The Women of the American Revolution/Introductory

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Third Edition - 1849

ALL Americans are accustomed to view with interest and admiration the events of the Revolution. Its scenes are vivid in their memory, and its prominent actors are regarded with the deepest veneration. But while the leading spirits are thus honored, attention should be directed to the source whence their power was derived-to the sentiment pervading the mass of the people. The force of this sentiment, working in the public heart, cannot be measured; because, amidst the abundance of materials for the history of action, there is little for that of the feeling of those times. And, as years pass on, the investigation becomes more and more difficult. Yet it is both interesting and important to trace its operation. It gave statesmen their influence, and armed heroes for victory. What could they have done but for the home-sentiment to which they appealed, and which sustained them in the hour of trial and success? They were thus aided to the eminence they gained through toils and perils. Others may claim a share in the merit, if not the fame, of their illustrious deeds. The unfading laurels that wreathe their brows had their root in the hearts of the people, and were nourished with their life-blood.

The feeling which wrought thus powerfully in the community depended, in great part, upon the women. It is always thus in times of popular excitement. Who can estimate, moreover, the controlling influence of early culture! During the years of the progress of British encroachment and colonial discontent, when the sagacious politician could discern the portentous shadow of events yet far distant, there was time for the nurture, in the domestic sanctuary, of that love of civil liberty, which afterwards kindled into a flame, and shed light on the world. The talk of matrons, in American homes, was of the people's wrongs, and the tyranny that oppressed them, till the sons who had grown to manhood, with strengthened aspirations towards a better state of things, and views enlarged to comprehend their invaded rights, stood up prepared to defend them to the utmost. Patriotic mothers nursed the infancy of freedom. Their counsels and their prayers mingled with the deliberations that resulted in a nation's assertion of its independence. They animated the courage, and confirmed the self-devotion. of those who ventured all in the common cause. They frowned upon instances of coldness or backwardness; and in the period of deepest gloom, cheered and urge onward the desponding. They willingly shared inevitable dangers and privations, relinquished without regret prospects of advantage to themselves, and parted with those they loved better than life, not knowing when they were to meet again. It is almost impossible now to appreciate the vast influence of woman's patriotism upon the destinies of the infant republic. We have no means of showing the important part she bore .In maintaining the struggle, and in laying the foundations on which so mighty and majestic a structure has arisen. History can do it no justice; for history deals with the workings of the - head, rather than the heart. And the knowledge received by tradition, of the domestic manners, and social character of the times, is too imperfect to furnish a sure index. We can only dwell upon individual instances of magnanimity, fortitude, self-sacrifice, and heroism, bearing the impress of the feeling of Revolutionary days, indicative of the spirit which animated all, and to which, in its various. and multiform exhibitions, we are not less indebted for national freedom, than to the swords of the patriots who poured out their blood.

"'Tis true, Cleander," says a writer in one of the papers of the day,* "no mean merit will accrue to him who shall justly celebrate the virtues of our ladies! Shall not their generous contributions to relieve the wants of the defenders of our country, supply a column to emulate the Roman women, stripped of their jewels when the public necessity demanded them?" Such tributes were often called forth by the voluntary exertions of American women. Their patriotic sacrifices were made with an enthusiasm that showed the earnest

  • New Jersey Gazette, October 11th, 1780.

spirit ready on every occasion to appear in generous acts. Some gave their own property, and went from house to house to solicit contributions for the army. Colors were embroidered by fair hands, and presented with the charge never to desert them; and arms and ammunition were provided by the same, liberal zeal. They formed themselves into associations renouncing the use of teas, and other imported luxuries, and engaging to card, spin, and weave their own clothing. In Mecklenburgh and Rowan counties, North Carolina, young ladies of the most respectable families pledged themselves not to receive the addresses of any suitors who had not obeyed the country's call for military service.

The needy shared the fruit of their industry and economy. They visited hospitals daily; sought the dungeons of the provost, and the crowded holds of prison ships; and provisions were carried from their stores to the captives whose only means of recompense was the blessing of those who were ready to perish. Many raised grain, gathered it, made bread, and carried it to their relatives in the army, or in prisons, accompanying the supply with exhortations never to abandon the cause of their country. The burial of friends slain in battle, or chance-encounters, often devolved upon them; and even enemies would not have received sepulture without the service of their hands.

