Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884 / Edition 1

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Nineteenth-century newspaper editor Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884) was an unconventionally ambitious woman. While she struggled in private to be a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, she publicly critiqued and successfully challenged gender conventions that restricted her personal behavior, limited her political and economic opportunities, and attempted to silence her voice.

As the owner and editor of newspapers in Pittsburgh; St. Cloud, Minnesota; and Washington, D.C.; and as one of the founders of the Minnesota Republican Party, Swisshelm negotiated a significant place for herself in the male-dominated world of commerce, journalism, and politics. How she accomplished this feat; what expressive devices she used; what social, economic, and political tensions resulted from her efforts; and how those tensions were resolved are the central questions examined in this biography. Sylvia Hoffert arranges the book topically, rather than chronologically, to include Swisshelm in the broader issues of the day, such as women's involvement in politics and religion, their role in the workplace, and marriage. Rescuing this prominent feminist from obscurity, Hoffert shows how Swisshelm laid the groundwork for the "New Woman" of the turn of the century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A beautifully written and carefully constructed biography."
Annals of Iowa

"Brilliant and imaginative. Teachers of courses on various subjects that engage with nineteenth-century gender relations will be grateful."
American Historical Review

"This is a well-crafted biography that illuminates Swisshelm's life, as well as shifting gender roles for women."
— Anne M. Butler, Trustee Professor, Emeritus, Utah State University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807828816
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 9/13/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sylvia D. Hoffert is professor of history and women's studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of When Hens Crow: The Woman's Rights Movement in Antebellum America and Private Matters: American Attitudes toward Childbearing and Infant Nurture in the Urban North, 1800-1860.

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Read an Excerpt

Jane Grey Swisshelm

An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884
By Sylvia D. Hoffert

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2881-5

Chapter One

That Olde-Time Religion

I was born on the 6th of December, 1815, in Pittsburg, on the bank of the Monongahela, near its confluence with the Allegheny. My father was Thomas Cannon, and my mother Mary Scott. They were both Scotch-Irish and descended from the Scotch Reformers. On my mother's side were several men and women who signed the "Solemn League and Covenant," and defended it to the loss of livings, lands and life. Her mother, Jane Grey, was of that family which was allied to royalty, and gave to England her nine day's queen. This grandmother I remember as a stately old lady, quaintly and plainly dressed, reading a large Bible or answering questions by quotations from its pages. She was unsuspicious as an infant, always doubtful about "actual transgressions" of any, while believing in the total depravity of all. Educated in Ireland as an heiress, she had not been taught to write, lest she should marry without the consent of her elder brother guardian. She felt that we owed her undying gratitude for bestowing her hand and fortune on our grandfather, who was but a yeoman, even if "he did have a good leasehold, ride a high horse, wear spurs, and have Hamilton blood in his veins." She made us familiar with the battle of the Boyne and the sufferings in Londonderry, in both of which her great-grandfather had shared. Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, Half a Century, 10-11.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was immensely proud of her religious heritage and deeply in awe of the courage and martyrdom of her forebears. Throughout her adult life, she tried to follow their example. She typically recalled their image when she felt the need to defend her opinions or her actions. And she incorporated into her personality both their admirable qualities and their shortcomings.

The old Scottish Covenanters that she heard about from her grandmother were immensely brave, fiercely stubborn, and rigidly principled as well as infuriatingly single-minded and self-righteous. And never was any group of religious zealots more convinced that what they did they did for the glory of God. As staunch Calvinists, they believed that every individual was born with an innately sinful nature and that most people would spend all eternity burning in the fires of hell. The Covenanters believed that God, in his infinite wisdom, had chosen some to go to heaven. The only problem was that they could never be entirely sure which of them he had chosen for salvation. So they found themselves caught between despair and hope, constantly evaluating their relationships with each other and with God, hoping for some assurance, some sign that might relieve the tension caused by their spiritual lives, knowing all the while that seeking assurance was presumptuous in the extreme. They were willing to die for their religious beliefs, and they did. They were seventeenth-century Covenanter Presbyterians, and Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm was a latter-day version of them.

Religion profoundly influenced nineteenth-century U.S. society. Shortly after the American Revolution, a series of revivals engulfed the former colonies. Known as the Second Great Awakening and led by charismatic evangelists from a wide variety of denominations, these revivals resulted in the conversion of thousands of men, women, and children. This phenomenon marked a turning point in the history of religion in the United States. As religious enthusiasm spread, the influence of Calvinism, with its emphasis on the depravity of humankind and its insistence that salvation was exclusively in the hands of God, began to decline. Evangelicals preached that Jesus had died for the sinful and that individuals could claim a place for themselves in heaven by choosing Christ as their savior. Having done so, converts were obliged to join a church and do what they could to prepare the world for the second coming of Christ.

