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Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation

3.8 49
by Cokie Roberts

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While the "fathers" were off founding the country, what were the women doing? Running their husband’s businesses, raising their children plus providing political information and advice. At least that’s what Abigail Adams did for John, starting when he went off to the Continental Congress, which eventually declared the independence of the American colonies from the


While the "fathers" were off founding the country, what were the women doing? Running their husband’s businesses, raising their children plus providing political information and advice. At least that’s what Abigail Adams did for John, starting when he went off to the Continental Congress, which eventually declared the independence of the American colonies from the British. While the men were writing the rebellious words, the women were living the revolution, with the Redcoats on their doorsteps. John’s advice to Abigail as the soldiers approached Braintree: if necessary "fly to the woods with our children." That was it, she was on her own, as she was for most of the next ten years while Adams represented the newly independent nation abroad.

Abigail Adams is the best known of the women who influenced the founders, but there are many more, starting with Martha Washington, who once referred to herself as a “prisoner of state” for the constraints placed on her as the first First Lady. She was the one charged with balancing the demands of a Republic of the "common man" on the one hand, while insisting on some modicum of courtliness and protocol so that the former colonies would be taken seriously by Europe. She also took political heat in the press from the president’s political opponents when he was too popular to criticize.

And there are women like Esther Reed, married to the president of Pennsylvania, who, with Benjamin Franklin’s daughter Sarah Bache, organized a drive to raise money for Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. In 1780 the women raised more than three hundred thousand dollars. Reed wrote a famous patriotic broadside titled The Sentiments of an American Woman, calling on women to wear simpler clothing and hairstyles in order to save money to contribute to the cause. It worked! The women who ran the boarding houses of Philadelphia where the men stayed while writing the now sacred documents of America had their quite considerable say about the affairs of state as well.

This will be the story of some of those women, as learned through their seldom seen letters and diaries, and the letters from the men to them. It will be a story of the beginnings of the nation as viewed from the distaff side.

Editorial Reviews

Maria Fish
Exploiting a wide range of historical evidence from military records to recipes, private correspondence, pamphlets and songs, Roberts succeeds in presenting something entirely new on a topic seemingly otherwise exhausted … Founding Mothers is a welcome addition to American Revolution biography, which is saturated by the lives of the Founding Fathers. It fills in blanks and adds substance, detail and dimension to what until now has seemed a strangely distant and utterly masculine mythology.
USA Today
Amanda Fortini
Founding Mothers is essentially a series of entertaining mini-biographies and engaging vignettes. Roberts fleshes out familiar textbook figures like Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison, and rescues more obscure women from the footnotes of academic dissertations.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
With Founding Mothers, Roberts fills a gap in our coverage of the era without straying far from the familiar story of colonial resistance, the struggle for independence and the climactic writing of the U.S. Constitution. We don't lose sight of the white male titans who built the nation; we just see them from the vantage point of the women they wooed and the families they worried about -- usually at a distance -- during America's longest war. — Joyce Appleby
Publishers Weekly
ABC News political commentator and NPR news analyst Roberts didn't intend this as a general history of women's lives in early America-she just wanted to collect some great "stories of the women who influenced the Founding Fathers." For while we know the names of at least some of these women (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Eliza Pinckney), we know little about their roles in the Revolutionary War, the writing of the Constitution, or the politics of our early republic. In rough chronological order, Roberts introduces a variety of women, mostly wives, sisters or mothers of key men, exploring how they used their wit, wealth or connections to influence the men who made policy. As high-profile players married into each other's families, as wives died in childbirth and husbands remarried, it seems as if early America-or at least its upper crust-was indeed a very small world. Roberts's style is delightfully intimate and confiding: on the debate over Mrs. Benedict Arnold's infamy, she proclaims, "Peggy was in it from the beginning." Roberts also has an ear for juicy quotes; she recounts Aaron Burr's mother, Esther, bemoaning that when talking to a man with "mean thoughts of women," her tongue "hangs pretty loose," so she "talked him quite silent." In addition to telling wonderful stories, Roberts also presents a very readable, serviceable account of politics-male and female-in early America. If only our standard history textbooks were written with such flair! 7 illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Bob Barnett. (On sale Apr. 13) Forecast: If booksellers position Roberts's book as a history of early America-and not as a women's studies text-it could have greater appeal. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When most people think about those who helped fight for the independence of and create the government of the United States, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin come to mind. They rarely mention Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, or Eliza Pinckney. However, these and many other women played a significant role, including raising money for the troops, lobbying their spouses to fight for liberty and independence, and eventually hosting events where members of government could meet and discuss issues in a civilized manner. Roberts provides details on the lives and activities of these women and how they helped the country to survive. Though the book is fascinating, the author detracts from the work with her reading; she makes asides that do not appear to fit within the story and is overly strident as if she demands that we listen to her and believe what she is telling us or else. Another narrator might have been more effective. However, Founding Mothers will find a home in most public and academic libraries, especially those with strong women's studies and early American history collections.-Danna Bell-Russel, Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Focusing mainly on the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the Founding Fathers, this lively and engaging title chronicles the adventures and contributions of numerous women of the era between 1740 and 1797. Roberts includes a surprising amount of original writings, but uses modern language and spellings to enable readers to enjoy fully the wit and wisdom of these remarkable individuals. While their men were away serving as soldiers, statesmen, or ambassadors, the women's lives were fraught with difficulty and danger. They managed property, and raised their children and often those of deceased relatives, while trying to make their own contributions to the cause of liberty. They acted as spies, coordinated boycotts, and raised funds for the army. Through it all, they corresponded with their husbands, friends, and even like-minded women in England. Readers will enjoy seeing how many of these individuals showed their mettle when they were still in their teens. Black-and-white photographs of portraits, a small selection of recipes, and a cast of characters are included.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Washington Post Book World
“Roberts has uncovered hundreds of personal anecdotes and woven them together in a single, suspenseful narrative with great skill.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged, 5 CDs, 6 hrs.
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