When the resources of the country scarcely allowed the scantiest supply of clothing and provisions, and British cruisers on the coast destroyed every hope of aid from merchant vessels; when, to the distressed troops their cup of misfortune seemed full to overflowing and there appeared no prospect of relief, except from the benevolence of their fellow-citizens; when even the ability of these was almost exhausted by repeated applications-then it was that the women of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, by their zealous exertions and willing sacrifices, accomplished what had been thought impossible, Not only was the pressure of want removed, but the sympathy and favor of the fair daughters of America, says one of the journals, "operated like a charm on the soldier's heart-gave vigor to exertion, confidence to his hopes of success, and the ultimate certainty of victory and peace." General Washington, in his letter of acknowledgment to the committee of ladies, says, "The army ought not to regret its sacrifices or its sufferings, when they meet with so flattering a reward, as in the sympathy of your sex; nor can it fear that its interests will be neglected, when espoused by advocates as powerful as they are amiable." An officer in camp writes, in June, 1780: "The patriotism of the women of your city is a subject of conversation with the army. Had I poetical genius, I would sit down and write an ode in praise of it. Burgoyne, who, on his first coming to America, boasted that he would dance with the ladies, and coax the men to submission, must now have a better understanding of the good sense and public spirit of our females, as he has already heard of the fortitude and inflexible temper of our men." Another observes: " We cannot appeal in vain for what is good, to that sanctuary where all that is good has its proper home-the female bosom."

How the influence of women was estimated by John Adams, appears from one of his letters to his wife: "I think I have some times observed to you in conversation, that upon examining the biography of illustrious men, you will generally find some female about them, in the relation of mother; or wife, or sister, to whose instigation a great part of their merit is to be ascribed. You will find a curious example of this in the case of Aspasia, the wife of Pericles. She was a woman of the greatest beauty, and the first genius. She taught him, it is said, his refined maxims of policy, his lofty imperial eloquence, nay, even composed the speeches on which so great a share of his reputation was founded.

" I wish some of our great men had such wives. By the account in your last letter, it seems the women in Boston begin to think themselves able to serve their country. What a pity it is that our generals in the northern districts had not Aspasias to their wives.

"I believe the two Howes have not very great women for wives. If they had, we should suffer more from their exertions than we do. This is our good fortune. A smart wife would have put Howe in possession of Philadelphia a long time ago."

The venerable Major Spalding, of Georgia, writes, in reply to an application to him for information respecting the revolutionary women of his state.: "I am a very old man, and have read as much as anyone I know, yet I have never known, and never read of one-no, not one!- who did not owe high standing, or a great name, to his mother's blood, or his mother's training. My friend Randolph said he owed every thing to his mother. Mr. Jefferson's mother was a Randolph, and he acknowledged that he owed every thing to her rearing. General Washington, we all know, attributed every thing to his mother. Lord Bacon attributed much to his mother's training. And will anyone doubt that even Alexander believed he owed more to the blood and lofty ambition of Olympia, than the wisdom or cunning of Philip?"

The sentiments of the women towards the brave defenders of their native land, were expressed in an address widely circulated at the time, and read in the churches of Virginia. " We know," it says-" that at a distance from the theatre of war, if we enjoy any tranquility, it is the fruit of your watchings, your labors, your dangers. * * * * And shall we hesitate to evince to you our gratitude? Shall we hesitate to wear clothing more simple, and dress less elegant, while at the price of this small privation, we shall deserve your benedictions ?"

