington's death unsettling. One of New York's great social reformers, Isabella Graham, chronicled the impact to her brother abroad: "The city, indeed the United States, have been swallowed up in the loss of Washington," Graham wrote soon after the official day of mourning, February 22, Washington's birthday. By then in hundreds of cities the general had been praised in speech and song at ceremonies and commemorations. Nothing was too outlandish, too over-the-top for a country steeped in public shows of sorrow. Famed novelist Susanna Rowson, always ready to draw attention to herself, composed one of many dirges droned out at the mock funerals:
For him the afflicted melts in woe, For him the widow's tears will flow, For him the orphan's prayer shall rise, And waft his spirit to the skies.
Since no one had ever mourned an American head of state before, everyone was making up the rituals as they went along, with Federalist politicians determined that they last as long as possible. One of those Federalists, Congressman Harrison Gray Otis, knowing that his wife Sally, home in Boston, would be dying to know every detail of what was happening in Philadelphia, described the official memorial service in a letter written from the chamber of the House of Representatives: "Before my eyes and in front of the speaker's chair lies a coffin covered with a black pall, bearing a military hat and sword," he told her. "In about one hour we shall march attended by the military in grand procession to the German Lutheran Church."
Years later John Adams admitted that there was more than a little politics underpinning the paeans: "Orations, prayers, sermons, mock funerals" were used by the extremists in Adams's own party, to promote Federalist issues and to "cast into the background and the shade all others who had been concerned in the service of their country in the Revolution." The hoopla might have gotten out of hand in Adams's view, but in fact he and his wife had set the tone for the marathon of mourning. As soon as the news reached the temporary capital and Abigail Adams saw the response: "All business in Congress has been suspended in great measure and a universal melancholy has pervaded all classes of people," she told her nephew ...
Excerpted from Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts Copyright © 2008 by Cokie Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
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