The Crestone Eagle • July, 2021

The Mothers of Liberty

by M. Diane Bairstow

“We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.” —British General Lord Cornwallis

The Founding Mothers were fiercely independent and dedicated to democracy. While their famous husbands were in Philadelphia engaging in endless debates, or on the battlefield, these women were left to sustain and defend the home front.

Martha Curtis Washington was loved by one and all. She was so popular with the troops that she is credited with keeping them from deserting during the dreadful winter at Valley Forge. This shows her as a lovely young woman.

They ran the farms and took over their husband’s businesses.  They fought the British at their doorsteps, and when that failed, they burned their own homes and crops and fled to the woods. This article is a tribute to them.

Martha Washington

Martha Washington is the best known name among these unsung heroes. She was loved and respected by one and all. The troops adored her. She nursed them, listened to them and kept up their morale during that dreadful winter in Valley Forge. Their loyalty to her was the glue that kept them from deserting.

Not much is known about Martha’s personal thoughts and feelings, as she burned all her letters after George died, depriving history of vital insight and information. On the other hand, a treasure trove of more than 1100 letters between John* and Abigail Adams have survived the centuries. 

Abigail Adams . . . “Remember the Ladies!”

Abigail Adams had a brilliant and insightful political mind, and husband John depended on her for advice and strategy. In the dark days of the war, he often called upon her for support, “I must entreat you, my dear partner in all the joys and sorrows, prosperity and adversity of my life, to take a part with me in the struggle.”

Abigail and John were both morally opposed to slavery and were the only founding family that did not own slaves. Abigail was also an ardent feminist. As Congress began to set down laws, Abigail appealed to John in her now famous “Remember the ladies” missive:

 “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Women Warriors: Deborah Sampson, left, disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army. She was seriously wounded 3 times and still continued to sign up for hazardous duty. Molly Pitcher, right, took over the canon when her husband (lying on the ground beside her) was wounded and dying.

John laughed it off with the age-old put down, “You women already have all the power …” but Abigail was not kidding. She tried to enlist her friend, Mercy Otis Warren to her cause, but Mercy, a formidable woman herself, was not yet ready to go that far.

Mercy Otis Warren and the Bill of Rights

A political poet, pamphleteer, playwright, and the first historian of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren was wildly popular. Her most famous piece, “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs,” was a broadside commemorating the Boston Tea Party. It is an epic poem set in a mythological land where the “Tuscararo tribe*…waited freedom’s nod/To make an offering to the wat’ry god.” 

Mercy was the voice and “conscience of the revolution,” and is considered to be responsible for the inclusion of the Bill or Rights. She believed the Constitution gave too much power to a centralized government and not enough to the people. She demanded “a ‘bill of rights’ to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power.”

Fundraising and Austerity

The Continental army never had enough of anything. Esther Reed, the first Lady of Pennsylvania, began a fundraising campaign that netted $300,000.  Inspired by Esther’s success, the women in Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia quickly followed suit.

British General Lord William Howe could have ended the war by attacking the troops at Valley Forge. However, he was otherwise occupied by the wife of one of his officers, the notorious Mrs. Betsy Loring. Their scandalous affair was the talk of Philadelphia and inspired many doggerels like this one: “Awake, awake, Sir Billy, There’s forage in the plain. Ah, leave your little Filly, And open the campaign.”

Eschewing all things British—tea, brocades, silks and ribbons—the women (bolstered only by Liberty tea, a mixture of herbs and flowers) added hours of spinning homespun fabric to work days that were already overloaded. At a fancy ball in Williamsburg, the women literally clothed themselves in the cause of liberty by appearing in their simple homespun gowns. 

The woman who signed the Declaration of Independence 

On July 4, 1776, the final version of the Declaration of Independence was approved, but it was not published until January 1777. The members of Congress, now with a price on their heads for disloyalty to the British crown, turned to Mary Katherine Goddard who was known for publishing revolutionary sentiments. Printing the Declaration of Independence was a bold and dangerous move for Mary, but she did it proudly, appending her signature to the bottom of the document!

Mrs. Betsy Loring

The most unlikely hero of the revolution was Mrs. Betsy Loring. She kept the British General Sir William Howe entertained—in her bed—throughout the perilous winter of Valley Forge when he could have ended the war by attacking the Americans. A British loyalist, Betsy entertained Howe to secure a better position in the army for her husband.

Their affair was so notorious that it became the subject of popular doggerels: 

Sir William he, snug as a flea/Lay all this time a-snoring/Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm in bed with Mrs. L——g.

Spies 

In Philadelphia, the British commandeered the home of Lydia Darragh (the local mortician) to house British officers. Lydia, a Quaker and thus (supposedly) a pacifist, entreated them to allow her to remain in her home. One night she overheard the generals plotting a surprise attack on Washington’s camp. Lydia snuck out of the city, traveled on foot through the night to the Rising Sun Tavern, a known Patriot message center. There she found an American officer and delivered her message.

Night riders

Intrepid women took to their horses and rode through the night to deliver messages. Sixteen-year-old Sybil Luddington rode 40 miles to alert the militia in Danbury, Conneticut of an impending attack. 

Fording a neck-deep river, intrepid fifteen-year-old Dicey Langston brought news of enemy troop movements to her brother’s camp.

Lydia Ann Darragh trudged on foot through the night to take information of an impending attack to Washington’s army.

Women warriors

Deborah Sampson enlisted in the army as Robert Shurtliff. In her three years of service, Deborah/Robert was twice wounded but continued to volunteer for hazardous duty. When she contracted a fever, the doctor discovered her secret. George Washington discharged her, but handed her a packet of money to help her start over.  

A satirical drawing expressing a Continental European view of the American Revolution, showing Father Time using a magic lantern to project the image of a teapot exploding among frightened British troops as American troops advance through the smoke. Figures representing world opinion look on: an Indian for America, a black woman representing Africa, a woman holding a lantern symbolizing Asia, and a woman bearing a shield for Europe.

In 1792, Deborah was awarded a pension of 34 pounds. After her death, her husband petitioned Congress for survivors’ benefits. Congress agreed, declaring that the record of the American Revolution “furnishes no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage”.

Camp followers

Unlike the British army that paid prostitutes to service their men, the Americans had strict rules against that sort of behavior. These women were the wives, mothers and sisters of the soldiers. They did the foraging, cooking, nursing, cleaning and sewing. They were also assigned battle chores such as swabbing down the cannons with water. The army could not have survived without them.

John Adams respected and depended on Abigail’s insightful political advice. Theirs was a true love match, and even in his 50s, John was writing of his passion for her.

Nor could America have been birthed without these women (and many more) whose strength, fortitude, courage and wisdom were indispensable to the cause of Freedom. These women are truly our “Founding Mothers.” 

 This article was inspired by Cokie Robert’s book, Founding Mothers.

*John Adams was the first Vice-President and second President of the United States.

*The rebels who tossed the tea into Boston Harbor, disguised themselves as Indians.