- Women, Revolution, and the Making of a New Nation
The stories of Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson are topics familiar to many Americans because the same legends about them have been passed down for generations. The persistent tales are that Ross created the first American flag, Adams reminded her husband to “remember the ladies” when writing laws for the new nation, Madison saved a portrait of George Washington when the British stormed the White House, and Jefferson found domestic tranquility at Monticello in contrast to his political life. Left alone, the legends would represent the most important biographical details for those Revolutionary-era subjects. The four books under review in this essay, however, take the reader far beyond the legends to provide a richer understanding of the Revolutionary period and to demonstrate the critical role of women in shaping a new American identity. By narrowing their focus to the biographical details of a few individuals, the authors provide rich examples of the challenges of early American life and the ways in which women had to be particularly shrewd as they maintained households, faced epidemics, suffered losses, built businesses, and engaged in political debates.
Virginia Scharff’s The Women Jefferson Loved succeeds as a fresh examination of Thomas Jefferson and as a new, multi-pronged analysis of four generations of Jefferson’s relatives: his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson; his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson; his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings; and his daughters and granddaughters. The subjects of Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America, Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams, [End Page 160] and Catherine Allgor’s A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation were at the center of Revolutionary activity, including organizing boycotts against British imports and thinking about diplomatic strategies. Each historian argues that women, and not just men, in Revolutionary America deeply invested in ideas about freedom and independence.
Virginia Scharff’s eloquent account addresses a paradigm familiar to historians of gender: the intersection of public and private worlds. Scharff shows that, for Jefferson, this manifested in the depth of his love for those around him and for all that “inspired his immortal embrace of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (xv). According to Scharff, Jefferson demanded an “impregnable wall between the turbulent public world of politics and strife, a realm assigned to men, and the peaceful sphere of domestic tranquility, a realm associated with women” (153). The Revolution that Jefferson himself helped to provoke, however, broke down that wall, allowing violence and turmoil to disrupt his family life. Scharff portrays Jefferson as someone who viewed love as indestructible and sacred; Jefferson’s love was also complicated, and “it was not equal” (xxiii). An obvious example occurred early in Jefferson’s life. When attempting to pay off debts, in 1791, Jefferson claimed that, in order to preserve his own family, he would be willing to break up slave families by selling their individual members.
Scharff’s focus on the contradictions of Jefferson’s life and legacy succeeds because of her unique approach in arguing that Jefferson’s fierce desire for domestic tranquility became the model for his ideal nation: a series of little Monticellos headed by benevolent patriarchs and calmed by the women who lived in each home. Although Jefferson’s ideal failed to manifest for himself or the nation, Scharff explores his commitment to this political ideology through the lenses of the women whom he loved and who loved him. The stories of women in each...