- Founding Mothers, Myths, and a Martyr
In recent years, popular biographers David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson, and other nonhistorians have created an industry of books on the founding fathers. There is nothing new in Americans' desperate desire to envelop the story of national origins for the United States in a quasi-religious faith. Since the deaths of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington in the 1790s, eulogists immortalized the Revolutionary leaders for their singular genius and divine calling. David Edwin's painting Apotheosis of Washington (1800) gave the incomparable first president a halo, and made him into a "savior."
The same tendency exists among those who would construct a pantheon of founding mothers. Journalist Cokie Roberts received a large advance for her puerile homily on great women, Founding Mothers. As historian Gerda Lerner put it, in the past women's historians relied on compensatory history, recording women's achievements without any critical analysis.1 How can such celebratory prose, often vapidly patriotic, be considered anything other than pseudohistory? There is no excuse for this kind of writing anymore.
Publishing for a popular audience presents certain dangers. It can lead experienced women's historians to adopt the heroic narrative. Judith Wellman has been researching and writing on the origins of the Seneca Falls [End Page 185] convention for twenty-five years. Whether or not her book is designed as such, The Road to Seneca Falls is an homage to the Women's Rights National Historical Park. Her dedication is telling; she mentions not only the national park, but also the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Foundation, the National Women's Hall of Fame (in Seneca Falls) and "especially local historians," who collectively "keep the home fires burning for all of us."
The Road to Seneca Falls begins with an imaginative re-creation of Stanton's walk to the convention on 19 July 1848, and it ends with the grand opening of the Women's Rights National Park in July 1982. That final chapter is a strangely condensed summary of everything meant to have taken place between 1848 and 1982. The book is both a story of origins and a celebration of the movement's local origins. "Locally inspired," Wellman writes, "the Seneca Falls woman's rights convention attracted immediate national attention. Like a magnifying glass, it transformed widespread but unorganized public sentiment into a focused movement for change." Echoing what Stanton wrote in her Autobiography, Wellman asserts that the convention "initiated a crescendo of activism on behalf of women." Stanton is the star of the show, the movement's "main organizer" and "catalyst" (10–11, 13). Wellman's political agenda obliges her to uphold the sacred role of the Women's Rights National Historical Park as keeper of the flame.
Wellman's book is part biography and part community study. The first two chapters cover Stanton's childhood and life before the convention, while the latter chapters describe the social and reform environments she encountered when she moved to Seneca Falls in 1847. As a thorough social historian, she provides the reader with a detailed economic history of Seneca Falls and nearby Waterloo. She highlights the various reform influences in the area, such as Quaker dissent, antislavery, and efforts at legal reform in New York State. This meticulous local history is the best part of the book, because it reveals...