Founding Mothers
The Women Who Raised Our Nation

Chapter One

Before 1775:
The Road to Revolution

Stirrings of Discontent

When you hear of a family with two brothers who fought heroically in the Revolutionary War, served their state in high office, and emerged as key figures in the new American nation, don't you immediately think, "They must have had a remarkable mother"? And so Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney did. Today Eliza Lucas Pinckney would be the subject of talkshow gabfests and made-for-TV movies, a child prodigy turned into a celebrity. In the eighteenth century she was seen as just a considerate young woman performing her duty, with maybe a bit too much brainpower for her own good.

George Lucas brought his English wife and daughters to South Carolina in 1734 to claim three plantations left to him by his father. Before long, however, Lucas left for Antigua to rejoin his regiment in fighting the war against Spain, leaving his sixteen-year-old daughter in charge of all the properties, plus her ailing mother and toddler sister. (The Lucas sons were at school in England.) Can you imagine a sixteen-year-old girl today being handed those responsibilities? Eliza Lucas willingly took them on. Because she reported to her father on her management decisions and developed the habit of copying her letters, Eliza's writings are some of the few from colonial women that have survived.

The South Carolina Low Country, where Eliza was left to fend for the family, was known for its abundance of rice and mosquitoes. Rice supported the plantation owners and their hundreds of slaves; mosquitoes sent the owners into Charleston (then Charles Town) for summer months of social activities. Though Wappoo Plantation, the Lucas home, was only six miles from the city by water, seventeen by land, Eliza was far too busy, and far too interested in her agricultural experiments, to enjoy the luxuries of the city during the planting months.

The decision about where to live was entirely hers (again, can you imagine leaving that kind of decision to a sixteen-year-old?), as Eliza wrote to a friend in England in 1740: "My Papa and Mama's great indulgence to me leaves it to me to choose our place of residence either in town or country." She went on to describe her arduous life: "I have the business of three plantations to transact, which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts than you can imagine. But least you should imagine it too burdensome to a girl at my early time of life, give me leave to answer you: I assure you I think myself happy that I can be useful to so good a father, and by rising very early I find I can go through much business." And she did. Not only did she oversee the planting and harvesting of the crops on the plantations, but she also taught her sister and some of the slave children, pursued her own intellectual education in French and English, and even took to lawyering to help poor neighbors. Eliza seemed to know that her legal activities were a bit over the line, as she told a friend: "If you will not laugh immoderately at me I'll trust you with a secret. I have made two wills already." She then defended herself, explaining that she'd studied carefully what was required in will making, adding: "After all what can I do if a poor creature lies a dying and their family taken it into their head that I can serve them. I can't refuse; but when they are well and able to employ a lawyer, I always shall." The teenager had clearly made quite an impression in the Low Country.

