45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2008
This is not infotainment. This is a page-turner merely because the subject matter just gets overlooked in the conventional accounts of history.
And I'm being honest when I state that I had formerly assumed that American women's history did not significantly occur till Seneca Falls. Roberts's second well-researched volume continues documenting that history was occurring well before that landmark New York conference.
I think that our school history classes and even the structure of our very sociery would today be much different if everybody fully knew and was appreciating the role which women had in shaping this nation. White women predominate in the volume, but also included is Sacajawea. She is the indian often mythologized for helping Lewis and Clark explore what ultimately became the western United States.
And what else stands out for me is that these women aired their policy opinions in an era when they allegedly supposed to be sequestered away at home. These women then obviously had other ideas for themselves--and the nation! Such is a powerful lesson about cultural expectations and the-oft more nuanced reality.
As the daughter of former 'Congresswoman' Lindy Boggs, Roberts certainly has had her own familial experiences navigating this terrain. I do not doubt it nurtured her interest in unearthing the stories which would otherwise never get told. Reflections on the historical evolution of women's status also move this book beyond a mere collection of biographical profiles.
I'd recommend this book for anybody interested in American history and those curious about women's experiences and perspectives.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2008
Now I know why high school American History classes were such a snore. Up until now, history books have largely been written by men about only the men who founded our proud nation. Abbreviated, often sanitized versions of how events came to pass seem created to portray the good guys and the bad guys in ways that prove who was right or wrong. They were often dull and statistical, sweeping any nuance or thrills tidily under the rug.
One could not finish the course without knowing that Martha Washington was our first First Lady and that Abigail Adams was a strong woman who helped her husband John, our second president, throughout his career. Dolley Madison may be more famous for the lunchbox sweet cakes named after her than for her powerful influence on our nation's capital for over two decades both as the wife of the unpopular fourth president, James Madison, and as the Grande Dame pillar of society as his widow. Did we know that Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, was perhaps the first American political wife who would stand, looking adoringly at a philandering husband as he admitted adultery? Not likely. What we think of as heated debate and political mudslinging today would pale compared to the harsh words in the press or uttered during debate that too often led to duels in misty meadows and murder on the steps of Congress.
As Cokie Roberts neared the publication deadline for her first book, FOUNDING MOTHERS, it became clear that there was a vast, unplumbed treasure trove of historical information in the form of personal correspondence by and about the strong women of the new nation. These letters from and to the women who shared the dangers and privations of disease, separation, lethal epidemics and often near-starvation as one war moved into another crackled with never-before published descriptions, facts and insights into the momentous events that formed our new nation.
Researchers had no problem finding copies of treaties and legislation, even rough drafts of such treasures as the Articles of Confederation and the Bill of Rights. But these had been, for the most part, carefully written, edited and preserved in formal language --- the meatless bones of a new democracy. When these same brilliant men, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, corresponded with their wives and friends, the true picture of the times flowed from the pages.
In LADIES OF LIBERTY, we learn firsthand, in their own words, of the devastating effects of measles, dysentery, yellow fever and childbirth complications. These famous and very capable women were pregnant most of the time, often losing at least half of their children to one constant threat after another. Many were pregnant nearly a dozen times, perhaps seeing only three or four or fewer children grow to maturity. If they themselves survived all these pregnancies, they often moved across country or sailed to foreign lands as their husbands served as ambassadors or emissaries, enduring months of seasickness or bone-rattling stagecoach rides.
In one vivid chapter, Louise Catherine Adams --- who, with her husband, John Quincy Adams, had spent six years in the court of Czar Alexander of Russia --- is summoned to Paris by her husband, who is there on business at the end of his term in Russia. She packs their belongings into a sleigh along with their seven-year-old son, a nanny and two men of dubious background to travel across Europe in the dead of winter. The trip took two months at a time when Napoleon had escaped Elba and returned to France, turning Europe upside down in a new war. Her husband awaited her in Paris, completely unaware of the dangers she was facing and was in fact attending a theatrical production the night she finally arrived after a journey that would have killed a lesser woman. Mr. Adams's account of this incident is a brief footnote, including a review of the play as he acknowledges the arrival of his wife and son. Louise's vivid description of the freezing conditions, crude accommodations along the road and their terror at swordpoint of marauding soldiers brings to life what life was really like in 1816 Europe.
