Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America
Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America

Larry Holzwarth - December 23, 2020

America honors its Founding Fathers, though often in a manner unworthy of them. Too often they are depicted as bewigged gentlemen, always in formal attire and ostentatious pose. Their vibrancy is stripped from them. They appear as stoics, debating politics and positions in formal prose, loftily deciding the fate of the nation. Their wives are presented as mere decoration, a sideshow to the great acts performed as part of creating the nation. Women of the age are barely considered, at best rendered in the background, their influence and contributions ignored. This is inaccurate, and unfair. The women of early America contributed mightily to the creation of the American experiment.

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America
The Continental Army had help from women during the siege of Boston in 1775-76. Wikimedia

Contrary to popular belief, many women in America owned property, operated businesses, and engaged in the affairs posterity assigned to men. In fact, the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence bearing the signatures of the Continental Congress was printed by a Baltimore company owned by a woman, Mary Katherine Goddard. Goddard also served as postmistress in Baltimore, published newspapers in Providence, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and was a virulent opponent of the Stamp Act before the Revolutionary War. She was but one of many women who deserve recognition as a Founding Mother of the United States. Here are just some of the others.

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America
Martha Washington’s levees helped create a social and political caste system during her husband’s administrations. Wikimedia

1. Martha Washington destroyed much of the record of her contributions to early America

Following George Washington’s death in December, 1799, his widow Martha systematically destroyed nearly all of the letters they exchanged during his many absences. Just three letters from George to her are known to have survived. Nonetheless, an extensive record of her contributions to the birth of the United States exists, recorded in the letters and diaries of contemporaries. She brought much of the couple’s wealth with her when they married, having inherited it when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis died. As a woman of wealth and at the top of Virginia society she could easily have remained in comfort at Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War. Instead, she spent each of the eight winters of the war at her husband’s encampments, including Valley Forge.

In the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia, Martha opened the President’s House to weekly receptions, called levees, where political figures and the common man comingled. Martha ensured that political discourse remained polite, and the opinions of women were shared freely with men during her receptions. The term First Lady was not applied, she was typically referred to as Lady Washington. During formal affairs, such as dinners, Martha followed the social customs of the period, but her levees were open, often spirited, and provided the opportunity for the President and others of the government to hear the views of women from all of the American states, and from different levels of society.

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America
Camp followers. like these of the British Army, were common to all armies of the 18th century. Wikimedia

2. The camp women of the American Revolution helped keep the army intact

Camp women, some wives of enlisted men and some not, played a significant role in preserving the Continental Army. It was they who made the bandages for binding wounds, maintained the clothing of the men, and served as laundresses and cooks. Some took to the field of battle, disguised as men, including one Deborah Sampson, who enlisted as Robert Shurtleff in 1782. Others went to the battlefront to carry water to the men, and to succor the wounded. The legendary Molly Pitcher is likely a composite of several such women.

Wives joined their officer husbands in the encampments, and they moved about the camps under the caring guidance of Martha Washington and the wives of other senior officers. During the campaigning season most remained at home, traveling to the winter encampments after the army settled in. They often endured harsh weather on their journey, arduous enough due to poor roads, comfortless inns, and long distances. Their presence in the winter camps did much to boost the morale of the army during its most trying times. The contribution of women to the victory won by Washington’s army is measured not in a great military victory, but in thousands of small comforts they rendered for the troops during the long war.

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America
The redoubtable Abigail Adams expressed her views in writing to nearly all of the Founding Fathers. Wikimedia

3. Abigail Adams counseled her husband John, as well as several other Founding Fathers

John Adams, during his many long absences while serving in the Continental Congress and later as Minister to France, relied on his wife Abigail as his closest political advisor. It wasn’t only John who sought her counsel. Abigail corresponded regularly with Washington, Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, James Madison, Lafayette, and several others of the Founders. In her letters she advocated women’s rights, denounced slavery, and defended her husband’s views and actions. When John Adams lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, he took the step of appointing several federal judges to the bench before the new President’s inauguration. Jefferson gently complained to Abigail in a letter, referring to the action as “personally unkind”.

