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These Women Didn't Just Stay Home Baking Cookies

Stuart Mitchner

It's hard to resist thinking of contemporary equivalents when reading Cokie Roberts's Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (Morrow $24.95).

For me, the first instance was a reference to how "poorly protected" New York City was. This was in 1755 during the French and Indian War when the equivalent of today's terrorists were those "barbarous retches (sic)" the Indians or the "at least as terrifying ... Catholic French" ("To think of bringing up children," one mother writes, "to be dashed against the stones by our barbarous enemies – or which is worse, to be enslaved by them, and obliged to turn Papist."). Religious fanatics using violent means to enforce their beliefs – sound familiar?

Then look what happened after the celebratory march of the Americans into Charleston, S.C. to reclaim the city from the British after two and a half years: "At first the people of Charleston welcomed the conquering heroes" but "after the initial excitement ... the American military was seen as yet another set of occupiers rather than liberators."

As for politics: today we read about the vice-president cussing out the senior senator from Vermont on the Senate floor. Go back two-hundred years and it might be grounds for a duel: Cheney and Leahy facing off at Weehawken like Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Cokie Roberts also writes of soldiers and civilians triumphantly toppling the equestrian statue of George III at the Bowling Green in New York (shades of Saddam and the fall of Baghdad), of President George Washington's contentious relationship with the press, of politicians out to destroy one another's reputations, of a Clintonesque incident involving Alexander Hamilton, who had a notorious affair that might have ruined his career (before Aaron Burr ended it in that duel) had not his wife Betsey stood by him, as Hilary stood by Bill when it counted even if he did end up spending a few months in chateau Bow Wow. To her eventual regret, Mrs. Clinton also made the infamous remark about not staying at home baking cookies. The same could be said of the Founding Mothers, except that when they were in the kitchen during the Revolutionary War they were as often as not baking provisions for the troops. In fact, various of their essential domestic tasks had a patriotic rationale, as when they made some 2,200 shirts for the soldiers out of linen paid for by the $300,000 amassed in record time through a fund-raising campaign organized by the Women of Philadelphia. Fund-raising, needless to say, is another activity still very much with us in this election year.

The fund raising was conceived and spearheaded by Esther Reed, one of the most heroic and resourceful among numerous heroic women who fought, spied, lied, cooked, wrote, and sewed for the cause of independence from the King's England. It was Esther's newspaper article "The Sentiments of an American Woman," that energized not only the Women of Philadelphia but the Ladies of Trenton. Among those involved on the New Jersey side was Julia Stockton Rush, the daughter of Princeton poet and patriot Annis Boudinot Stockton.

Annis Stockton's own contribution to the "raising" of the nation is mentioned first in Ms. Roberts's account of the British occupation of Princeton when General Cornwallis took over Morven, the Stockton home: "Before he got there, Annis hid important state papers, plus the names of the members of the American Whig Society of Princeton College [the College of New Jersey then]," which would have been "a treasure trove for the English, who wanted to punish patriots." Annis Stockton moved back into Morven after the war, restored it to "its former graciousness" (it had been all but destroyed by the British), and when the Congress moved to Princeton in 1783 (fleeing civil unrest in Philadelphia), she offered it as lodging for members of Congress. Among the important figures of the day she hosted were George and Martha Washington. On the General's return to Mount Vernon, she sent him a poem, asking him if "One thought of Jersey enters in your mind/Forget not her on Morven's humble glade/Who feels for you a friendship most refined."

Ms. Roberts's subtitle makes a more descriptive tribute to the "mothers" she writes about than the title, for these women raised the nation not merely in the sense of raising a child but in the triumphant sense of helping raise a nation out of servitude (not to mention raising crops, raising money, and, of course, actually raising actual children).

Founding Mothers suffers to some extent from being an embarrassment of riches, since the author deluges us with all sorts of fascinating but often unstructured or undeveloped material. The cast of characters is enough to challenge any writer (it would require an American Tolstoy), and Ms. Roberts jumps from person to person, place to place, and event to event with all the chatty energy of a compulsive gossip. The result is at once encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic, which makes it the sort of book you can dip into at any point and come up with some amusing or interesting tidbit. An example of the gossipy element is this about Lucy Knox: "She could be biting, and she could get into all kinds of trouble – a family she stayed with in Connecticut reported to the general that the crockery was broken, the furniture damaged and the rum, twenty-five gallons of it, missing – but Henry Knox loved his fat and funny Lucy."

Another example of Ms. Roberts as gossip columnist is when she mentions almost in passing that if General Howe of the Brits hadn't been living it up in Philadelphia with another man's wife (who "traded her favors" for a position for her husband in the British Army), he might have attacked the bedraggled Continental army at Valley Forge and wiped them out. Admittedly, a great deal of what passes for history is only glorified gossip. However seriously you take it, and however you choose to read it (dipping in and out or chronologically), Founding Mothers offers a new perspective on the period of American history in which Princeton played so significant a part. The author, by the way, is the mother of two, grandmother of four, and sister to former Borough mayor, the late Barbara Sigmund.

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