Would we have learned that Theodosia Burr, daughter of the infamous Aaron Burr, would play such an important role in our nation? That the Ursaline nuns of New Orleans were invaluable help in nursing the wounded and taking in orphans during the famous battle of the War of 1812, but had been educating women, slaves and native Americans in their schools --- unheard of anywhere else in the country --- since 1727? Sacajawea, the famous Shoshone Indian teenager who gave birth to a baby while serving as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark on their Northwest exploration, could neither read nor write. But Lewis and Clark did, describing in ever-growing admiration the skill and importance of her presence to their mission.
A favorite chapter is Dolley Madison's account, through letters to friends and her husband, of the attack and burning of Washington and the President's house during the War of 1812. What? The British came back and burned down Washington after the Revolutionary War? Where was I the day they covered that in class? And did I ever hear about Dolley Madison delaying her flight to safety as the British arrived at the door to rescue the portrait of George Washington and see that it was spirited out of town under cover of darkness?
The only criticism I can aim at this fascinating account of these exciting historical events is that I sometimes became a little lost in the timeline. I did a fair amount of glancing back to orient myself to locations and dates as each absorbing tale unfolded surrounding the dozen or so women covered in the story.
But LADIES OF LIBERTY brings stuffy old American History crackling to life through these priceless correspondences. Cokie Roberts modestly states that all she did was find them and pull them together into a book. For this we are grateful, Ms. Roberts.
--- Reviewed by Roz Shea
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2008
Fans of the recent HBO production "John Adams" should run, not walk, to get their copy of Ladies of Liberty (or double click in a hurry as the case may be) Students (past and present) of Howard Zinn (A Peoples' History of the United States) should do the same. Anyone who enjoys and has a keen interest in the real history behind the scenes of how our Great Nation came to be will savor this recent work of the wonderful Cokie Roberts. I have a very early morning, sixty minute commute; Ladies of Liberty has made this long drive a pleasure. I have listened to the entire recording twice in the past week; it is pleasantly addictive. Roberts's voice is perfect for telling this fascinating history of the great women behind the great (and sometimes not so great) men who wheeled and dealed in order to form "a more perfect union." The text is rich but lively, the chapters are sometimes heartbreaking, often funny, always fascinating, and totally filled with anecdotes that will entertain and enlighten all readers. Had I purchased the hard copy I would not have been able to put it down. Listening to the audio edition I was sorry when I arrived at work each morning. I highly recommend Ladies of Liberty. Chris Wood, Maine
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2008
By focusing on "the women who shaped our nation," "Ladies of Liberty" gives a fresh perspective to American history. With her thorough research and insightful style, Cokie Roberts does a magnificent job of bringing to life women, men, and children in the era from John Adams to the election of John Quincy Adams.
In the women's letters quoted in this book, the subject matter can move from political and military crises to personal triumphs and tragedies. At the same time, the ladies were sharing gossip on the early capital's social scene, including who wore what (or sometimes who wore too little, such as Napoleon's sister-in-law). We see the tension between Abigail Adams and her daughter-in-law Louisa Adams over who should raise Louisa's children. (For many years, Abigail won that contest!) Thomas Jefferson asked his married daughters to leave their families and come to the nation's capital to help draw attention away from the Polly Hemings stories. (They did.) Eliza Hamilton endured many tragedies, including losing both a son and her husband in duels, yet still managed to help form an Orphan Asylum Society. Dolley Madison's entertaining set such a precedent in Washington society that "etiquette wars" began when Elizabeth Monroe refused to call on newcomers to the nation's capital. "Ladies of Liberty" includes many other women, from Aaron Burr's daughter, Theodosia, to Sacajawea, plus early reformers and writers, to make for a very dynamic cast.
Just as Cokie Roberts offers practical insights into contemporary American politics, she obviously delights in reporting on earlier political days. I give this book five stars for the liveliness of its style, for its stories of courage, and for its effectiveness in adding a more human dimension to our nation's early years.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2008
Fascinating book about early American history, specifically the lives of a number of prominent and not so prominent real women who lived it. Ms. Roberts quotes from the letters and journals of the first American women, and although this is a factual and well-researched history it is very interesting to read. I wish my American History classes had assigned this book! Highly recommended for anyone who liked the John Adams or Ben Franklin biographies, especially as companion books because the same events are frequently mentioned from different perspectives in each. Besides the prominent women of the era, Roberts includes fascinating accounts from the actual journals of a number of interesting women that I know you have never heard of.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2008
This is a great read, in large part because the story is told from a perspective that was ignored in the history classes I was exposed to. The women who lived during this period in our country's history were historians in their own right - recording history, and their thoughts on those events, in letters that luckily survived to this day. Cokie Roberts has a writing style that is easy and engaging and keeps the reader wanting to know more. This is the most enjoyable book devoted to history that I've ever read. Well done!