Abigail responded to the new President, strongly supporting her husband, and condemning Jefferson’s acceptance of the “lowest and vilest slander” presented by others against Adams during the campaign. During her husband’s administration her influence was such that his political enemies referred to her as Mrs. President. Throughout her life she lobbied (though the term was not yet known) for gender equality in public education and full property rights for women. In a 1776 letter to John Adams, sent prior to independence, Abigail wrote, in reference to women’s subservience to men, “We have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet…”

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Washington’s Chief of Artillery, Henry Knox, did not want his wife Lucy to visit him in camp. Wikimedia

4. Lucy Flucker Knox lost her entire family due to her support of the Patriots during the Revolution

Lucy Flucker, born into a Loyalist family, first met Henry Knox at his Boston bookstore, a popular site among British officers in Boston prior to the Revolution. Her father was a colonial official, her brother an officer in the British Army. Henry Knox allowed and even lured British officers in his store, engaging them in conversation during which he learned all he could about the use of artillery in battle. When Washington arrived at Cambridge to command the Continental Army, Knox joined him there. Impressed with the Bostonian’s knowledge, Washington appointed him his Chief of Artillery. By then, Henry and Lucy were married, though Lucy’s parents were disappointed in her choice, and tried to entice Henry into accepting a British commission. When the British evacuated Boston in early 1776, Lucy’s family left with them, and Lucy left for Cambridge and her husband.

With no family, and her husband away with the army, Lucy became an ardent supporter of the Patriot’s cause. She and Henry exchanged well over one hundred letters in which she expressed the desire to join him in the encampments. He refused her due to the shabby condition of the army in the first years of the war. He did not want not want to make her loss of her family worse by seeing the desperate straits the cause she supported had fallen to. She did visit him in camp later in the war. Lucy spent much of the war purchasing and sending supplies to her husband, calling herself in one letter, “quite the woman of business”. In another, she warned him he would not be commander in chief in his house when he returned from the war.

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America

5. Mercy Otis Warren used her pen to influence Independence and the Constitution

Mercy Otis, sister of Boston lawyer James Otis, married the influential patriot James Warren in 1754. She moved in the same circles as her husband, and became a correspondent and advisor to several of Bostonians who led the early days of the Revolution. Among the leaders with whom she corresponded were Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Adams, and later with the Virginians, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. Before the war she supported their views and her own in pamphlets and poetry, published under the pseudonym A Columbian Patriot. She also wrote a 1772 play satirizing Loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson, which predicted the Revolution.

After the Constitutional Convention, Warren published a pamphlet titled Observations on the New Constitution. She opposed ratification of the document in its then present state, arguing against its lack of a Bill of Rights. She published a history of the Revolution three decades after the events of 1775, which Jefferson, then President, called a “…truthful and insightful account of the last thirty years” and “…a more instructive lesson to mankind than any equal period known in history. John Adams found the work less valuable, and that he was depicted in ungratifying terms throughout. The book led to an angry debate via correspondence between Adams and Warren, ending their long friendship.

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Esther de Berdt Reed, raised money to support the troops when Congress could not. Getty

6. Esther Reed created a society to provide relief for the Continental Army

Esther de Berdt married American law student Joseph Reed in her native London, then traveled to his American home in Philadelphia. During the early years of the American Revolution, members of the Continental Congress frequently visited the Reed home. She became familiar with the Patriots cause, and despite her British birth and short time in America adopted it wholeheartedly. Her husband Joseph joined Washington’s staff as an aide. Esther, in Philadelphia, became a leader in the creation of the Ladies Association, formed to raise money for the support of the troops. At the time Congress lacked the power to tax in order to raise funds. The Ladies Association successfully raised over $300,000. Esther wanted to distribute the money, in hard currency, directly to the troops.

Washington demurred, believing that most of the money, and thus the Ladies Association’s efforts, would be wasted. In his opinion his men would simply spend it on alcohol. He asked instead the Ladies use the money to purchase linen, and have it sewn into shirts and smallclothes (the term for underwear at the time). Esther agreed, but died suddenly before the project could be completed. Her efforts were picked up by Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin. Bache wrote to acquaintances in several other American towns, urging them to adopt similar projects, though the lack of hard currency throughout the United States by 1780 impeded many of their efforts.

