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Jane Franklin Mecom: A Boston Woman in Revolutionary Times
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Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4.1 (2006) 147-191

A Boston Woman in Revolutionary Times

Neremy A. Stern

Princeton University

The years of the American Revolution were times that tried both men's and women's souls. This article seeks to elucidate the journey of one Boston woman through these times. Recently widowed, approaching old age, and living on the precipice of poverty, she faced family strain, financial loss, and painful uncertainties during the years of political crisis and agitation. But she also showed the growing engagement of an active mind with the issues of the day and the plight of her country. The war and its aftermath saw her family shattered and her home ransacked, leaving her again and again as a threatened refugee, struggling to find a safe haven. But it also left her with an abiding patriotism and commitment to her new nation.

Jane Franklin Mecom was the youngest sister of Benjamin Franklin. She was not, in any other respect, overtly extraordinary. As a widowed, middle-aged woman of Boston, struggling to keep herself afloat with a small business and often dependent on the charity of her relations, she must have been typical of a great many women who faced the Revolutionary crisis, and engaged with it in their own way. She was intelligent and interested in her world, reading often, probably with greater political awareness in the pre-Revolutionary period than can be documented. In these things, too, there is no reason to believe she was exceptional. But Jane Mecom was remarkable in one important respect: because she was her brother's sister, many of her letters were saved. She gives a voice to a largely voiceless element of late colonial New England, allowing an insight into their largely lost experiences of America's founding era.

In important respects, the experience of Jane Mecom stands outside the trends and patterns emphasized in the large and growing literature on women in the Revolutionary era. Emphasis tends to be placed on change: in society and economy, in definitions of domestic spheres, in work, race, marriage, and motherhood. But Jane Mecom's experiences raise questions about the applicability of such categories to her generation and social class. She was, by the standards of the day, already entering old age when the imperial crisis began. Her husband was soon dead. Her children were grown. She seems to have had little hand in the raising of those grandchildren who formed part of the new post-Revolutionary generation; those with whom she had close contact joined her household as adults. Her familial roles and obligations were largely completed or set, beyond the scope of redefinition. Her attempts to establish herself as a small importer of millinery goods were made before the war; afterward, she was too old and infirm to explore new or altered opportunities. Her aim before the war was to successfully support herself as a widow. The Revolution and war undermined and then violently uprooted her way of life. Her aim became survival and, with the peace, quiet retirement with a simple and familiar family life, as far as her many losses allowed. Such a path must have been typical for a great many women of advancing age and poor economic prospects, women whose lives have left little trace in the historical record.

Literature focused on the nature of female patriotism seems again to have sidestepped Jane Mecom and other women like her. Important studies, such as those of Mary Beth Norton and Linda Kerber, emphasize women's public enactments of patriotic (or loyalist) roles, and how they were shaped by, and in turn shaped, assumptions about gender roles. The dependence of nonimportation on female domestic production and on female nonconsumption, particularly of tea, have been much explored. Kerber and Norton both focus also on the active roles women assumed in support of the war itself, ranging from producing clothes for soldiers to direct participation on the battlefield.

Jane Mecom contributed in a small way to producing clothes for the army, but was otherwise uninvolved in these symbolic patriotic acts. She never referred to abstaining from tea (which she likely could not afford), and did not produce homespun...

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