Finding New Scholarship

After a nice study-abroad break from thesis work, I am happy to be back in the thick of research! I decided to ease back into it with a book recommended by my thesis advisor; Jeanne Abrams’ First Ladies of the Republic. Published in 2018, it covers the presidencies of Washington, Adams, and Madison but keeps the focus on each of their First Ladies; Martha, Abigail, and Dolley. Abrams focuses on how these women were able to shape political culture in the United States through their harnessing of societal conventions and gatherings (drawing rooms, parties, dinners, balls, etc).  Women during the late 18th century were  increasingly framed through the lens of ‘Republican motherhood’, which emphasized women’s domestic contributions to the new country. However, Abrams skillfully illustrates how the First Ladies used this framework, which cast women as “the promoters of American moral and civic virtue”, to create a “culture of manners” and other societal rituals surrounding the early American government. While Abrams acknowledges that this framework had limits, and even Abigail Adams, famous for her ‘Remember the Ladies’ letter, was not an egalitarian, the book is still fascinating in the way it explores female agency as the American government takes its first steps on the world stage.


What really struck me about the book, and what I am looking forward to highlighting in my thesis, is Abrams’ emphasis that everything that was done during the ‘Republican Court’ had political meaning. She introduces this concept early on when discussing Martha Washington serving ice cream and lemonade at her ‘levees’ (social gatherings she hosted, primarily for elite women). Abrams admits that on first glance, this may “seem to have been a rather inconsequential custom.” However, these treats symbolized a shift away from monarchical, European values. Traditionally, wine and other spirits, often imported, symbolized the wealth and power of aristocracy. Thus, Martha’s decision to serve simple refreshments, like coffee, tea, and, of course, lemonade, signals an overall shift towards Republican values to support the new American government. Like her husband, Martha Washington was treading new ground, and it was up to her to create a culture surrounding the government, and, in a broader sense, help create a new American identity. Through the high-quality, but simple, clothing she wore, the drawing rooms and levees she held, and the beverages she served, Martha Washington helped “shape the emerging national political and social culture” of the United States. All that from a glass of lemonade.


Much of Abrams’ book illustrates similar points, reminding readers of the inherent political meaning of material culture and societal gatherings during the early American Republic. This becomes especially potent during Dolley Madison’s time as First Lady; originally, I had not planned to discuss Dolley much in my thesis, instead focusing on the 1790s, but I will have to find space to talk about her, because she is absolutely fascinating! Dolley was extremely popular, even among both the Federalists and Democratic Republicans; supposedly, Henry Clay noted that “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison”, to which Dolley herself responded that was because “Mrs. Madison loves everybody.” Dolley used her social nature at the dinners and parties she hosted to smooth over conflicts between both sides, feeding into an emerging feminine ideal of women being above party politics, but also advancing her husband’s political career. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who ran against and lost to James Madison, Dolley’s husband, in the election of 1808, commented that he was “beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.” Besides her unofficial role as her husband’s campaign manager, harnessing public opinion in his favor, Dolley was also known for her sophisticated dress. She often wore elegant and expensive fabrics paired with simpler pearls, symbolizing the perfect melding of European fashion and regality and Republican simplicity.


With Abrams’ points whirling around in my head, I’m looking forward to my next trip to the archives! This coming week, I’ll be in NYC visiting Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript library as well as the NY Historical Society’s library to read some more of Sarah Livingston Jay’s letters, Aaron Burr’s correspondence with his daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, and the correspondence of the Nicholson family; James Nicholson and his wife, Frances Witter, had four surviving daughters (Kitty, Hannah, Fanny, and Maria) who each married US Senators and Representatives, so I’m looking forward to their family political discussions, and to letting you all know what more I find!

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