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John Dickinson expressed his wife’s views as well as his own during the debates over Independence. Wikimedia

7. Mary Norris Dickinson owned and managed large estates, one of which the British burned

Mary Norris inherited her estates, which she managed with the assistance of her sister, at the age of 26. She also owned one of the largest privately held libraries in the colonies before the American Revolution. Her husband, John Dickinson, participated in the debates over Independence, which he initially opposed, refusing to sign the document. He helped draft the Articles of Confederation, and later became one of the Framers of the Constitution. Mary considered herself, indeed all women, to be equal to men in matters including politics and business. An exasperated John Adams once wrote of her that if he had had such a wife, “I should have shot myself”.

Adams frustration stemmed from Mary’s frank discussion of the perils of Independence with her husband in his (Adams’) presence. Nonetheless, both she and her husband supported the American cause, with John even serving in the Continental Army once Independence was fait accompli. The British burned Mary’s estate outside Philadelphia known as Fair Hill in 1777, though the library survived. It served as the first library for the school started using funds bestowed by the Dickinson’s, the predecessor of today’s Dickinson University.

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An 1804 Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Payne Madison. White House

8. Dolley Madison served as First Lady for more than one President

The wife of America’s fourth President, James Madison, Dolley brought to his administration experience as a White House hostess, having served at times in that role for the widowed Thomas Jefferson. During the administration of John Adams, partisanship based on political party affiliation took over the capital’s social events. It became common for events at the White House to be attended only by members of one of the two emerging political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Polarization worsened under Jefferson. As the hostess for James Madison, Dolley created a social atmosphere in which both parties intermingled. She ensured the atmosphere remained congenial, even during political discussions in social events under the President’s roof.

From 1801 to 1817, Dolley served as the leader of society in Washington. Much of what is known today regarding the creation of the Constitution is derived from the personal papers of James Madison. They were carefully preserved, edited, and published by Dolley following her husband’s death in 1836. In 1837 she returned to Washington, living there for the rest of her life. She again took an influential place in society, and counseled succeeding President’s and their wives, as well as cabinet officers and members of the Congress. She remains the only First Lady (the term did not exist in her day) to be given an honorary seat on the floor of the House during the administration of her husband. They granted it with gratitude for her efforts rebuilding Washington following the British burning of the Capital in 1814.

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In 1787 Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton sat for a portrait by an artist in a New York debtor’s prison, Ralph Earl. Wikimedia

9. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton helped write the Federalist Papers and Washington’s Farewell Address

George Washington originally hoped to retire after his first term as President, and he had James Madison prepare a farewell address for publication at that time. Emerging political divisions caused him to reconsider, accepting a second term. As that term came to an end, the original address was sent to Alexander Hamilton for revision. Hamilton re-wrote the letter, reading passages to his wife, Elizabeth, and together they prepared what became Washington’s famous warning against the perils of political parties. Previously, Elizabeth aided Hamilton’s writings in defense of the federal government during the debates over the Constitution. The impact of her influence with her husband was substantial.

Following Hamilton’s death in a duel with Aaron Burr, Elizabeth became an influential reformer and philanthropist. In 1806 she helped form the Orphan Asylum Society, serving as its Second Directress. Fifteen years later she assumed the role of First Directress, which she held for 27 years. The Society housed, fed, and educated over 700 orphans. The Society remains in existence as Grand Windham, serving the New York City metropolitan area. It assists over 4,500 children each year. Elizabeth’s role in the founding of the American government and in social reforms remained all but forgotten for two centuries, until the appearance of the musical Hamilton! in 2015.

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A depiction of Mary Ball Washington from a tourist guide for the Washington, Alexandria, and Mount Vernon Railway, 1902. Wikimedia

10. Mary Ball Washington prevented her son from serving in the British Navy

Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, was the second wife of George’s father Augustine. A son from his first marriage, Lawrence Washington, served as an officer in the Royal Navy, under Admiral Edward Vernon. Lawrence so admired Admiral Vernon he named his Virginia estate Mount Vernon in his honor. When his half-brother George reached the age of 14, Lawrence made arrangements for George to received a warrant as a midshipman in the British Navy (Lawrence commanded a detachment of Virginia Militia serving as Marines). Family friend and confidant Lord Fairfax supported the idea. By then widowed, Mary Ball Washington sought the advice of her brother, Joseph Ball, a prominent member of Virginia society then living in London.