The same spirit appears in a letter found among some papers belonging to a lady of Philadelphia. It was addressed to a British officer in Boston, and written before the Declaration of Independence. The following extract will show its character:

"1 will tell you what I have done. My only brother I have sent to the camp with my prayers and blessings. I hope he will not disgrace me; I am confident he will behave with honor, and emulate the great examples he has before him; and had I twenty sons and brothers they should go. I have retrenched every superfluous expense in my table and family; tea I have not drunk since last Christmas, nor bought a new cap or gown since your defeat at Lexington; and what I never did before, have learned to knit, and am now making stockings of American wool for my servants; and this way do I throw in my mite to the public good. I know this-that as free I can die but once; but as a slave I shall not be worthy of life. I have the pleasure to assure you that these are the sentiments of all my sister Americans. They have sacrificed assemblies, parties of pleasure, tea drinking and finery, to that great spirit of patriotism that actuates all degrees of people throughout this extensive continent. If these are the sentiments of females, what must glow in the breasts of our husbands, brothers, and sons! They are as with one heart determined to die or be free. It is not a quibble in politics, a science which few understand, that we are contending for; it is this plain truth, which the most ignorant peasant knows, and is clear to the weakest capacity-that no man has a right to take their money without their consent. You say you are no politician. Oh, sir, it requires no Machiavellian head to discover this tyranny and oppression. It is written with a sunbeam. Every one will see and know it, because it will make every one feel; and we shall be unworthy of the blessings of Heaven if we ever submit to it. if. * * * * * * * "Heaven seems to smile on us ; for in the memory of man, never were known such quantities of flax, and sheep without number. We are making powder fast, and do not want for ammunition."

From all portions of the country thus rose the expression of woman's ardent zeal. Under accumulated evils, the manly spirit that alone could secure success, might have sunk but for the firmness and intrepidity of the weaker sex. It supplied every persuasion that could animate to perseverance, and secure fidelity.

The noble deeds in which this irrepressible spirit breathed itself, were not unrewarded by persecution. The case of the quakeress Deborah Franklin, who was banished from New York by the British commandant for her 1iberality in relieving the sufferings of the American prisoners,was one among many. In our days of tranquility and luxury, imagination can scarcely compass the extent or severity of the trials endured; and it is proportionately difficult to estimate the magnanimity that bore all, not only with uncomplaining patience, but with a cheerful forgetfulness of suffering in view of the desired object. The alarms of war-the roar of the strife itself, could not silence the voice of woman, lifted in encouragement or in prayer. The horrors of battle or massacre could not drive her from the post of duty. The effect of this devotion cannot be questioned, though it may not now be traced in particular instances. These were, for the most part, known only to those who were themselves actors in the scenes, or who lived in the midst of them. The heroism of the Revolutionary women has passed from remembrance with the generation who witnessed it; or is seen only by faint and occasional glimpses, through the gathering obscurity of tradition.

To render a measure of justice-inadequate it must be-to a few of the American matrons, whose names deserve to live in remembrance-and to exhibit something of the domestic side of the Revolutionary picture -is the object of this work. As we recede from the realities of that struggle, it is regarded with increasing interest by those who enjoy its results; while the elements which were its life-giving principle, too subtle to be retained by the grave historian, are fleeting fast from apprehension. Yet without some conception of them, the Revolution cannot be appreciated. We must enter into the spirit, as well as master the letter.

While attempting to pay a tribute but too long withheld, to the memory of women who did and endured so much in the cause of liberty, we should not be insensible to the virtues exhibited by another class, belonging equally to the history of the period. These had their share of reverse and suffering. Many saw their children and relatives espousing opposite sides; and with ardent feelings of loyalty in their hearts, were forced to weep over the miseries of their families and neighbors. Many were driven from their homes, despoiled of property, and finally compelled to cast their lot in desolate wilds and an ungenial climate. * And while their

  • The ancient Acadia, comprising Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, was settled by many of the refugee loyalists from the United States.

heroism, fortitude, and spirit of self-sacrifice were not less brightly displayed, their hard lot was unpitied, and they met with no reward.

In the library of William H. Prescott, at his residence in Boston, are two swords, crossed above the arch of an alcove. One belonged to his grandfather, Colonel William Prescott, who commanded the American troops in the redoubt at Bunkerhill. The other was the sword of Captain Linzee, of the royal navy, who commanded the British sloop of war-The Falcon, then lying in the Mystic; from which the American troops were fired upon as they crossed to Bunkerhill. Captain Linzee was the grandfather of Mrs. Prescott. The swords of those two gallant soldiers who fought on different sides upon that memorable day-now in the possession of their united descendants, and crossed-an emblem of peace, in the library of the great American historian-are emblematic of the spirit in which our history should be written. Such be the spirit in which we view the loyalists of those days.