Stories of our Nation’s Founding Wives
Examination of the Founding Fathers’ lives shows complete and total sacrifice on the part of all involved. When Patrick Henry famously declared, “give me liberty or give me death,” he truly meant it. However, while everyone knows the sacrifices of individuals like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Alexander Hamilton, the sacrifices of the most important people in their lives, their wives, often go unnoticed. In reality, these women made tremendous contributions that helped form the exceptional country that we live in today.
One of the most well-known of the Founding Wives, Martha Washington, married George Washington on January 6, 1759. The Washingtons then moved to “the mansion at Mount Vernon,” which was actually considered a “step down for Martha.” (George and Martha Washingtons’ relationship). This comes as no surprise since she was “born into a world of elite social custom and privilege in the 1730s.” (Martha Washington). Yet, as dreams of revolution and freedom swept across the countryside, Martha was willing to sacrifice her status and life of peaceful luxury for such a cause. When George was chosen as a representative to the Continental Congress, one of his fellow delegates, Edmund Pendleton, wrote in a letter, “she seemed ready to make any sacrifice and was cheerful, though I knew she felt anxious. She talked like a Spartan mother to her son going into battle. ‘I hope you will stand firm—I know George will’” (George and Martha Washingtons’ relationship). And sacrifice she did make. Though she may not have been on the front lines firing a musket, she was with her husband at every winter encampment and would spend more than half of the war with George from April 1775 to December 1783. (At the Front).
While at camp, Martha would act as George’s “closest confidant… his secretary and representative.” (At the Front). She entertained the other officers’ wives, received important guests, and helped to boost morale overall. Many of these winters were crushing to the spirits of the soldiers, especially following the early years of tough losses. (At the Front). Keeping the morale up was vital to winning the war effort, and seeing the face of the Commander’s wife surely stimulated morale. Baron Von Steuben’s secretary, Pierre Etienne Duponceau, wrote, “In the midst of all our distress there were some bright sides of the picture which Valley Forge exhibited...Mrs. Washington had the courage to follow her husband to that dismal abode…” (The Women Present at Valley Forge).
Although she was able to be with her husband, her daily life was not without struggle. During this time, she was unable to see her kids, and one of her sons ended dying of “camp fever” during the Battle of Yorktown. After the war, when they planned for a life of peace and tranquility, it was disrupted by George’s election to be president (John Parke Custis). In response, she wrote, “when, or whether he will ever come home again God only knows. I think it was much too late for him to go into public life again, but it was not to be avoided…Our family will be deranged, as I must soon follow him” (George and Martha Washingtons’ relationship). She, much like her husband, saw the importance of what they were doing and the necessity of the Great American Experiment.
All the wives of the Founding Fathers helped advance our Nation’s Founding. Another example is Abigail Adams, who married John Adams on October 25, 1764. Abigail was a very intellectual woman, and she wanted a husband who could match that intellect, so they made the perfect fit. During the Revolution, Abigail helped run the family’s farm, raise their children, and manage the family finances while also exuding true American principles. For independence, she argued that it did not just belong to the free but also to the slave. She wrote, “I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed to me to fight ourselves for what we are robbing the Negroes of, who have as good a right to freedom as we have” (Abigail Adams (1744). She was also a pioneer for women’s rights, writing to John on March 31, 1776, “in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors ” (Founders online: Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776).
Additionally, John Adams sought out his wife as a confidant and counsel when he held various government positions. When John was minister to England, Abigail performed the duties of the wife of a minister by entertaining and meeting with various figures throughout England and France. Following the first presidential administration, she served as the second lady where, learning from Martha Washington, she would help entertain many guests (Abigail Smith Adams 2021). Later, as first lady, she would not only manage a bustling household but also continue to serve as her husband’s confidant. (Abigail Adams). Finally, following a crushing defeat in the 1800 election, she and her husband were able to find refuge back in their home. The two were able to enjoy the next 17 years growing old together (Abigail Smith Adams 2021). They had six children in total, one of whom would go on to become the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams (The Adams Children).
Others were not granted the same life of growing old together, as in the case of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. They were married on New Year’s Day, 1772. Thomas Jefferson would go on to serve as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, a crucial time in the Revolutionary War. As the first lady of Virginia, Martha Washington requested that Martha Jefferson help a Ladies’ Association that was “raising money and making clothing” for the war effort. To assist, she wrote “an appeal for donations” that would be published in the Virginia Gazette. The association ended up raising $300,000 and making 2,200 linen shirts. However, during the war, lots of strain was put on Martha’s body. Between two escapes from enemy raids and six births, two of which came around the time of escaping the British, her body faltered. She died on September 6, 1782, a year before the Treaty of Paris was signed.