Under his counsel, Mary refused to allow George to accept the appointment, which had it been accepted would have changed world history in ways left only to the imagination. Throughout the rest of her life her influence over her son remained prominent. He sought and received her approval prior to running for the Burgesses, accepting the command of the Virginia militia, attending the Continental Congress, and even accepting the office as first President of the United States. She died of breast cancer in 1789, the first year of his presidency. He wore a black mourning band for the ensuing five months in remembrance of the woman who prevented George Washington from embarking on a career in the Royal Navy.

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The widow of General Nathanael Greene provided financial support to Eli Whitney as he developed the cotton gin. Wikimedia

11. Catherine Greene influenced the development of the cotton gin

Catherine Littlefield Greene, born on New England’s Block Island, married fellow Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene, in 1774. Nathanael became George Washington’s most trusted and capable commander during the Revolutionary War. He also assumed considerable debts, pledging his personal credit to acquire badly needed supplies from South Carolina merchants. After the war, Catherine, whom he called Caty, and Nathanael settled in Georgia, near Savannah. Both had been prosperous before the war, and Catherine found her reduced circumstances trying, though she continued to support his efforts to make their rice plantation profitable. Nathanael died suddenly in 1786.

Catherine continued to petition Congress for payment of the funds her late husband expended during the war, and in 1792, Washington intervened. By then, the plantation generated annual profits, and Caty hired a tutor to instruct her children. The young tutor lived on the estate, tinkering with machinery in his spare time. His name was Eli Whitney. While living on the Greene plantation he successfully completed his working cotton gin, and marketed it with Caty’s encouragement and financial support. Whitney’s cotton gin revolutionized the Southern economy, making cotton a valuable crop, though its labor intense cultivation also increased the demand for slaves across the southern states.

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Marie Antoinette used charm and guile to help persuade the French King to openlu support the American cause. Wikimedia

12. Marie Antoinette helped persuade the French King to intervene on behalf of the Americans during the Revolutionary War

The role of Marie Antoinette during the American Revolution is usually disregarded. She used her influence, both with her husband and in his court, to encourage broadening French intervention supporting the Americans against Great Britain. Marie’s interests in politics were shaped by her having been born into the ruling family of Austria. Intrigues in the French court over the geopolitical situation in Europe and the Indies factored into all French royal decisions. Nor was she officially consulted by the Ministers of the King. Nonetheless she was an early and fervent supporter of the American cause, chiefly as a means of weakening the position of France’s ancient enemy, Britain.

Marie Antoinette was by no means the only French woman who actively lobbied for French intervention in the American Revolution. The wily Benjamin Franklin cultivated relationships with several, in the process securing donations of money sent to America, and the support of their husbands among the French ministers. Most of the women who supported the American cause in France lost their fortunes, homes, and many their lives during the subsequent French Revolution. Among them, and perhaps most famously, was Marie Antoinette, who died after the French revolutionaries beheaded the King who had been persuaded to aid America.

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This drawing of Agent 355 appeared in Harper’s Magazime, though in reality her appearance and name remains a mystery. Wikimedia

13. A woman known to history only as Agent 355 helped reveal Benedict Arnold’s treachery

Agent 355 is a coded entry recorded by Abraham Woodhull, a member of the Culper Spy Ring, in a message to Benjamin Talmadge. It refers to a woman, many believe to have been Anna Strong, whose husband spent much of the war imprisoned on a British prison ship in New York. Others disagree. More persuasive evidence indicates she was a woman in New York in a position to obtain information from British officers and passed it on to Talmadge. Agent 355 could have been the common law wife of Robert Townsend, a New York merchant posing as a Loyalist, but providing information to Washington via Talmadge, his chief of intelligence. According to the CIA, Agent the British arrested Agent 355 in New York after the Americans captured Major John Andre. A suspicious Benedict Arnold questioned her personally.