The result was that the converted flocked to join their local churches. After making a denominational commitment, the converts turned their attention toward reforming the world. By the 1850s, social reform movements were flourishing. Men and women alike joined missionary societies, tract societies, and Sunday schools to convert the unchurched. These reformers raised huge sums of money to help the poor and organized temperance societies to fight drunkenness and abolition societies to end slavery. A few even supported a woman's rights movement.

Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm eventually joined efforts to reform society, but unlike other reformers, her religious identity did not derive from the evangelical tradition. Instead, it grew out of the actions of a group that traced its roots back to seventeenth-century Scotland and prided itself on its ability to preserve the Calvinist traditions for which so many of its adherents had died. Her link to that past and those traditions was through her maternal grandmother, Jane Grey Scott, wife of Hance Scott, a Scotch-Irish weaver. At her grandmother's knee, young Jane Grey Cannon heard stories of loyalty and sacrifice, heroism and martyrdom, suffering and death by both women and men whose commitment to God and their version of his church constituted the determining focus of their lives. Because of their dedication to what they considered to be the true church, her forebears had been among those who had rebelled against the authority of King Charles I, fled from Scotland to Ireland to escape religious persecution, and eventually suffered martyrdom at the hands of James II at the siege of Londonderry. These ancestors and their friends and neighbors had lost their property and their lives in an effort to sustain their spiritual integrity. Because the chronicle of their suffering became so much a part of Jane's sense of who she was and was so critical in determining what she became, it bears repeating in some detail.

One result of the Protestant Reformation was that the Scots were relatively free to reject Catholicism and to create their own form of Protestantism. They refused to adopt the hierarchical type of church government composed of bishops and archbishops favored by the English and instead established churches, which were governed by democratically elected synods, presbyteries, and a national assembly. Each Scottish congregation chose its minister and organized church services around scripture, praying, and preaching rather than around what its members considered to be the popish liturgy found in the Anglican Book of Common Order. The Scots established criteria for church membership and the rules under which church members could be disciplined by the local church session. The Scots demonstrated their abhorrence of the ritual and trappings of Catholicism by refusing to kneel and by forbidding ministers to wear vestments. In short, these Presbyterians refused to allow the English to impose royal authority, bishops, and Anglican forms of worship on the national Church of Scotland.

When James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne in 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I, Scottish resistance became increasingly difficult to sustain. As the head of the Anglican Church, he considered it his duty to impose his spiritual as well as his secular authority on all of his subjects. Charles I, who followed James to the throne, was similarly motivated. The Scots did what they could to thwart the English Crown's efforts to interfere with the way they practiced Christianity. In 1638 Scottish nobles, landowners, ministers, merchants, and common folk signed the National Covenant, documenting their resistance to "popery" and warning the English that the signers would oppose any attempt by the Crown to impose bishops and the Anglican form of worship on Scottish churches.

Charles I responded to this public challenge to his authority by declaring war on the Scots. It was an unfortunate decision on his part. The Scots turned back his attempt to invade, and he found it necessary to call Parliament into session to ask for money to raise another army. A power struggle between the English Crown and Parliament ensued and led eventually to the rise of Oliver Cromwell and to the English Civil War. Taking advantage of the turmoil in England, the Scots signed another document in 1643. In what they called the Solemn League and Covenant, they pledged to do whatever was necessary to guarantee that Scotland remained Presbyterian. Jane believed that her forebears were among the signers.

After Cromwell died and Charles II ascended to the throne, the new king tried to reclaim royal control over the Scottish Church by authorizing four bishops to go to Scotland to impose an episcopalian form of church government on the rebellious Scots. When the bishops arrived, they stripped the Scottish presbyteries, synods, and sessions of their authority and fired all the ministers who refused to acknowledge the king as the head of the Church.

About three hundred ministers and thousands of ordinary Scottish Presbyterians refused to accept the authority of the Anglican bishops and began to abandon their churches to hold services in homes, barns, and open fields. The king and his bishops responded by imposing fines on those who did not attend Anglican services. When this measure proved ineffective, Anglican officials sent soldiers to arrest the stubborn Scots.

