Founding mothers: Parlor politics and the ladies of liberty


Silence echoed in the Vineyard Haven Library on Tuesday night, March 5, when Ann Charnley asked for questions following her presentation on America’s founding mothers.

Most likely the lack of response from 20 or so sophisticated Vineyard residents was not related to the richness of the material or Ms. Charnley’s performance art delivery. (Think Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain).

More likely, we were stunned, trying to reconcile the historical mythology we have been presented about our early history against a scrupulously researched, whimsical, and often hilarious presentation of the reality of early America through the eyes of the women who lived and shaped our national destiny.

Ms. Charnley is a longtime educator and advocate of women’s issues on the national scene. A graduate of George Washington University, the Virginia native has run the Congressional caucus on women’s issues, among other posts, and was the lead researcher on Founding Mothers by NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts and on several other books on America’s founding women.

The takeaway of women in early America, Ms. Charnley notes, quoting from historical records and reams of personal missives between the country’s leading men and their helpmates, is that women were political players, managing and advising the decisions of their husbands and friends.

Most of us were raised with a perspective of our founding fathers as exalted thinkers, viewing weighty decisions in the context of “What Would Sophocles Do?” In fact, Washington, D.C., was “a mess of mud and stumps,” as one Washington lady put it at the time, inhabited by fewer than 4,000 souls whose leaders spent a fair amount of time scratching their heads over the national conundrums.

Dolley Madison, a presidential wife (James Madison) and hostess for widowed president and family friend Thomas Jefferson, is perhaps the best known of the founding mothers. Dolley couldn’t vote and couldn’t own property, but she was a political force, using her position to build coalitions between elected leaders who had no common ground.

“The question for Dolley was whether the country could, in fact, be managed. Not too different from the questions we’re asking today,” Ms. Charnley said, then chuckled, during a telephone interview after her presentation.

“The United States, at that time, was comprised of educated East Coast people and frontiersmen. It was a very small world. People just knocked on the door. Jefferson answered the door himself. When Dolley Madison saved a portrait of George Washington from the invading British during the War of 1812, she just handed the oil painting to two men from New York who happened to be walking by the White House,” Ms. Charnley said.

“Think about it. There were 2.7 million people, but no roads, no linkage. Congress met for a few months a year and Dolley hosted dinners and parties to bring them together. If you were a congressman and your eating options were rooming house food or an elegant dinner, you went to the White House.”

“Today, Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams are regarded as the women supernovas from that period. Abigail Adams was her husband’s most important advisor. Abigail was quite a radical. In a time when women couldn’t own property, Abigail left a will. Why would she leave a will when she couldn’t own property? Her husband honored [the will],” she said.

Dolley’s letters make clear she knew what she was doing. She hosted parties at which she found a congressman from Kentucky shambling along, feeling a White House wall. “He hadn’t seen wallpaper before,” Ms. Charnley said. At another event, Ms. Madison encountered a congressman standing mesmerized by a piano, the first he had ever encountered.

Ms. Charnley’s decades of research allows us to see a dramatic, authentic tableau of the times and the all-too-human men who led it.

For example, kindly old Ben Franklin, who has received a mulligan from historians for his role in convincing the French to save our bacon during the Revolutionary War, is the subject of unflattering references in his wife’s correspondence, Ms. Charnley notes.

And the genius of Thomas Jefferson in pulling off the Louisiana Purchase from France? Not so much. Turns out we only wanted to buy New Orleans, but Napoleon Bonaparte needed quick cash to fund his world conquest plans and pushed the $15 million deal that doubled our country’s size. History is funny that way: we got twice as big and Napoleon got Elba.

Ms. Charnley’s natural excitement ramps up when she discusses the impact of technology on our ability to learn real history. While she did much of her early research the old-fashioned way, she embraces her new life of iPods, Google, and online caches of original documents.

“Kids are now learning that there are online histories that they can get original documents,” she said. “Google somehow has snuffled its way through huge libraries, like Harvard’s, to make documents available. Can you imagine it?

“YouTube is also fantastic. Yes, the textbooks are still dull, the far right keeps a sharp eye on that stuff, but there is more teaching of social history, professors are more relaxed about teaching that way,” she said.

A fulltime East Chop resident for the past two years, Ms. Charnley is enamored of her life and possibilities here. “The people, the programs we have, like the Tisbury library offers, are fantastic,” she said. “I love it.”