Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hostess with the Mostest

All first ladies are responsible to entertain in the president's home. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams did so in the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia. In Washington, the swamp of a new capital,  Jefferson, having no first lady, did the entertaining himself by having small dinner parties inviting only one political party at a time and even dismissing the servants so he did all the serving himself. (He wanted to create political unity with this method. It had the opposite effect.) But the first lady who outshines them all is Dolley Madison.

She hosted more formal dinners than any president's wife before or since. After working with Henry LaTrobe to decorate the drawing rooms in the presidential mansion, she opened those drawing rooms to the public every Wednesday night for the duration of Madison's two terms of office. Two to three hundred people attended each week and during war time, there were upwards to five hundred people attending Dolley's "squeezes."

Dolley is described as moving about the room greeting everyone in attendance with elegant ease. She was noted for her entertaining since she was able to put others at ease and make them forget they were visiting.

But why were these parties and drawing rooms so memorable? What is their significance in history?

That is what is explored in A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor.

First of all, the drawing rooms were an experiment in democracy. ALL were invited. Most congressmen of the time stayed in boarding houses in Washington. It would not be unusual to see your landlady at the drawing room. Or even to see Dolley cordially greeting them.

Secondly, she was able to unify the government by creating opportunity for politicians to see each other as people not just a political enemy. And this did not happen by accident! Dolley purposefully introduced and socialized with particular groups of politicians who she knew needed to come together for a law or other matter of government. She even was able to pacify politicians at odds and in one case was able to convince two men to call off their duel!

Most importantly, Dolley's entertaining showed off the strengths of her husband. James Madison was small, sickly, and lacked public speaking skills. But when he was at ease in his own home, he was in an environment in which he could pitch his ideas to the politicians around him. Dolley actively created that environment for her husband.

Many years ago, I heard that some churches call their pastor's wife the "first lady." How conceited and presumptuous, I thought. But through reading about Dolley Madison, I realize that I feel called to do a lot of the same things she does. I feel the Lord wants me to entertain in my home to bring people from church together. And I also feel as a wife I am responsible to create an environment at home in which my husband is able to use his strengths. Perhaps a pastor's wife is not too different than a First Lady after all.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Women Jefferson Loved

Thomas Jefferson didn't really have a First Lady. His wife died before he was elected president and Jefferson had his daughters visit now and then, but they were busy having babies and raising children and couldn't permenantly be in Washington to act as the president's hostess. Not that Jefferson would have wanted a hostess anyway. He was far too Republican (Democratic) for that. He wanted to avoid any hint of a "royal court" feel creeping into the Presidential mansion.

So the question for me was "who should I read about if Jefferson had no First Lady?"

An Amazon search gave me the answer: The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff.

This book is divided into four sections that cover the lives of the women in Jefferson's life: his mother, his wife, his slave mistress, and his two daughters. A fifth section finishes the story of Jefferson's life and also comments on his granddaughters. It was so well written and well researched. During the day, when I saw the book on my nightstand, I was tempted to drop everything and read to find out what happened next!

Three things impressed me through the reading of this book.

First of all, Jefferson was a slave owner who married a slave owner. Slave-owning, plantation lifestlyle was all they knew. Such a contrast to the Adamses who paid neighbors to work on their farm and did much of their daily work themselves. Jefferson, the man who wrote "all men are created equal", owned men. 

Secondly, Jefferson was a shop-a-holic.  The debt he left behind after his death ruined his family. In today's dollars, he left between 1-2 million dollars of debt! Although he inherited some of this debt, much was accumulated because he was constantly buying things beyond his means! And spending on building projects. After his death many of his possessions were sold including Monticello to try to pay the debtors. Moral of the story? Don't spend what you don't got! Also: a refined person is refined because of their character, not because of their fancy stuff bought on credit.

Thirdly, Jefferson had some strange views on women. While in Europe, he was appalled when he noticed women doing men's work. He called this "an unequivical indication of extreme poverty." It was both a cause and symptom of social injustice. He also thought women had absolutely no place in politics. They shouldn't even discuss it. I don't know enough history of the time period to know if this view of his was unusual for the time, but what I do find strange is he often discussed politics with Abigail Adams while holding this view. And while writing that women should be focused on domestic pursuits, his daughters and granddaughters were well educated.

While discussing this book with my father, he said, "the more I read about Thomas Jefferson, the less I like him." I have to agree. I felt the same way when I read how he had a slave mistress, how he fled Monticello as the British troops were arriving, how he tricked his young daughter onto a boat to sail to France against her will, and how he purposely did not escort Elizabeth Merry, wife of the British ambassador, into dinner which possibly was a cause of the War of 1812. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The First First Lady

I had a hard time finding a good biography of Martha Washington. First I tried my public library. The only one in the adult biography section was Washington's Lady by Elswyth Thane.