Continually hounded by English authorities, the Covenanters finally rose in armed rebellion in 1666. Poorly led, with few weapons and even less money, they were finally defeated in 1679 at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. The "killing times" followed: many of those who refused to submit to episcopal authority went into hiding as British troops scoured the countryside. If caught, the Covenanters knew that they might well be tortured, tried for treason, and sentenced to die. Some were banished and transported to the New World. Others, including Jane's forbears, fled to Northern Ireland, hoping to escape persecution.

Jane's ancestors settled in Londonderry, a pleasant town surrounded by a low wall and built in the shape of a cross on a hill above the River Foyle. Life was good in Londonderry. English Episcopalians and Scottish Presbyterians lived together in peace, focusing their hostility on the Irish Catholics who lived in the surrounding countryside. Londonderry's wharves were busy, and the townspeople prospered.

But peace and prosperity for the Covenanter Scots were interrupted by events beyond their control. Their faith was tested one more time. In 1689 Irish Catholics rose to support James II, who arrived with troops and ships and laid siege to Protestant strongholds. Never a garrison town, Londonderry was not easy to defend. Its wall was low and overgrown with a tangle of weeds, wildflowers, and dark green moss. The drawbridges were inoperable. Moreover, Londonderry was surrounded by hills, which gave the enemy a decisive advantage. The food supply was limited, and refugees flocked into the town, further straining its resources.

When the king's forces began firing on Londonderry on April 18, everyone from soldiers and artisans to tradesmen and servants rushed to the walls to man the guns. Women and children dodged incoming shells to carry water and ammunition to their defenders. Jane's forebears saw their homes destroyed and their friends and neighbors killed and maimed but stubbornly refused to surrender the town to James and his Catholic allies. Unable to break through the walls, the king's troops resorted to a blockade. They closed off all roads leading to the city and blocked the river with a wooden boom reinforced with cables. When food supplies ran low, the city's defenders began to eat their horses.

Relief seemed imminent when, on June 15, ships sent by people in England who hoped to keep James from reclaiming his throne appeared at the mouth of the river. But these vessels lay at anchor and made no attempt to sail upriver. The sight of the furled sails tormented the people trapped in Londonderry as their situation became more and more desperate. Supplies ran out. Lead-coated brickbats replaced cannonballs. The inhabitants were reduced to eating their dogs. A whelp's paw sold for five shillings, six pence. Sickness and casualties decimated the population. The cellars filled with bodies because no one had the energy or the opportunity to bury their loved ones, and the stench of the dead and dying filled the air. At the end of July, after more than a month of agonized waiting, two merchant ships accompanied by a frigate finally broke through the boom and arrived at the quay with food and supplies. The blockade was broken, and Londonderry was saved, but James II was not yet defeated.

Jane Grey Cannon's great-great-great-grandfather continued to support the Protestant cause. When William of Orange eventually defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, her ancestor was there. James fled to the Continent, and peace was restored. The English Crown established the Anglican Church and imposed a test act, which provided Presbyterians in Ireland with toleration but did not grant them equality. The Scots in Londonderry went about the business of rebuilding their lives and worshiping God as they wished. And they proudly passed down from generation to generation the stories of their courage, devotion to God, and resistance to English tyranny.

The port of Londonderry grew into a bustling urban center whose prosperity was based on the production of linen. Jane's maternal forebears became weavers. It is unclear when they emigrated to America, but they may have been among the thousands of Scotch-Irish who, dissatisfied with the religious settlement and suffering from a slump in linen production in the 1770s, found return passage on ships that transported flaxseed from the American colonies to Ireland. Arriving in such ports as Philadelphia and Baltimore, many of these immigrants headed to western Pennsylvania, where they settled around what had been Fort Pitt. Little differentiated them from their frontier neighbors except their commitment to learning, their dedication to their religion, and their sense of community.

Jane's maternal grandparents, Hance and Jane Scott, settled in Pittsburgh on the north side of Sixth Street between Wood and Smithfield. There Jane's grandfather built a small log cottage and set up his looms. The Scotts joined the Oak Alley Covenanter Church, which had been organized in 1800. The Covenanters in America were no less politicized than their ancestors in Scotland and Ireland had been. After founding the Reformed Presbytery of America in 1798, they denounced the U.S. Constitution as an immoral document because it did not establish God's law as the highest law of the land and because it sanctioned slavery. And in 1800, the Presbytery passed a resolution forbidding its members to own slaves or have fellowship with those who did.


Excerpted from Jane Grey Swisshelm by Sylvia D. Hoffert Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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