The true identity of Agent 355 notwithstanding, she represents one of many women who worked as spies, informants, and couriers to support the Patriot’s cause during the Revolution. Often at great risk to their lives, they supported Washington’s campaign of espionage and disinformation. Washington, the first great spymaster in American history, relied on women in nearly all of his campaigns, as did localized Patriot militia and spy rings. Agent 355 provided information regarding a John Anderson’s movements, allowing the patriots to position men to encounter him. He proved to be Major John Andre, carrying papers which revealed Benedict Arnold’s intention to betray the American cause and deliver the fortifications of West Point to the enemy.

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Betsy Ross did not create the Stars and Stripes, but she supported the Revolution through other means. Wikimedia

14. Betsy Ross’s true contributions outweigh the myth of her creating the first American flag

The story of Betsy Ross creating the first American flag containing the Stars and Stripes appeared in 1870, in an account written by her grandson. It is almost certainly a myth, no contemporaneous evidence supports the story. The debate over the subject is unfortunate. It masks the true contributions made by Ross during the Revolutionary War. Widowed early in the war, Betsy worked making tents, blankets, uniforms, and naval flags for the Pennsylvania Navy. She also worked making paper cartridges, stuffed with gunpowder, for the Continental Army. During the course of the Revolutionary War she married and again became widowed in 1782.

Betsy remained in Philadelphia during the British occupation of the city. Like many other residents, she was forced to quarter British troops in her house and workspaces, which certainly ended, at least temporarily, any manufacture of goods destined for the Continental Army. After the war, she remained in Philadelphia as an upholsterer, making linens, bedcovers, window blinds, and other goods, with several of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention among her customers. Nonetheless, her presence among the Founding Mothers of the United States is based on the false story of her making (and some say designing) the American flag of stars representing states in a blue field, and alternating stripes of red and white.

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A Currier & Ives depiction of American legend Molly Pitcher, based on several different women. Library of Congress

15. Molly Pitcher is likely folklore based on the deeds of several different women

Molly Pitcher is representative of women of the Continental Army taking their places alongside their husbands while engaged in battle. One such incident occurred in the Battle of Monmouth, on a day when heat exhaustion and sunstroke caused nearly as many casualties as British bullets. Mary Ludwig Hayes, whose husband served as an artilleryman, carried water to his attachment during the battle. Other thirsty troops called out to her, either by saying “Molly, pitcher”, or “Mary, pitcher”. When her husband fell wounded, she took his place alongside his cannon. An eyewitness to the event, Joseph Plumb Martin, recorded she carried the water in a bucket, and the call of “Molly, pitcher,” seems dubious. More likely the call would have been, “Molly, water”.

There were similar incidents in other battles, both before and after Monmouth, described in letters and reports of the army. In some, women were given pensions by the state whose units they served, including pensions for wounds. Molly Pitcher came to symbolize the dedication and courage of the women, most of the camp followers, to the Patriot’s cause during the Revolution. At least one historian has claimed the name is a generic term, long the lines of G. I. Joe during the Second World War. Hundreds, possibly thousands of women served in a similar manner during the Revolution, absorbing its defeats, and contributing to its ultimate victory.

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Sarah Livingston, the closest thing America had to a royal princess in the late 18th century. Wikimedia

16. Sarah Livingston Jay was the daughter of one signer of the Declaration of Independence and the wife of another

Sarah Van Brugh Livingston Jay descended from what would have been American nobility, had such a concept of class gained credence in British America. The Livingstons and Van Brughs were socially and politically prominent families in colonial New York and New Jersey, and Sarah moved in the highest levels in colonial society. In 1774, she married John Jay. He went on to play significant roles in the Revolution and the founding of the subsequent American government. Sarah’s contributions to her husband’s success began in Paris, when John served there – negotiating the Treaty of Paris. Sarah subscribed to Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy that social prominence eased diplomatic negotiations. She moved in the same circles as the Marquis and Marquise de Lafayette and other important members of the French Court. Her ability to speak four languages fluently also placed demands for her attention.