This book was not at all what I was looking for. First of all, it was novelized. Which doesn't always mean the book will be bad. I have really enjoyed some novelized books. Like Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark. I read this book about six years ago or so and it was excellent in revealing the heart of historic figures and giving a basic overview of their lives.

But this time I really wanted to read a biography about Martha Custis Washington and the details of her life. And the details were certainly not in Thane's book. In fact, it was more about George Washington. And it also portrayed Martha as an idiot. I stopped reading the book a third of the way through after the author describes her in her sitting room with George and all his political friends and Martha thinks to herself she had no idea what they were talking about all this conflict with the British. What did it all mean?  Since I had already read about Abigail Adams, I now knew that women DID know what was going on in the political scene. Especially the wife of a war hero!

So I returned that book and purchased  Martha Washington: A Brief Biography by Ellen McCallister Clark.

Martha Washington: A Brief Biography (The George Washington Bookshelf)

This book was brief but full of information. Martha was known as a charming hostess and was greatly admired by the troops because she stayed with George every winter wherever he was encamped during the Revolution and functioned as a nurse and morale booster.

Martha was quite rich! Her resources and money from her first marriage threw George into the right circles to advance him politically.

She had two children from her first marriage. Her daughter was very sickly and died at the age of 17. Her son "had been given every advantage but lacked ambition and direction as he grew into manhood." Basically, Martha (and George) were over indulgent with her son and did not give him proper discipline. The author does not explore why. Maybe because their attentions were given to the country's formation? Maybe she was too broken over having been widowed at a young age and burying two babies then her teen aged daughter? Whatever the reason, this seems to be a pattern that is emerging as I read the First Ladies: successful in politics doesn't necessarily mean successful in parenting (stay tuned for Dolley Madison...) But it's a good warning to me as a mother. I have lots of duties outside the walls of my home, but I cannot be lax in discipline and attention to my own children.

I do not feel like I "know" Martha like I "know" Abigail Adams. I think that was because I choose a brief biography. After I finished this book in June 2011, I determined to read longer biographies so I could know the First Ladies more fully. And to challenge myself to become a reader of long books rather than a reader of short books.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

It Takes a Village

On January 27, 2011 I finished reading Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie S. Bober.

Another first lady talked about "it takes a village to raise a child" but Abigail Adams truly lived it! She was constantly raising and educating nieces and grandchildren. All while running the farm while her husband was away. And watching her back as the revolution was creeping closer to her front door. And keeping her finger on the political pulse of the nation. (And telling John what to do about it.) How did she balance it all?

But as much as she "gave" in the "it takes a village" scenario, she also took. She left her young boys with her sister when she and her daughter sailed to France to join John there. My mother's heart was so grieved when I read this! How could she leave her little boys and not know how long it would be before she would see them again? Or even hear from them? I just cannot imagine!

Although she was not able to get the Continental Congress to "remember the ladies," she was witness to women gaining political importance. Men wanted to boycott goods from Britain. However, many of the goods they wanted to boycott were all purchased and used by the ladies in the running of the household. Therefore, the women needed to be informed of the political happenings to gain their participation in the boycotts.

Abigail Adams was bold, well-educated, and able to maintain a loving marriage despite long seperations from John. Her pride and tongue got her (and John) into trouble at times (Alien and Sedition Acts? not a good idea), but she was all-in-all a remarkable woman!

"Remember the Ladies"

Back in December of 2010, my husband and I watched HBO's John Adams. It was so compelling and we felt enlightened learning about his crucial role in the foundation of our nation. However, while watching, I found Abigail Adam's character unbelieveable. Especially the scene where she asks John to "Remember the ladies" as the Continental Congress gathered to form a new code of laws for our nation. "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." When this came out of the actress's mouth I thought "no way would a women back then say something like that. It must be feminist propaganda!"

When I told my mother my reaction to Abigail Adams, she said "no...I believe that Abigail Adams would have said that!" So I had to find out for myself. I found a biography of Abigail Adams. (I actually borrowed it from my grandmother the week before she died of a heart attack. I kept the book when she died. She hadn't had a chance to read it yet and I'm sad I didn't get to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.)

But I was fascinated about her life from the first page! And what a shock to find out that "remember the ladies" was not feminist propaganda, but a direct quote from a letter Abigail wrote to John.

In the biography, Abigail meets Martha Washington and that made me wonder..."What was Martha Washington like? Was she as instrumental to George's political career as Abigail was to John? I ought to read about her next...Actually I'd like to read about ALL the first ladies!"

So that's what I'm going to do. It may take awhile. I've only read five in the past year. But, as my mother said, "what's the hurry?"