After an absence in the role of first lady, Dolley Madison, James Madison’s wife, rose to the occasion for Thomas Jefferson. During Jefferson’s presidency, James Madison would serve as Secretary of State for both terms, so Dolley was there whenever needed to act as the “unofficial first lady.” Her tasks included “selecting furnishings for the newly constructed White House, organizing parties, and entertaining ladies who came to visit.” However, Dolley is best known for what happened during the War of 1812. As the British advanced on Washington D.C., they started burning the city to the ground. As the president’s family and staff were preparing to evacuate, Dolly Madison had the genius idea to save a picture of George Washington. She ordered her staff to go rescue the image. To this day, it is the only artifact in the White House that is an original from the first White House.
Just like the Jefferson family, the Hamiltons would have a life of growing old together deprived of them. Born into the prominent Schuyler family, Elizabeth Schuyler married Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s aide-de-camp, on December 14, 1780. Whatever position or interest Alexander sought, Elizabeth was there to help him. During the Revolutionary War, Elizabeth often helped Martha Washington entertain the officers at the camp. However, her greatest contributions came following her husband’s death by dual in 1804. As a widow, she “founded orphanages in New York City and Washington D.C.” Moreover, she spent the rest of her life collecting and preserving the writings of her husband, which were purchased in 1849 by the United States Government. Lastly, she “helped Dolley Madison to raise money for the Washington Monument.” All due in part to Elizabeth Hamilton, the writings of one of this Nation’s greatest minds, as well as the monument for our first president, continue to be enjoyed and recognized as symbols of unity for generations of Americans to come.
Moreover, many of the wives of the Founding Fathers, much like Abigail Adams, played instrumental roles when their husbands served as diplomats. Sarah Livingston Jay, the wife of John Jay, the first Chief Justice, assisted her husband both in Spain and in France during the American Revolution. Yet, despite all the grandeurs that Europe had to offer, patriotism still ran through her blood. She wrote, “do you think, girls, that distance diminishes my affection for Americans, or my concern for their interest? Oh! no; it increases my attachment even to enthusiasm” (Sarah Livingston Jay (1756-1802)). Likewise, Elizabeth Monroe, James Monroe’s wife, assisted in a diplomatic role when her husband was minister to France at the end of George Washington’s second term. This period was during the French Revolution, when many leaders of France were imprisoned and executed. Elizabeth Monroe was able to secure the freedom of one such person, the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife, from imprisonment and execution (Elizabeth Monroe).
Their sacrifices paid off; not only did the American Experiment succeed, but they were able to enjoy some of their own successes as well. These women sacrificed their livelihoods, a possible life of wealth, peace, and a sound marriage, all for the future of a brand-new nation. Without them, many historical items would have been lost: the painting of George Washington, Hamilton’s writings, and maybe even the Washington Monument. If the husbands of these ladies are the Founding Fathers of America, then these extraordinary women were clearly the Founding Mothers.
U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). The Women Present at Valley Forge. National Parks Service. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/valleyforgewomen.htm
George and Martha Washingtons’ relationship. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha-washington/george-and-martha-washingtons-relationship/
Martha Washington. Omeka RSS. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://marthawashington.us/
At the Front. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha-washington/martha-at-the-front/
John Parke Custis. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-parke-custis/
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Abigail Adams. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abigail-Adams
The United States Government. (2021, January 15). Abigail Smith Adams. The White House. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-families/abigail-smith-adams/
U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Abigail Adams (1744. National Parks Service. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/adam/learn/historyculture/abigail-adams-1744-1818.htm
National Archives and Records Administration. (n.d.). Founders online: Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0241
Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). The Adams Children. PBS. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/adams-children/
Elizabeth Monroe. WHHA (en-US). (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.whitehousehistory.org/bios/elizabeth-monroe
Sarah Livingston Jay (1756-1802). George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/sarah-livingston-jay-1756-1802/
Martha Jefferson. WHHA (en-US). (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.whitehousehistory.org/bios/martha-jefferson
The United States Government. (2021, January 15). Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. The White House. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-families/martha-wayles-skelton-jefferson/
Alexandra Caro Campana serves as Director for Center for 1776, for the America First Policy Institute (AFPI).