Such was her acclaim in France that theater performances she attended in Paris halted when she entered, receiving the applause of the audience. Upon her return to the United States she became the leader of society in the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia. She entertained the diplomats of foreign nations and the officers of the new government. Her frequent guests included the President and his Cabinet, members of Congress, and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, of which her husband was Chief Justice. Sarah kept handwritten lists of the guests who attended her dinners, documents which provide insights into the political decisions and debates among the early days of American government. They provide an early “Who’s Who” into the society of the Founders and their wives for posterity.

Meet the Founding Mothers and Backbone of America
Abigail Adams opposed the legal principle of coverture, and warned her husband of its perils. Wikimedia

17. The English common law principle of coverture subsumed the acts of the Founding Father’s wives to their husbands

Coverture, a feature of common law in British America and thus in the earliest days of the new nation, recognized husband and wife as a single person, with the wife subservient to the husband. Thus all property, actions, rights, and responsibilities of the wife were subsumed by the husband, who offered protection and support. Coverture included the individual activities of wives in social settings. A woman who presented ideas and opinions in a social setting was presumed to be presenting those of her husband, whether the latter publicly espoused them or not. Drawing rooms and dinners became areas where women exchanged their views, though they then became linked with husbands.

Women, such as Abigail Adams, spoke and wrote frankly of her opinions on virtually all subjects, which then frequently became known as the position of her husband, John. In 1776, several months before the Declaration of Independence, Abigail wrote of coverture, famously admonishing her husband to, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could”. Coverture masked many of the contributions of the Founding Mothers, as a matter of coverture they were instead the contributions of their husbands. The principle of coverture became one of the earliest targets during the drive for women’s rights and equality in the United States, which began just decades following the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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Sarah Bradlee Fulton suggested the Patriots disguise themselves as Indians and helped create the disguises. Wikimedia

18. A woman helped plan the Boston Tea Party

When Bostonians rebelled against the tax on tea, levied by Parliament to protect the monopoly held by the East India Company, they thinly disguised themselves as Indians. The idea for the disguises came from Sarah Bradlee Fulton. Sarah both contributed to the disguises and helped apply the “warpaint” to the men’s faces. After the Tea Party, several of the men were followed back to her brother’s carpenter shop, where the disguises were removed by Sarah and her sister-in-law. The disguises didn’t fool anybody, but they prevented identification and arrest of specific individuals. At the very least, it gave the British an excuse not to arrest anyone, which if they had likely would have led to further acts of violence in the troubled city.

Sarah Fulton, the wife of a Medford merchant, continued to serve the Patriot cause after war began. She delivered bandages to Cambridge and nursed the wounded following the Battle of Bunker Hill. She carried messages from Boston to General Washington at Cambridge during the British occupation, receiving Washington’s personal thanks after the British abandoned the city in 1776. Sarah also delivered firewood to the Americans in their encampments. In one recorded instance, she confronted British troops who had confiscated a firewood shipment, reclaiming it despite their threatening to shoot her. Other than in Boston, Sarah Fulton’s contributions to the American Revolution are largely forgotten.

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A Goddard broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, with her own name appearing at the bottom. Library of Congress

19. Mary Katherine Goddard served as Baltimore’s Postmaster throughout the Revolutionary War era

Starting with her brother’s newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1762, Mary Goddard learned the business of newspapers and printing. Her brother moved to Philadelphia in 1767, starting a newspaper there he called the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway were among his financial partners, and Mary Goddard joined the venture as manager and printer. Mary purchased the printing press for the paper from New Haven, making it the first American newspaper printed on a press manufactured in America. All of Benjamin Franklin’s presses had been manufactured in England. In 1773, Mary journeyed to Baltimore, to manage another newspaper started by her brother in that city.

On May 10, 1775, the Baltimore newspaper, the Maryland Journal, changed its masthead to identify Mary Goddard as the publisher. Baltimore thrived during the Revolution, a haven for privateers and smugglers, and their ships carried the Journal to other ports. It became more or less a national newspaper. When Mary printed the first fair copy of the Declaration of Independence bearing the names of the signers, she added her name, as the printer, in a lower corner. The act added her name to those deemed to be treasonous by British authorities. She served as Baltimore’s Postmaster from 1775 until 1789. When she was removed in order to make the position a reward for political fealty, more than 200 Baltimore businessmen petitioned for her to remain. Today, she is little remembered in America’s history books.