The Lucases were land-rich but cash-poor, so Eliza's father scouted out some wealthy prospects as husband material for his delightful daughter. The young woman was having none of it. Her father's attempts to marry her off to a man who could help pay the mortgage were completely and charmingly rebuffed in a letter written when she was eighteen. "As you propose Mr. L. to me, I am sorry I can't have sentiments favorable enough of him to take time to think on the subject ... and beg leave to say to you that the riches of Peru and Chile if he had them put together could not purchase a sufficient esteem for him to make him my husband." So much for her father's plan to bring some money into the family. She then dismissed another suggestion for a mate: "I have so slight a knowledge of him I can form no judgment of him." Eliza insisted that "a single life is my only choice ... as I am yet but eighteen." Of course, many women her age were married, and few would have brushed off their fathers so emphatically, but the feisty Miss Lucas was, despite the workload, having too much fun to settle down with some rich old coot.

Eliza loved "the vegetable world," as she put it, and experimented with different kinds of crops, always with a mind toward commerce. She was keenly aware that the only cash crop South Carolina exported to England was rice, and she was determined to find something else to bring currency into the colony and to make the plantations profitable. When she was nineteen, she wrote that she had planted a large fig orchard "with design to dry and export them." She was always on the lookout for something that would grow well in the southern soil. Reading her Virgil,she was happily surprised to find herself "instructed in agriculture ... for I am persuaded though he wrote in and for Italy, it will in many instances suit Carolina."

By her own account, Eliza was always cooking up schemes. She wrote to her friend Mary Bartlett: "I am making a large plantation of oaks which I look upon as my own property, whether my father gives me the land or not."

Founding Mothers
The Women Who Raised Our Nation
. Copyright © by Cokie Roberts. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. From 1996 to 2002, she and Sam Donaldson co-anchored the weekly ABC interview program, This Week. She is the bestselling author of We Are Our Mothers' Daughters, Ladies of Liberty, and Founding Mothers.

Steve Roberts is the author of From Every End of This Earth and My Fathers' Houses. He has worked as a journalist for more than forty years and appears regularly as a political analyst on the ABC radio network and National Public Radio. Since 1997 he has been the Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

