Victor Nuovo: Founding sisters

Editor’s note: This is the 20th in a series of essays on the American political tradition.
The founders of this nation were men. However, if social practices had permitted, as they now do, there was no lack of women, of high intelligence, broad learning, and noble character, who could have filled the role of founder as well an any man, perhaps better, and there is reason to believe that some of them did so indirectly. Their contribution must not go unnoticed.
Chief among them is Abagail Adams (1744-1818). As the wife and mother of two presidents, she was well situated to be of influence, and her correspondence is proof that she did not hesitate to use it and that her correspondents took her seriously. Her correspondence with her husband reveals that he regarded her as his equal, and she was his confident and advisor. They also demonstrate her thorough knowledge of the principles and practices of government. Other founders also sought her advice, and she was willing to give it. Thomas Jefferson valued it, or at least pretended to.
She was an early and outspoken advocate of women’s rights, the education of women, and the abolition of slavery.
She was also a formidable correspondent, as Thomas Jefferson was to learn to his discomfit. After the Revolution, Adams and Jefferson had become estranged, moving in opposite directions politically. In 1800, Jefferson defeated Adams in the Presidential election and began to reverse many of the policies that Adams had initiated during his term as President, from 1797 to 1801. His goal was to dismantle Federalism. In 1804, during his first term, Jefferson’s daughter died. Abagail wrote him a letter of condolence. She had known Mary Jefferson as a child and had been for a time her surrogate mother. They were devoted to each other. Abigail’s letter was heartfelt. She concluded the letter by describing herself as someone “who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend”.
Jefferson responded quickly. He expressed gratitude for her letter and for all the kindnesses she had shown to his daughter, and he expressed regret that he and John Adams had become estranged. He recalled how closely they worked for independence, and how, in spite of their political differences, they had always been respectful of each other’s opinions and policies in spite of their differences. However, he recalled one occasion when it seemed to him Adams had betrayed their friendship. Towards the end of his term as President, Adams had appointed a number of men to Federal Judgeships. Jefferson, who succeeded him, took this as a personal affront, for “they were among my most ardent political enemies, from who no faithful cooperation could ever be expected”. Nevertheless, time and the remembrance of their former friendship and the warm sentiments of her letter, moved him now to forgive her husband. The tone of his letter is condescending.
Abagail Adams response was a powerful putdown. She wrote, with great irony, that she had considered Jefferson’s sentiments “and have given them every weight they claim”. But first, she wanted to set the facts straight. Adams’s appointments were entirely within his right and were faithful to the Constitution. At the time he made the appointments President Adams had no reason to believe that he would not be elected to a second term—in fact, he did. The men whom he appointed were of high competence and of unquestioned loyalty to the Constitution and to the rule of law.
Above all, she was deeply offended by the manner in which Jefferson succeeded to the Presidency: “I have never felt any enmity towards you Sir for being elected President of the United States. But the instruments made use of, and the means which were practiced to effect a change, have my utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falsehoods.” She was referring to the slanderous remarks about her husband published by James Thomson Callender, a journalist of dubious reputation who enjoyed Jefferson’s patronage and protection.
Jefferson responded, defending his actions, but to no avail. Two more letters would follow back and forth. The last, written by Abagail concluded that Jefferson had become an unprincipled defender of his political actions. This, she noted, was a judgment of reason. “Having once entertained for you a respect and esteem, founded upon the Character of an affectionate parent, a kind Master, a candid and benevolent Friend, I could not suffer different political opinions to obliterate them from my mind, and I felt the truth of the observation, that the Heart is long, very long in receiving the conviction forced upon it by reason. Affection still lingers in the Bosom, even after esteem has taken its flight.” Jefferson did not respond.
Abigail Adams was only one of several founding sisters. Others Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Hamilton’s Eliza; Lucy Flucker Knox, wife of Henry Knox, a leading revolutionary war general, (about whom there will be a subsequent essay in this series); and the two Theodosia Burrs, mother and daughter. All were highly cultivated, well read, decisive, and articulate.
Elizabeth Hamilton was a descendent of two distinguished New York families, the Schuylers and the Van Rensselaers, who were also very wealthy. Socially and economically, she married beneath her, but this was compensated by Hamilton’s brilliance, energy, and ambition. In conversation, she was overshadowed by her sister Angelica, with whom Hamilton also formed an intimate relationship, although probably without impropriety. After his death, in 1804, she remained faithful to his memory. She died in 1854 at the age of 97.
Theodosia Burr the elder was also an early advocate of women’s education. Twice widowed, she and Burr were attracted to each other perhaps more for each other’s intelligence and learning than for their physical beauty, although neither were lacking in this respect. She introduced Burr to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose writings on the rights of women have become classics. Their first child, a daughter and the only one of their children to reach adulthood, was also named Theodosia. Both Theodosias were ahead of their time.
Theodosia the elder and Burr regarded themselves as partners in in life. Together they oversaw the education of their daughter, until her the senior Theodosia’s death in 1794 at age 47. Burr continued on his own. Theodosia the younger became fluent in Greek, Latin, and French, read the classics and could hold her own in philosophical and political conversation in the most learned company. The collegiality between Burr had his wife continued with his daughter. After his trial for treason and acquittal in 1807, Burr went into self-exile in England and she saw to his needs. He returned to the United States in 1812, after the outbreak of war with Great Britain. Theodosia, who had married and was living in South Carolina was on her way to meet him in New York. The ship on which she was sailing disappeared, she was lost at sea. She was 29. Burr was heartbroken. The loss was the nation’s also.

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