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A 1775 British political cartoon depicts the ladies of Edenton as inattentive mothers, lewd, and unatrractive. Wikimedia

20. Penelope Barker and the Edenton Tea Party protested the British Tea Tax in 1774

The Edenton Tea Party did not mimic its northern counterpart in Boston. No men boarded ships disguised as Indians, no tea was destroyed. Instead, a group of women calling themselves the Edenton Tea Party signed a petition announcing their boycott of British tea, and the “wear of any manufacturer from England” (imported clothing). There were 50 women, plus their organizer and de facto leader, Penelope Barker. Penelope is alleged to have said at the time: “We are signing our names to a document, not hiding ourselves behind costumes like the men in Boston did at their tea party. The British will know who we are”. The document appeared in British newspapers in January, 1775.

London reacted to the women’s act of rebellion with sneering derision for the most part. Political cartoons satirized both the announced boycott and the women themselves. Penelope Barker placed herself at considerable peril with her public denunciation of British authority. She risked her wealth (she was the wealthiest woman in North Carolina at the time), as well as her safety. North Carolina held one of the largest concentrations of Loyalist sentiment in the colonies. During the Revolution it devolved into near civil war. The Edenton Tea Party, forgotten in public memory, presented one of the earliest examples of an organized women’s protest and boycott in American history.

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Defeat at the Battle of Long Island led to a long retreat by the Continental Army, and the heroics of Margaret Corbin. Wikimedia

22. Margaret Corbin earned a pension for her service to the Continental Army

In autumn, 1776, George Washington and his Continental Army retreated steadily from the debacle of their defeats in New York. Washington hoped to reach the safety of Pennsylvania before winter set in, ending the campaigning season. As he withdrew, a series of garrisoned fortifications fell to the British pursuit. At one, Fort Washington, John Corbin and his wife, Margaret, fought side-by-side. Margaret, a former camp follower, took over her husband’s cannon after he fell, killed by British fire. Shortly after, she herself suffered severe wounds, to the body and her left arm. Taken prisoner by the victorious British, and exchanged her after her wounds healed somewhat, she left the army. Margaret never again had the use of her left arm.

The Continental Congress granted Margaret a pension, though at half the rate which would have been granted to a wounded male veteran. She remarried, though became widowed again in less than a year. Margaret spent the majority of the remaining war around West Point. She also spent the rest of her life in that region. Corbin was the first woman to receive financial support for a service-related disability in the United States. She died in 1800, in Highland Falls, New York. Initially buried in a simple grave, in 1926 her remains were reinterred at West Point, accorded full military honors by the United States. At least it was so believed at the time. In 2017, archaeological research revealed that the remains moved had not been Corbin’s. Who is buried under her marker at West Point is unknown. So is the location of her grave.

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Judith Sargent Murray became one of the first women to debate equality between men and women using her own name, rather than a pseudonym. Wikimedia

22. The American drive for women’s rights began during the Revolutionary Era

In 1790, during the Administration of George Washington, an essay appeared in two parts in successive issues of Massachusetts Magazine. Provocatively (for the day) titled, On the Equality of the Sexes, it provided a seminal argument for women’s rights, particularly in the area of education. The essay was the work of Judith Sargent Murray, a writer and poet who had previously published works supportive of the Patriot movement in the British North American colonies. Her works appeared under a variety of pseudonyms; women publishing political tracts and philosophy under feminine names faced low sales and difficulties finding a publisher as result.

Judith wrote On the Equality of the Sexes in 1770, two decades before it appeared. Having educated herself for the most part, through access to her wealthy father’s library, Judith’s views were revolutionary for her day on many subjects. She expressed her views in poetry, plays, and essays, collecting several in three volumes published in 1798, The Gleaner. Among her appreciative readers were John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Her arguments for equal educational opportunities for women began an argument which affected American society and government for decades. Her arguments for equal employment opportunities affects them still.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Martha Washington”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Camp Followers”. Taylor Mellaci, National Library for the Study of George Washington. Online

“About the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams”. Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Online

“Lucy Knox (1756-1824). Caitlin Berg, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814). Debra Michals, National Women’s History Museum. 2015. Online

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