Cokie and Steve Roberts are the New York Times bestselling authors of From This Day Forward. They write a weekly column syndicated in newspapers across the country by United Media. The parents of two children and grandparents of six, Cokie and Steve live in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Founding Mothers 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
ISU_paa More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a class assignment, and used the book to analyze leadership. Personally, I think that anyone who has an interest in U.S. History should read this book, if nothing else for the interesting historical facts. I really loved hearing about how John Edwards was related to Aaron Burr, the story surrounding Benedict Arnold's wife, and the correspondence between Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. I already had a pretty extensive knowledge of American History going into this book, and I still learned a lot from it. No one else talks about the stories surrounding the women behind the men we all have heard so much about, so it was nice to hear an alternative perspective. Unfortunately, the book was a slow read, and got monotonous at times. Cokie Roberts had a great idea to write the book, but as a previous post says, it was poorly executed. Her organization was poor to say the least. Also, she tended to go off on tangents which seemed to detract heavily from the important points of the book. If you're looking for an enjoyable, easy-read type of book, this one isn't for you. However, if you want to hear a new perspective on an old story, I would highly recommend giving this book a try. Like I said, as someone with a strong interest in history, I enjoyed the book, even though it was a bit of a task to actually read it.
LarisaB More than 1 year ago
I agree with some other reviewers: this book takes a topic that's not well understood and makes a unique approach, but is poorly written and organized. I understand the desire to be engaging, but I think the material would have done that for itself, without side notes trying to draw modern comparisons or make jokes. Basing her research in women's letters, Roberts brings a whole world to life. However, she allows the relationships between women and the timeline to guide her writing, where in my opinion, a more scholarly approach -- perhaps by organizing it topically and drawing a few more conclusions -- would have been much stronger. In the end, I have a vivid picture of what women's lives were like, and what role they played in the early days of our country, but I'm not sure what to make of it, because it was all so scrambled. Still, when such things come up in conversation (which is sadly rare), it has a lot to offer in terms of interesting factoids.
Karen127 More than 1 year ago
I am a devoit reader of books on the early years of this country and have especially loved Founding Brothers (Ellis), John Adams (McCullough)and Benjamin Franklin (Isaacson) as well as Ferlings Adams versus Jefferson. As a professional woman I looked forwaard to this book especially seeking a more detailed discussion of Abigail Adams, a most fascinating woman. I could not have been more disappointed. Ms. Robert's writing was simplistic, patronizing and written for the aforementioned 12 year old girl. Factually, it was not accurate (note to Cokie-there was no vice presidential candidate in either 1796 or 1800). Don't waste your time with this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good book, but as one would expect, it is a bit politically correct for a book written about early America. Such are the times in which we live.
MainerMary More than 1 year ago
If you like history especially the early history of America, you'll like this book. I had previously listened to the "John Adams" audio disc. Hearing this history of the women who were a major part of the same era provided an interesting counterpart to that book. I find such audio books make history live in a way reading the book doesn't always do.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading biographies on John Adams, Alexander Hamiltion, and George Washingion, I was really excited about reading about our founding mothers. This is one area that needs more research done on it. I bought the tapes, and started listening to the book, and became very disappointed. Ms. Roberts is not a historian, she is a reporter, and this shows in her book. Throughout the book she shares her opinions, and tries to be funny. Sometimes she makes statements that seem to be exaggerated. It seems that Ms. Roberts is just writing for women, by her comments. She should have had more confidence that this important topic, would be read by both females and males. Its obvious Ms. Roberts did her research, and many interesting stories are told in this book. I could not get past her bias and opinions in this book. It would be great if a real historian, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, tackled this subject matter.
priscella More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately I can only give this book of great effort three stars.  The reason is that when I got about two thirds of the book read I  bogged in politics and the Revalutionary war.  After a couple of days of that I decided to move on to something else I wanted to read. However, must say the stories and information on those women of that time was most enjoyable and inspiring.  I've asked myself could  woman today meet the same challenges?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! It made me think and laugh at the same time. Impressively researched, beautifully written; this does a lot of justice to the gene. Thank you Cokie!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully readable, yet satisfiyingly researched, history of the women who stood behind the men who made American history. Fascinating story and not 'feminist' at all; a great story for women, men and older children, and another example of how even the best-known historical events have many unexplored sides. (Haven't you ever wondered about Mrs. Einstein?) For a fascinating exploration of the opposite story--a man's view of fatherhood, marriage and staying home with the kids, I loved 'I Sleep At Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets,' by Bruce Stockler.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful nonfiction story about the women who helped shape our country.
Jan61JB More than 1 year ago
Cokie Roberts writing is impeccable. Interesting, exciting to think of our founding mothers. This is an excellent history of the founding of America and the part women played in it. The men were off here and there but women held down the country. Excellent!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tremendous! I wish I'd had it back when I was in school, history would have been so much easier for me! She did an amazing job of researching and pulling together everything into a true story of the time; I particularly loved the personal comments along the way.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Only a few chapters in but very much enjoying this new angle on history.
Ariesgrl More than 1 year ago
Founding Mothers is a book about the women behind the well-known men who founded America. These are the wives and mothers that were at home, raising the family, running the farms and businesses. Cokie Roberts brings together the letters and details of history to acknowledge and praise the women that created this nation. The men fought the war overseas and ran for public office, but the women helped to steer their actions, while defending their homes. Cokie Roberts has done a brilliant job of telling the stories of multiple women that helped shape this country. She demonstrates that the strengths and weaknesses of each of these women played a vital role in America’s history. Filled with recipes and references from letters, this book gives a behind the scenes look into the daily life. Though this book is divided into different time periods, the individual women’s stories blend into each other, which makes it a bit slow at times. However, this is an intriguing read for anyone looking to learn more about America’s past. Notes: This review was written for My Sister's Books. This review was originally posted on Ariesgrl Book Reviews.
kyohin More than 1 year ago
Always happy to learn about the lives of the sisters who went on before me.
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wilVD More than 1 year ago
A very interesting read of how the women on the revolutionary war played such an important (and usually overlook) part in the founding of our country AND the values we installed into our constitution.
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